December 13, 2004: Headlines: COS - Peru: University Administration: Peter McPherson says "I've got a few good years left. I'm ready for one more big project"

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Peru: Special Report: MSU President and Peru RPCV Peter McPherson: December 13, 2004: Headlines: COS - Peru: University Administration: Peter McPherson says "I've got a few good years left. I'm ready for one more big project"

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Peter McPherson says "I've got a few good years left. I'm ready for one more big project"

Peter McPherson says I've got a few good years left. I'm ready for one more big project

Peter McPherson says "I've got a few good years left. I'm ready for one more big project"

MSU's McPherson moves on
Monday, December 13, 2004
By Judy Putnam
Lansing Bureau

EAST LANSING -- Peter McPherson, the cigar-chomping, workaholic former banker, will leave Michigan State University Dec. 31, after 11 years at the helm.

A former deputy secretary of treasury under President Reagan and an aide to President Ford, McPherson was a banking executive who had never worked at a university when he was hired in 1993 as MSU president.

In contrast, his successor, MSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lou Anna K. Simon, already has 30 years in at MSU.

Trustees say Simon, 57, will benefit from strong academic experience, coupled with more than a decade of tutelage in public policy under McPherson, who relished the rough-and-tumble world of politics in Lansing and Washington.

McPherson said that while his career took him around the world, he never strayed far from the few-hundred-acre fruit and dairy farm he grew up on seven miles northwest of Lowell, in West Michigan. He is part of the sixth generation of McPhersons to own the farm, founded in 1840.

"I've always felt I had an excellent rapport with people and the issues in rural and small-town Michigan,'' McPherson said in an interview last month. "That's where I come from.''

Trustee Dee Cook, R-Greenville, said the 64-year-old McPherson was a somewhat risky choice who turned out to be a strong president, drawing on his small-town roots to strengthen the university's ties throughout the state.

"He's been everywhere in the world -- with heads of state, with giants of industry and ambassadors and very important people -- but he still has that Lowell, that small-town value that's important to him,'' she said.

McPherson, who announced his retirement in May, said what he's enjoyed most at MSU is his public role in pulling divergent sides together to work on problems.

"There's no question we're much more of a player in public policy issues broadly, and we, by almost any measure, are a stronger institution,'' McPherson said.

He added praise for his MSU staff: "If you write that, I hope you say, 'McPherson quickly said there were many, many people behind it.' ''

For example, he has both the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO working on a committee promoting MSU as a site for a $1 billion federal nuclear science project. It would be among the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the state if MSU wins it.

And at the request of lawmakers, he crafted an agreement on charter schools, getting the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, to agree with pro-charter forces on a report given to the Legislature in 2002. Legislation to implement the recommendations, allowing new charters aimed at disadvantaged kids, failed by a single vote.

Most recently, McPherson expressed glee after successfully lobbying lawmakers over the summer to save MSU's funding in a disagreement with Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration over whether a 2 percent summer tuition hike violated an agreement to cap increases.

And he said he was heartened by the groundswell of opposition to potential cuts to the MSU Extension Service, which aids the state's farmers but also offers programs ranging from nutritional counseling for the poor to training local officials in land-use planning. Hundreds protested when Granholm suggested the idea last year.

"The governor really did listen to us,'' he said. "We were able to articulate why it was so important.''

Not all have been happy with McPherson, however. With his corporate background, McPherson was criticized by faculty for not understanding the academic world and making decisions top-down rather than bottom-up.

"It's explained by that corporate culture he came from. In a university, the faculty expects to have input,'' said Associate Professor Jon Sticklen, who chairs the executive committee of the Academic Council, a campus policy advisory group.

Still, Sticklen said, McPherson is likable and few questioned his motivation.

"There are very few faculty that would suggest that he didn't have the best interests of the university at heart.'' Sticklen said.

Local officials were upset about plans to move the medical school this year, but East Lansing City Manager Ted Staton said McPherson was usually accessible.

"He was always open, always available. He didn't hesitate to pick up the phone to call me when he thought we needed a joint approach to solve a problem.'' Staton said.

Students frequently protested decisions, including his attempts to curtail drinking on campus and his refusal to join a multi-university coalition that ensures university apparel is not manufactured in sweat shops.

