“COVID has been a stark reminder of my own mortality”: President Murray set to retire early in June 2022

Lena Friedman, Staff Reporter

President Kathy Murray announced at the end of February that she plans to retire from Whitman in June 2022 — three years earlier than planned. Tasked with finding the college’s next president, the Board of Trustees is set to begin this process once they make Financial Sustainability Review (FSR) decisions later this month.

Kathy Murray, the 14th president of Whitman College, was hired in 2015. She plans to retire in June 2022. Photo contributed by Presidents Office.

“Our agenda for the next couple of weeks is quite full [with work] related to [the FSR],” Board Chair Nancy Serrurier said. “After that is finished — after our piece of that is finished — then we will turn to organizing ourselves for the search.”

Murray signed a contract renewal to stay at Whitman through the 2024-2025 academic year, but the coronavirus pandemic has led to an earlier-than-planned departure. She first came to the college in 2015, after serving as provost and dean of faculty at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. 

“COVID-19 has been a stark reminder of my own mortality, and I decided I wanted to enjoy more years of retirement,” Murray said in an email to The Wire.  

Murray also says that the pandemic expedited the financial sustainability work she had planned to focus her five-year contract extension on given “the changing demographics of college-going students and the changing landscape of all of higher education.” COVID-19 has compounded these challenges, resulting in the current and atypical FSR budgeting process that aims to reduce overall spending by approximately $3.5 million for the fiscal 2022 budget. 

“That timeline and those budget challenges were dramatically accelerated by COVID-19,” Murray said, “and the Board and I recognized we had to move much more quickly to make those changes.” 

Senior Ori Alon found the timing of Murray’s retirement announcement to be “quite odd” given that the FSR draft recommendations had recently gone public and the administration is facing pushback against the proposed program cuts. Murray had informed the Board leadership of her decision in the fall. 

“If she had known since the fall, why not be upfront with the entire community and be as transparent as she claims she wants to be?” Alon said in an email to The Wire. “It seemed like a response to student disapproval of her presidency, and not necessarily like an effort to share information regarding the institution’s administration.”

The Board of Trustees has yet to meet and determine the specifics and timeline of the upcoming search process for the next president. In the past, however, the process has involved a search committee made up of trustees, faculty, students and staff working alongside a consulting firm to determine criteria for what qualities they want to see in the next president and then finding candidates who meet those specifications. 

“The board makes the [ultimate] decision and it’s the committee’s job to work with a consultant to identify candidates, to talk to the candidates and interview them and to read all the reference materials and everything involved with it,” Serrurier said. “In the past, anybody could make recommendations for [candidates] to be considered, but the reality is that it’s usually the consultant who knows the people in the field who are appropriately qualified.”

This process will likely take several months, Serrurier says, but there is sufficient time to find the next president so that the individual can begin directly following Murray’s departure, on July 1, 2022. 

Over the next 16 months, Murray will continue to lead the FSR process — both the final cost-cutting decisions as well as the current and new programs in which the college will invest. On Murray’s arrival at the college, Whitman launched a strategic planning process that highlights five priorities including increasing access and affordability and focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

“The strategic plan that’s currently in place, those top priorities remain the college’s top priorities, and even through COVID-19 they are more true than ever,” Serrurier said. “So there’s nothing about Kathy’s retirement being moved up that changes the way the college needs to think about strengthening itself.”

In addition to guiding the FSR process, Murray says she will spend the rest of her time at Whitman fundraising for financial aid and discussing the other strategic priorities with donors. Then, Murray plans to move away from Walla Walla with her partner. 

Bridget and I will return to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she has her law practice,” Murray said. “I’m looking forward to being closer to my family.”