President Murray Speaks on Politics, Plans



Pictured: Kathy Murray. Photo submitted by Matthew Banderas.

Pictured: Kathy Murray. Photo submitted by Matthew Banderas.
Pictured: Kathy Murray. Photo submitted by Matthew Banderas.

President Kathy Murray assumed the highest office on campus this July 1st. Murray was selected by a Presidential Search Committee and approved by the Board of Trustees in the fall of 2014. She will be the 14th President of the college, replacing President George Bridges, who had served since 2005. She comes to Whitman from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., where she served as the Provost and Dean of Faculty.

Last week, The Pioneer had the chance to sit down with President Murray and ask her several questions about her plans for the coming semester and her position on several political issues of interest to students.

Murray was candid, if brief, in sharing her thoughts on issues that have grabbed the campus’s attention. She expects much of her first semester to be occupied with searching for a new Provost & Dean of Faculty, traveling across the country to meet members of the Board of Trustees, and familiarizing herself with the campus.

When asked about divestment from fossil fuels, she expressed hesitation about gestures that are “solely symbolic,” but openness to meeting with students to learn more about the issue.

Murray considers the two-year suspension of the Whitman debate team a closed issue, though she is hopeful that the review of national debate beginning this fall will find a way for Whitman to participate in debate competitions after the two years are complete.

Though she has not yet heard the report of the WIDE diversity committee, Murray expressed support for broad efforts to address racism on campus, and expects it to influence both the search for a new Provost and the Strategic Action Plan which will be written next year.

Generally, however, Murray emphasized that she is ready and eager to listen to students.

Pio: Why did you want to become a college president?

KM: There were lots of reasons. But one of the big ones is that Provosts don’t have much contact with students … I went into [higher education] as a faculty member because I love working with students, and this gives me a chance to have more of that in my life.

Pio: What are some projects you plan to work on this semester?

KM: We are running a national search for the next Provost and Dean of Faculty. [The Provost is] in many ways the most important partner for me in the work of advancing student learning at this college. That’s the person who hires and reviews the faculty, and is central to all the curricular things that happen, and getting that right is critically important…

I was charged with launching a strategic planning process, but [the Trustees, the faculty, and I] recognize that we need to have a new Provost in place for the process to have credibility with the faculty … so we won’t really launch that until next summer. But it’s really important for me to spend this year listening, asking questions, learning what’s distinctive about the culture and ethos of Whitman … so that we figure out a process for planning that’s true to this place.

Pio: What role will students play in the search for a new Provost?

KM: There are no students on the search committee for the Provost, and that’s pretty standard [among colleges]. The Provost search will be confidential only until we identify the finalists. The finalists’ visits [to campus] will be public … The search committee and I haven’t talked about this yet, but I’d like each of the finalists to meet with a small group of students. And there will be public presentations by the candidates, and students will be invited to participate in those.

Pio: The #AskKathy video series released in the spring was originally supposed to answer both personal and political questions submitted by the student body. However, no answers to political questions were released. Can you explain why this was, and how students’ questions may eventually be addressed?

KM: I found my responses [to the political questions] trivial in a way I wasn’t comfortable with. There’s no way in that format to talk about, for example, divestment. That’s a much more nuanced and complicated question than the 15 or 30 second video they were trying to use [for #AskKathy].

The students most interested in divestment are coming to see me… [with] student groups like that, people with a particular cause or agenda, it’s probably best for us to have a conversation about it. We start to develop relationships that way and build some trust. [ASWC and Pioneer interviews are also good methods of communication].

Pio: In past years, there have been several protests on campus that could be deemed disruptive. How do you think administrators should respond to these students?

KM: Student activism is incredibly important … I do think it’s the responsibility of the college – faculty, staff and other students – to help people find a way to express those disagreements or passions in the most productive way possible. And sometimes productive is loud.

I would draw the line at activity that keeps other people on this campus from doing their work … If a protest kept staff members from getting to their offices and doing their jobs, I would find that unacceptable. The most famous [protests] from when I was a young person [were] sit-ins. As long as that’s done in a way that allows other people to do their work, I would not object to that.

The other line I would draw is that people need to be safe. If I think an activity is endangering people’s health and life, then we’re going to step in.

Pio: What is your position on the divestment from fossil fuels?

KM: I haven’t met with [Divest Whitman] yet, so I don’t want to get too far out in front of them, but it’s safe to say I’m not a big fan of gestures that are solely symbolic. I would want whatever we decide to do to go beyond symbolic, and I have yet to see a proposal in the higher ed media that gets past that. But I haven’t talked with this group of students, and I want to hear what they have to say.

Pio: Do you believe the college’s endowment should have any guidelines based on ethics concerning its investment?

KM: We will stay within the law, and the law has ethical components to it.

We don’t have what some campuses have, which is some sort of social responsibility committee that takes up [the questions of] what issues rise to the level that we should consider them in our investment and other policies … and frankly I don’t know yet if that’s the right approach for Whitman College. But it is under consideration to think about that [approach], and whether some version of that would be helpful here.

Pio: Last spring, Whitman’s debate team was suspended for a minimum of two years. Do you have any plans to address existing questions or concerns from the community?

KM: The suspension is a closed issue. But the letter from George Bridges to the community outlined next steps, and we are moving forward [with those]. [Provost and Dean of Faculty] Pat Spencer, [Dean of Students] Chuck Cleveland and I are putting together a review team [for an] independent review of the national world of debate, to try to figure out if there is a systemic problem [with debate] or if it was a distinctly Whitman problem. There definitely was a problem, so I think the response was appropriate. [The review team will decide] if there is a way for Whitman to continue to participate in debate in a safe and academically appropriate fashion. I am very hopeful that we’re going to figure out a way to do that, but I’m not going to pre-judge what the review might show. We plan to launch the review later this fall.

Pio: In recent years there have been a number of protests and complaints concerning racism on campus. What actions may we expect in the next year to address these concerns?

KM: I have not yet been briefed by WIDE, the diversity committee that [Associate Dean for Intercultural Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer] Kazi Joshua leads, but I know there are some ideas out there … I fully expect that diversity will be a big piece of strategic planning when we get there. [Addressing concerns] is also an explicit expectation for the Provost position, [and] that person will lead the charge for diversity within the faculty.

Pio: Is there anything else students should know about you?

KM: I think when we keep our focus on student learning, we make good decisions, and that will be my mantra to everybody in this community.

*This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.