ALLENDALE — “Not too big, not too small.”
Mark Murray sees that philosophy as the key to Grand Valley State University’s past and future success.
As he begins what he expects to be a long tenure as president, part of Murray’s agenda is to ensure that GVSU retains that mix — large enough to offer a high-quality and broad array of education; small enough that educators can provide a level of personal attention to students that is unheard of at larger universities.
“It’s a wonderful mix,” said the 46-year-old former state treasurer who assumed the school’s presidency July 1 after the retirement of Arend “Don” Lubbers.
“It’s a huge advantage recruiting staff. It’s a huge advantage recruiting students,” Murray said in a recent Business Journal interview where he talked about his interest in the GVSU presidency, his career in the public sector and the future of the school.
Murray, 46, sees a near-term future focused on exactly how big GVSU should become.
Under Lubbers’ leadership, GVSU became Michigan’s fastest-growing university. Enrollment grew 58 percent in a decade, from 11,726 in 1990-91 to 18,579 for 2000-01. Enrollment for the coming school year is expected to approach 20,000.
The enrollment boom caused GVSU to spend millions in the past decade to develop and build new facilities, including the DeVos Center at the Pew Campus in downtown Grand Rapids, the $57.1 million Center for Health Professions and the $6 million Keller Engineering Laboratories Building, both now under construction in downtown Grand Rapids, the recently dedicated $5.5 million Lake Michigan Center in Muskegon, and the $5 million Meijer Campus in Holland.
Private donations and state grants funded those projects.
Further projects of that magnitude may go on the back burner for a while, Murray said, as GVSU turns more attention toward educational programs and away from expansion and new facilities.
“I want to make sure I take an assessment of how big the university should get,” said Murray, emphasizing the not-too-big, not-too-small philosophy.
“For the next couple of years, we need to look at other issues before we turn to the next question of how many more new buildings are needed, if any,” he said.
First up is analyzing GVSU’s academic offerings to ensure they are in line with the needs of today. Murray plans to maintain and strengthen GVSU’s heritage of blending an array of liberal arts offerings with its professional schools in business, health care and public administration that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees. He also wants to strengthen private-sector ties, such as the partnerships forged with local health-care providers and the Van Andel Institute for the Center for Health Professions, being built on Michigan Avenue, across from Spectrum’s Health’s Butterworth Campus and down the street from the VAI.
“We need to keep that breadth,” Murray said of GVSU’s programs.
In the future, Murray also wants to maintain GVSU’s enrollment at a manageable size. He sees the day in the next few years where he and the GVSU board will have to examine the possibility of limiting enrollment to maintain the university at an appropriate size.
“In five years, we will certainly know the limits of how far we’re going to go,” he said. “The whole decision, as a primary driver, is the quality of education. My guess is that we’re already approaching, or are at, that limit now.”
The GVSU Board of Trustees appointed Murray last spring to succeed Lubbers, who retired June 30 after leading the university for 32 years.
Murray previously served for two years as state treasurer. He spent the prior two years as vice president for finance at Michigan State University and worked more than 20 years in leadership positions in state government. His career includes serving as state budget director from 1994-98, deputy budget director from 1991-94, plus leadership postns in the social services, commerce and management departments.
Murray also has been an education policy adviser to Gov. John Engler. He led the implementation of the Michigan Merit Award scholarship program for high school seniors, directed the Michigan Education Assessment Program, and served on the appointed school board for the Detroit Public Schools.
The GVSU presidency offered Murray a new professional opportunity, a chance to combine his administrative and strategic skills in leading a large public institution, he said. His motivation stems from wanting to help large organizations “accomplish their mission and do good in their communities,” Murray said.
“I have every intention of being as successful here at Grand Valley,” he said. “I’m here for the long term.”
Of immediate concern for Murray is beginning the process this fall that will lead to him filling GVSU’s vacant positions of vice president of finance and provost, the school’s academic leader. He plans to rely heavily on the GVSU academic community to help him in the search for a new provost.
“If I do that decision right,” Murray said of the provost’s appointment, “we greatly boost the chances that Grand Valley gets to the next level very quickly.”
Beyond the vacancies, Murray moved into the GVSU presidency with few pressing issues to address and, in contrast to previous positions he’s held in state government, no significant problems or crises to face at the onset.
That relative calm provides him the opportunity to devote much of his time in his initial months to getting acquainted with the university, its operational structure, its culture and its staff and faculty.
“The real work for the next two or three months is simply getting to know people,” Murray said. “The strength of any organization is the people. I want to know them and let them get to know me so we can work together in the years ahead.”
While he’s likely to face the inevitable and persistent comparisons to his predecessor, a situation anybody would face when they succeed someone with the longevity and record of Arend Lubbers, Murray doesn’t mind.
The fact that he has the opportunity to ease into the GVSU presidency without any turbulence is a testament to Lubbers and how well he ran the university.
“It’s a benefit and a luxury in my first months that I’m not facing a fire,” Murray said. “I know I’m following a legend, but I’m following an effective one.
“I know (comparisons are) going to happen, but I’m fine with it.”