by Christine Fedewa, Vice President of Operations

This profile of Michigan State University President M. Peter McPherson is based on an interview conducted on March 23 by William Rustem, Senior Vice President, and Christine Fedewa, Vice President of Operations.

Futurists agree that everything is changing and at an accelerated rate. M. Peter McPherson understands the necessity of change in today’s highly competitive global economy and appears to thrive on it. In just a year and a half as Michigan State University’s 19th president, he has

  • developed university consensus on six guiding principles,
  • pledged to hold tuition at inflation levels for the next four years,
  • brought the Detroit College of Law to MSU’s campus in an affiliated relationship,
  • persuaded the legislature to seriously consider an additional appropriation to MSU of $10.4 million in state funds for technology and equipment,
  • launched a weekend MBA program at MSU, and
  • announced that President Clinton would deliver the May commencement address.

These accomplishments and other astute diplomatic gestures in the capital beltway are winning him praise from public policy makers, the media, and the education community at the local, state, and national levels.

In talking about his family, education, and career experiences, McPherson sounds right at home as MSU’s president. A Michigan native, he brings to the position firsthand knowledge of agriculture; expertise in finance and tax law, banking, and international development; political skills honed at the highest levels in Washington; and a record of leadership and managerial skill in all of these areas.

A Michigan Beginning

McPherson, 55, was born and raised on a dairy and fruit farm in Lowell, Michigan, owned by the McPherson clan since 1840. He and his two brothers own the property today and rent a few acres for farming. Alongside his parents and seven brothers and sisters, he worked from dawn to dusk, which may explain his penchant for early morning meetings and long work days. “Growing up on a farm is a wonderful experience, and something that will always be a part of who I am. In fact, much to my wife Joanne’s amusement, I’ve even been known to call myself a farmer 35 years later,” says McPherson. He cites a strong work ethic, a quality of individualism, a sense of community, and a commitment to public involvement as the most important lessons learned in those early years.

Involvement in public life is a McPherson family tradition. McPherson’s grandfather, Melville B. McPherson, for whom he was named, was a leader in the agriculture community and an MSU trustee from 1922 to 1933 and again from 1940 to 1945. A former state tax commission chairman, Melville ran for governor in the 1940 Republican primary. McPherson’s father, an MSU alumnus, was a leader in local government, the school district, and church, which President McPherson’s great-great-grandfather helped establish. His mother, also an MSU graduate, and in McPherson’s words “an excellent manager skilled in finance,” was a Grand Rapids’ YMCA administrator for 30 years.

MSU was an “unexplored continent” in 1959 when McPherson began his freshman year as a political science major bent on becoming a lawyer. His visits there as a 4-H Club member and Boy Scout and the family’s tradition of attending MSU left no doubt that that was his destination. He loved the idea of coming to a campus of 25,000 people “where nobody knew me and I hardly knew anyone else,” quite a change from the everybody-knows-everybody life he left behind in Lowell.

After only two weeks on campus, his interest in politics, intensified by his high school experience as a page in the Michigan House of Representatives, prompted him to run for freshman class vice president. He came in third out of ten. Sophomore year he ran a friend’s successful campaign for president; junior year he ran for class president and won. Active in the Young Republicans, McPherson enjoyed debating campus issues of the time, such as whether Communists should be allowed to speak on campus (he supported their right to speak) and the age-old questions surrounding administration versus student authority.

One of the benefits of McPherson’s early involvement in campus politics was becoming better acquainted with MSU President John Hannah, another native of Kent County. Melville McPherson was on the board when Hannah was selected president, so the two families knew each other. “Hannah was a good man, a man with vision, a pragmatic problem solver, who took enormous risks that made great sense,” reflects McPherson. “He felt that everyone, no matter their socioeconomic status, should have an opportunity for a world class education,” a philosophy with which McPherson strongly agrees.

Public Service and Private Lessons

Immediately after receiving his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1963 McPherson joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Peru. While helping to distribute food to schools around the country, he worked with staff from the Agency for International Development (AID) and found the subject of how to achieve economic growth and social and political stability “all-engrossing.”

McPherson says his time in with the Peace Corps “was the defining experience of his life,” helping him learn to set goals and priorities and understand the importance of encouraging people beset with problems to become involved in developing their solutions.