His GOP ties were also an area of protest. McPherson took a six-month leave of absence in 2003 to help the Bush administration establish a new currency and central bank in Iraq after the U.S. invasion.

McPherson led a building boom on the campus, wired aging dorms for the Internet and required all students to have a computer. He held tuition down as other colleges were raising it in the mid-'90s while shunning his own pay raises.

He also launched two big projects, still pending - trying to snag the federal nuclear science project for MSU and trying to grow the MSU College of Human Medicine by moving it to Grand Rapids. He personally worked on the lineup of graduation speakers, drawing President Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney, Granholm and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

McPherson, a former Peace Corps volunteer who headed a federal international relief agency from 1981 to 1987, also championed study abroad, with the number of students studying in foreign countries rising from 800 to more than 2,200 during his tenure.

Although he didn't have an academic background or even a "doctor" in front of his name, McPherson -- a lawyer with an M.B.A. -- earned a degree in political science in 1963 at MSU. And the green-and-white loyalty runs deep in the McPherson clan. Both his parents, a daughter, all seven of his siblings and six of their spouses, also attended MSU.

McPherson and his wife, Joanne, are moving to the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Va., where he will work as a consultant for MSU and lead several prominent volunteer efforts on study abroad and world hunger. His MSU salary will drop from $306,000 (in salary, deferred compensation and other benefits) to $143,650 a year. The couple has four adult children from previous marriages between them, and six grandchildren under the age of 6.

He has declined to talk about other possible jobs, although observers say he's qualified for any number of high-profile positions in the nation's capital, including a cabinet-level position.

C. Peter Magrath, president of the National Association of Public Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, said McPherson gained respect over the years.

"Among his peers, president types, he is highly regarded,'' Magrath said. "I've known a lot of Michigan State presidents. I think the judgment through the years will be that he's been a very, very good president.''

Grand Rapids businessman Peter Secchia, a longtime friend of McPherson who also competed for the MSU job in 1993, said McPherson will be remembered as a great president, along with legendary MSU President John Hannah.

"He left a pretty big footprint,'' he said.

McPherson's sister, Jenett Patrick, 68, a retired teacher and real estate agent from Saranac, said a positive outlook is a strong family trait.

"There are no brothers and sisters who are negative. We all think positively,'' she said.

His siblings gather from around the country to attend MSU sporting events. Patrick said they don't get any special treatment.

"You'd be surprised at how many people think we get big perks. We don't even ask,'' she said.

The siblings gather and tell such stories as the time 5-year-old McPherson threw a snake into the bath water of his 2-year-old twin sisters, then reported: "Boy, they sure got out of the tub in a hurry,'' or how teen-aged McPherson trapped muskrats and sold their furs for extra money.

McPherson earned a reputation as a workaholic, putting in long days and calling staffers early in the morning and late at night.

"Where did you get a low number like that?'' said Terry Denbow, university spokesman, when asked if reports of 16-hour days were true.

He also rarely went on vacation. McPherson's sister said that's a farm trait, too.

"A big farm family with cows to milk? You don't take vacations,'' Patrick said. "We had a mother who was a workaholic. We all seem to have that problem, but not as bad as Peter.''

On his walls at his MSU office, McPherson has pictures and mementos documenting his long career. Among his favorites: An autograph and photo of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The photo was taken as McPherson gave her a humanitarian award when he headed the Agency for International Development under President Reagan.

McPherson said Mother Teresa berated him gently for his office supplying birth control to developing countries and made him promise to oppose abortion, which he does. She told him to write it down and sign it. He did. He asked her to sign it too. She did.

Those who know him don't expect him to slide into retirement.

"Iraq changed him,'' Trustee Cook said. "I had a long chat with him last year when we were down in San Antonio for a football game. He said, 'I've got a few good years left. I'm ready for one more big project.'''

McPherson said he enjoyed his days as MSU president.

He said he read every letter written to him, even if a staff member answered it.

They ranged from big issues to petty complaints, such as long lines at the rest room during sporting events.

He said he even enjoyed criticism because the public felt it was their university.

"They felt (MSU) was their place, that they ought to be able to tell the president what they think, and I loved it,'' he said.

-- Contact Judy Putnam at (517) 487-8888 x232 or e-mail her at

© 2004 Booth Newspapers. Used with permission

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