President Mark A. Murray Address the campus community hours after the September 11 attacks.

President Mark A. Murray announced in January that he would leave Grand Valley to become president of Meijer, Inc. on August 1. Murray was named Grand Valley's third president on July 1, 2001, following a two-decade career in state government and education. He sat down with Grand Valley Magazine's Mary Eilleen Lyon to talk about life on campus and his surprise move to retail.

GVM: What attracted you to Grand Valley?

Murray: Oh wow. I love learning. I was interested in what seemed to be a prosperous and creative west side of the state. I knew Grand Valley was a great school and I believed from having worked in higher ed at Michigan State that the kind of skills I had in governmental leadership would translate well into higher ed. It was, and still is, a great board. It looked like a healthy institution and a great set of people with a purpose and a mission that were really attractive.

GVM: What is your fondest memory at Grand Valley? Can you think of something that makes you smile, or was funny or would entertain?

Murray: I don't do that well (laughs). I have no doubt that the best memories will all be about personal interactions with people here. It's just people, and so it's like any other organization, everyone works real hard to get things done but the pleasure and the satisfaction come from getting a chance to work with the good people here.

GVM: What would you say was your most difficult day or time?

Murray: What if I told you it was never hard? I was going to say that one of them was September 11th but you know, that really wasn't very hard. It was actually pretty straight forward, but maybe I'll answer a different question which is, "Wat was the day when your leadership as president was most important to the university?" That would be September 11th. My first and immediate instinct was the fact that we had thousands of people living on our campus who had just moved away from home weeks before. As traumatic as that day was for adults, I knew that it would be really impactful for people who were outside of their comfort zone, still struggling to build relationships here. That's why we moved forward immediately with a large and prominent activity together at Cook Carillon tower and then had counseling immediately available and all the supports.

That day really cemented my admiration, which has never wavered, for the resident assistants, the multicultural assistants, the housing staff, the counseling staff here on campus. It was awesome to watch the way they worked into the night, night after night during that week, with the students. It was, and they were, magnificent.

GVM: What do you think is Grand Valley's next milestone? 

Murray: I think the next phase for Grand Valley is cementing a reputation for academic rigor and cementing its place as a choice location for major employers to recruit outstanding students. I think in both cases there's materially more progress going on but there's still both work to be done and reputation catch-up to occur. What would be some mark of that is when we have a Rhoades Scholar from Grand Valley, which we will have, when major employers routinely come to campus and are seeking out our students for internships all over the Midwest. Some of that happens but more of it will happen in the years ahead.

GVM:What would you say you wanted to do that's left on the table?

Murray: Getting a library for the university. I thought by now the state would be in the fiscal position to have authorized a library. It is so important to this institution to update its library. There will be technology that will support our communications school and other areas in that library, but it's essential that be done. 

GVM: What would you say is Grand Valley's biggest challenge?

Murray: The most urgent work for Grand Valley is to continue to focus on academic rigor and deepening student life. We do very well but need to find ways to expand and support more groups, expand and support opportunities for students to engage in more physical activity, engage each other outside their disciplines in various groups. The faculty needs to continue to raise the rigor and push and make legitimate demands on students for excellent academic work.

GVM: You surprised some people by announcing your decision to go to Meijer. What was it about the opportunity that made you jump?

Murray: There was no single factor. Certainly I have a deep admiration for the Meijer Corporation. I think they have an ethic about hard work and honesty and delivering value that's really admirable. I think they've been great community participants. It's a wonderful family. I've had the chance to get to know them by serving on the board. It was certainly attractive to continue to live in West Michigan. This is just a wonderful place to live and grow. I think for me in particular, given my experience over the years in education and government, the opportunity to take the skills that I have and apply them in another sector had a certain attractiveness to it. It's an opportunity to test myself further personally and professionally.

GVM: Do you consider yourself a risk-taker?  

Murray: No, I really don't. If risk-taker means risk-seeker then I don't. If risk-taker means I'm willing to live with uncertainty then I'd say, yeah. I guess I don't know if I'd call it values or beliefs or what I'd call it, but it's part of my being to want to continue to grow and develop and learn and be tested in new ways. That inevitably means I can't continue to carry on in routine activities. There are a lot of tests and opportunities at Grand Valley and I had fully intended to stay here for many more years.