After his Peace Corps stint, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Western Michigan University (1967) and a law degree from American University Law School (1969). He then practiced in Washington, D.C., as a tax law specialist with the Internal Revenue Service, until 1975.

When asked about his next job, McPherson’s face lights up with remembered pleasure. As the number-two man in President Gerald R. Ford’s personnel office, he ran its day-to-day operations and learned a most valuable lesson: While finding the right people for key positions is critical, even more challenging is figuring out what the job responsibilities should be given the policy directions of the administration.

A major advantage of working in the White House at a young age, he says, was the encouragement he received to think creatively: “It was feasible in our operation to have any idea.” Another advantage he cites is that “you realize cabinet members, senators, and representatives are just regular people, with their individual strengths and foibles.”

Following Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976, McPherson became a managing partner in the Washington office of the major Ohio law firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease. The office had only recently opened, and McPherson was charged with building it up. When he left in 1981, the firm had added attorneys specializing in tax, finance, and patent law.

The attraction of public service pulled him back to the White House in 1980 to act as general counsel to the transition team for newly elected Ronald Reagan. In that position he played a major role in Reagan’s early and successful initiative to decontrol the price of oil.

There was, however, another job he really wanted—administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID)—and which he assumed in 1981. Four years earlier President Ford had appointed him to AID’s advisory board for international agriculture comprised entirely of university administrators. Fortuitously, the chairperson of the board at that time was former MSU president Cliff Wharton. The two became good friends. “Cliff is a good man, thoughtful, and very intelligent,” says McPherson.

His experience on the advisory board and the intellectual exchanges with Wharton prepared him well for his new role. He had a vision of where he wanted to take the multibillion dollar organization operating in 50 countries, a vision shaped in part by the counsel of John Hannah, who had held the same position in the early 1970s. Hannah gave uncomplicated yet profound advice: “The only thing that matters is people.”

“By that he meant that what is most important in the development of third-world countries is educating and building the skills of people and that they not be restrained by their own societies from using those skills,” explains McPherson.

With this philosophical base, McPherson proceeded to promote and implement education, training, and technology transfer policies that helped people to better help themselves. During his tenure, McPherson managed the U.S. famine relief efforts in Africa and a program to rehydrate third-world residents suffering from dysentery, programs that saved millions of lives.

“We really felt we made an impact,” recalls McPherson. “When you got up in the morning, you felt good and proud that you worked for an organization of competent individuals so committed to helping others.”

In 1987 his friend and colleague, then Secretary of the Treasury James Baker, offered him the position of deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury. His responsibilities included international trade—he was a key negotiator of the Canadian free trade agreement—and tax law. McPherson served as acting secretary for a few weeks when Baker left in 1988 to run the Bush campaign.

While at Treasury, McPherson learned he had a brain tumor. With the left side of his face paralyzed, he underwent highly delicate surgery. The tumor was removed and found to be benign. “It was scary,” recalls McPherson. “It definitely made me feel more vulnerable and thoughtful about life.”

In 1989 McPherson transferred his international, political, and finance skills to the world of international banking. His first assignment as executive vice president at San Francisco-based Bank of America was to manage an $8 billion portfolio of bad debt that was worth about half that in the market. He was given enormous leeway in structuring financial agreements, working primarily with Latin American and Canadian markets.

Back in Michigan

McPherson credits the profound influences of John Hannah and Cliff Wharton, his belief in the power of education to influence positive individual and social change, and, the encouragement of his brothers and sisters, for his taking a serious look at the presidency of MSU. He had thought about it in the mid-1980s but had not aggressively pursued it, nor the board him for that matter, he wryly notes. But it seemed a natural next step to him in 1993, and he was ready and willing.

Comparing his experiences at AID with his MSU responsibilities, he points out that “there’s an enormous similarity of issues—a university has a tremendous impact on a state’s economic growth and on the education and training of its people. Like John Hannah said, ‘People are what matter.’ “

His appointment followed a 15-month search and surprised many observers with its departure from the tradition of selecting a president from the ranks of academia. The key question was, Could a prominent business-person successfully incorporate the business principles of efficiency, productivity, and cost containment into a land-grant university’s historical mission of teaching, research, and public service? All eyes are, and will continue to be, on him as he undertakes to answer this question.

Consistent with his business orientation, McPherson began his tenure by working with faculty and administrators to develop a mission, goals, and principles that will guide MSU’s planning and decision making for years to come. Not surprising, given the president’s people orientation and global economic perspective, the revised mission statement is: Michigan State University is a research intensive, land grant university of international scope where people matter.

