Kathleen Murray was about a year into retirement when board members at Hamline University asked if she might be interested in leading the private school as it tries to recover from a turbulent year.

She initially hesitated. But when she heard from passionate students, faculty and alumni, "I felt like this was somehow meant to be and that I would take this on."

Murray, who previously worked as a college president in Washington, took over as Hamline University's acting/interim president Jan. 1.

The St. Paul, Minnesota, private school drew international attention in January 2023, months after leaders decided not to renew the contract of an art history instructor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The episode spurred a heated debate about instructors' academic freedom and how to support an increasingly diverse student body. And it exacerbated tensions among faculty and university leaders.

It's been "an extremely challenging year for morale and for retention in a lot of ways," said Bruce Bolon, president of the Faculty Council.

But a new semester begins now, with a new leader.

"I think [for] some of the people I talk to, this seems like it's the most positive atmosphere we've seen here in quite a while. I'm very hopeful," Bolon said. "We have to wait and see how things go."

Murray will face challenges in her tenure as acting/interim president, a job she expects to hold for about a year and a half. The university still faces a lawsuit from the former art history instructor. Like other liberal arts schools across the country, it is dealing with budget constraints and enrollment declines.

Enrollment dropped from about 5,000 students in 2013 to 2,900 in 2021, the year covered by its most recent publicly available tax filings. During that same period, employees were cut from about 2,500 closer to 1,500. (Hamline's law school merged with another school in 2015 to form what is now called the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.)

One of Murray's early tasks will be to fill open jobs for vice presidents overseeing enrollment and finances. But her priority will be meeting a variety of people on campus to learn what they need and what it might take to rebuild "a sense of community and belonging."

"Sure, I know the liberal arts world. I know higher ed," Murray said. "But I don't know Hamline University just yet."

From piano performance to administrative roles

The daughter of a pianist, Murray knew from a young age she wanted to study the instrument. She developed a love for chamber music, in part because it requires working with other musicians rather than solo.

She earned three degrees — a bachelor's, master's and doctorate — in piano performance and added pedagogy to her doctoral studies.

Murray landed at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., where she split her time between teaching and performing. Eventually, school leaders asked her to serve as the interim dean of the conservatory of music.

"I thought I was sort of in the middle of my career, that I ought to try that, and it would be just a little temporary aside," Murray recalled. "And then that became a permanent appointment."

She went on to become provost at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, and then at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Murray also worked for seven years as the president of Whitman College, a liberal arts school based in Walla Walla, Wash. The college credited her with boosting fundraising, increasing financial aid and strengthening commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. She also oversaw its response in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When she retired in 2022, Murray was exhausted. She slept a lot. She read novels. She played the piano again.

"But after six months of that," she said, "I really started to think there must be something yet for me to do professionally."

Students, faculty outline hopes

During interviews, Murray called on Abi Grace Mart, internal president of the university's Undergraduate Student Congress, by name. She asked what drew her to Hamline. Then she directed questions to faculty and staff.

"That was just very impressive to me," Mart said. "None of us had been asked a question at this point."

Mart hopes Murray will help smooth over some of the divisions between faculty and administrators that have, at times, left students feeling like the child caught between two fighting parents. She also hopes Murray will help strengthen recruitment, particularly as Hamline gets ready to compete with a new program offering free tuition at public schools within the state.

Bolon hopes she'll take a critical look at the budget, saying faculty have experienced larger cuts than administrators in recent years.

"We really need to rethink how a lot of the money is being spent on salaries in particular, but in other ways, too, to just make sure we're doing what's best for the students," Bolon said.

National groups are also weighing in on how Murray should approach her presidency. In a public letter, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, also known as FIRE, urged her to strengthen the school's policies on free speech.

Murray said, "I absolutely place a high value on academic freedom," and that she will support instructors who are teaching in their area of expertise.

Mart said she has heard some skepticism from people on campus. She's been telling them: "I totally get that, and I think it's incredibly valid. But I think that it's OK to allow yourself to have a little bit of hope with that as well."

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