But if I weren't changing jobs, I would also be pushing myself to do new and better things for Grand Valley. I absolutely believe that is part of waking up in the morning to make sure there's something new and challenging that you're taking on in service of the broader mission you're engaged in, but I don't seek it for the sake of risk; I seek it for the sake of growth.

GVM: Some people get comforted by routine and other people get bored. You had an opportunity.

Murray: Yeah, you know somewhere real deep in my fiber is the view that I've been given talents and skills and I have the fundamental obligation to use them for other people and to develop them. If you go out and bury your talents you haven't done what you were called to do. Your job is to take the talents you've been given and grow them and that's like the blood in my veins, that's just who I am and what I believe.

GVM: What did people here not get to see about you that you might want them to know?

Murray: If I wanted them to know about it, I would have showed them (laughter). I don't know. I think people around here know who I am. Maybe I'll keep answering different questions. The thing I wish I had more time to do is to get engaged in some of the "life of the mind" here on campus, which is so satisfying. People saw me at cultural events and lectures but they didn't see me as often as I would have liked. The other thing I have not successfully accomplished in my five years here is getting a routine for regular exercise. There's something about the schedule here that makes it a little more challenging to get into a regular exercise routine.

GVM: What do you hope people at Grand Valley remember about you?

Murray: I hope people here know how much I cared about the students and their success. Always remember the whole organization exists for the students. I hope I demonstrated that and I know I've found hundreds of willing partners in that here. It's not like this was a radical idea; it is part of the organization but I hope I modeled that as well.

GVM: What will change most for you when you take over at Meijer?

Murray: It'll obviously be very different because it's big box retail stores instead of a college campus, but it still is working with a large group of people. You want to have everyone stay together, stay focused on a mission and execute it as effectively as possible for the people we serve. In the case of a retail operation, it's the customers walking in the door. Here, it's students looking for an education. I'm anticipating the work will be, in many ways, more similar than many people would initially expect.

GVM:I hope for you that your time is more your own. It just seemed that you were always involved in something.

Murray: Yeah, but that's part of who I am. I didn't work here any more hours than I worked for the state and in some ways, they were a little more intense in the state. Some days they were a little bit longer because there was more social time here but how can you keep a straight face and call it work when you're out at a basketball game or a football game or going to a symphony with some donors? What a gift to have that be called work.

GVM: Who has been instrumental to you in your life?

Murray: I've had a number of people who have reached out and made a difference in my life. It's one of the things I think is important to then take some time to help other people. Whether it's in the neighborhood or in the organization you work in, in your family, taking time to explain why you're doing things and what it's about. I had one particular boss who taught me that when you ask someone to do something for you, your job is to back them up unless they are completely out of line and really hurt the organization. But it is also your obligation to explain to them why they might have done it a little bit differently or a little bit better so that they can be an even more effective agent in the organization.

GVM: Who are the people you admire?

Murray: In this domain and in this circumstance I would have to say how much I admire Don Lubbers. I really admire my mom and my dad, my friends. I found a lot of people to admire over the years in a lot of different settings and for a lot of different reasons. One of the things I'm most grateful for is that I'm more able to see all of the good things that people around me are doing. You get so darn self-focused sometimes about what you're up to and what challenges you've got and all the rest of it, and as the years go on and you spend more time in more settings, more professional relationships, more personal relationships, the more you begin to understand just how good the people are around you. That's a great thing. We've all got clay feet and there's always something that you could offer as a critique of someone. Twenty years ago I might have been more quick to enumerate the reasons for critiquing someone, now I'm probably more immediately oriented to understand what the good thing is that somebody's doing.

GVM: Do you have a personal goal or dream?

Murray: We don't have any kids at home now, and it's been wonderful to see our children grow up and more clearly identify who they are. Now the fun ahead is watching them explore and develop their talents. What a gift that is.

GVM: Do you have advice for the person who succeeds you?

Murray: Join the rest of the campus community in staying centered on what's best for the students. You really can't go far wrong if you go wrong at all by staying 100 percent concentrated on what's good for the students. I really want to make the point that this is an absolutely outstanding community and it's got an enormous amount of momentum. There's so much more good ahead than what we've seen so far. It will be one of the pleasures of staying in the community to get to watch Grand Valley continue to grow and prosper and watch these students develop and flourish and make our community better.

Page last modified July 20, 2011