The six guiding principles are to (1) improve access to quality education and expert knowledge, (2) achieve more active, connected learning, (3) generate new knowledge and scholarship across the mission, (4) promote problem solving, (5) advance diversity within the community, and (6) make people matter.

Why was this strategic planning process such a high priority to him? “I believe that a leader has a duty to have a vision of where an organization ought to go and help it to get there. If you don’t want to do that, then you should probably let someone else do it,” says McPherson. “There is a bureaucratic penchant for maintaining the status quo, so people without vision become instruments of the status quo.”

McPherson loves tackling tough issues and is not interested in running a status quo operation. Two of his biggest and most controversial challenges are (1) producing steadily stronger quality while keeping the cost of education affordable and (2) expanding the role of tenured faculty in undergraduate education and more ongoing contact with students.

To keep education affordable and thus make it more accessible, McPherson was the first university president in Michigan history to commit to holding tuition at inflation levels for four years. “The related issue, which is more difficult,” says McPherson, “is how do you provide and improve quality at the same time you hold down the price? The view of the academic community over the last 20 years has been that it cannot be done. That’s what the health care folks said; what the auto companies said. They were mistaken. Why should we be any different?”

Although some in the education community contend quality cannot be maintained under such fiscal constraints, McPherson is confident his administration and faculty will not only maintain quality but improve it. He’s already witnessed examples of innovation and customer orientation, such as Dean James Henry’s response to his request for an MBA program geared to people already in careers. “Dean Henry and his team came up with the idea that we need a weekend versus weekday MBA program because the market demand in the greater Lansing area alone was not sufficient. By making it a weekend program, we’ll be able to attract a higher number of qualified candidates from a broader geographic area.”

Implementing the goal of “expecting each faculty member to make demonstrable contributions to promoting the quality of the undergraduate experience” will be an even greater challenge in the next year. McPherson disagrees with those who want to draw clear lines between the jobs of teaching and research. He supports a more integrated approach on the grounds that “the people who are the best teachers are most often those who are deeply committed to finding new knowledge and sharing it with others. The question is not how can we get faculty to work 20 percent harder, but rather, what is the right balance of time that should be allocated between involvement with undergraduates and with generating revenue from research?” Each department will be asked to come up with specific recommendations on how they will achieve this goal.

Other initiatives that McPherson believes will enhance quality are the affiliation with the Detroit College of Law, which will offer interdisciplinary instruction in the fall of 1996, and the expansion of part-time, evening courses this fall, a move that he says will attract many students that otherwise would not attend MSU. He also has signed an agreement with Lansing Community College for a collaborative evening bachelor’s degree program in the social sciences.

Change does not come easily to any organization or institution, particularly one the size of MSU. But McPherson believes he can overcome institutional inertia by “focusing on ideas, such as improving accessibility to a college education, that are bigger than any of us.”

McPherson is a pragmatic man whose idea of what it takes to be an effective leader has been strongly influenced by such men as management consultant Peter Drucker, John Hannah, Cliff Wharton, General George C. Marshall, James Baker, and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. The admirable traits they had in common, in McPherson’s view, are their vision, competence, insight, creativity, and pragmatism. But he says he is not a micromanager. He encourages ideas and creative thinking and expects his department administrators to develop specific recommendations to meet the goals and principles they took part in developing.

Besides having a vision and managerial and financial skills, McPherson brings a degree of political deftness to campus that recalls the style of John Hannah. Before being interviewed for this profile, he was placing courtesy phone calls to key state elected officials informing them of President Clinton’s decision to be MSU’s commencement speaker in May. With this mixture of common courtesy and common sense, McPherson has reached out to education, community, business, and political leaders and won praise for his openness on the issues, enthusiasm for regional cooperation initiatives, and leadership in better positioning MSU to succeed in a more broadly competitive world.

When his tenure at MSU is over, McPherson says he wants to be remembered for two things: helping MSU continue and enhance its tradition of improving economic conditions through the dissemination of information and technology, and achieving tuition stability along with a higher quality of education. “We’re on a bucking bronco of reform now and there’s no getting off,” says McPherson. “People are expecting a lot from us.”

If the last year and a half is any indication, they won’t be disappointed.

Copyright © 1995

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