Peter McPherson, who was president of Michigan State University from 1993 through 2004, was named on Thursday as the next president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
McPherson had a long career in banking and government before becoming Michigan State's leader. At a time that Republicans control the White House and both branches of Congress, McPherson may have connections that many academics lack. He held senior positions in the Ford and Reagan administrations. In 2003, he took a leave from the Michigan State presidency to help develop economic policy for Iraq.
When he arrived at Michigan State, McPherson faced a faculty that was highly skeptical that someone whose career had been outside academe would be an effective leader. While he faced some critics throughout his tenure, he also won over doubters because he was highly successful in obtaining more state funds for the university. Michigan State historically has played second fiddle to the University of Michigan. But McPherson's close ties to John Engler, a Republican whose tenure as governor overlapped with much of McPherson's at Michigan State, helped the institution do much better than it had previously.
In an interview Thursday, McPherson said that his top issue would be promoting measures that provide students from all economic backgrounds access to higher education. "That's been critical in our society for generations," he said, but decreasing levels of state support have placed that access at risk.
"My view is that access to high quality education is under challenge right now," he said.
NASULGC's 214 members -- including flagship, land grant, and other large public universities -- enroll more than 3.5 million students. With Congress in the midst of renewing the Higher Education Act, the law that governs most student-aid programs, McPherson said that a major priority will be studying the legislation. But he said he didn't have enough familiarity with the bill to comment on it now.
McPherson downplayed his identity as a Republican, and noted that during much of his previous work in Washington, Democrats controlled one or both houses of Congress, so he always needed bipartisan support for his initiatives, and he said that would be his goal at NASULGC. "I think I have credibility on both sides of the aisle and that's important," he said. "The concerns of higher education aren't partisan issues at all."
Much of McPherson's government work has involved foreign affairs. In addition to his recent work in Iraq, he was administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and chairman of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and he currently leads a Congressional commission studying ways to expand foreign study by Americans.
McPherson said that the "internationalization of higher education" is vital to American colleges, and he wanted to encourage more exchanges for students and faculty members, as well as more efforts to internationalize the college curriculum.
C. Peter Magrath, who has led NASULGC since 1992, announced in December that he planned to step down to do consulting work and to become a senior adviser to the College Board.