Seventeen individuals served as President of MacMurray College and its earlier iterations during the 174 years of the institution's existence. Fifteen were men, two were women, and most were Methodist clergy.
The first president was James F. Jaquess, an acquaintance of Lincoln, who later became a Union officer during the Civil War and a negotiator who tried to arrange a peace with the Confederacy.
Perhaps the two most influential presidents were Joseph R. Harker and Clarence P. McClelland who served for 59 years from 1893 to 1952. It was Harker who put the philosophical stamp on the College and it was McClelland, with his partner and Board chair, the Chicago businessman and former state senator James E. MacMurray, who built the physical campus and transformed the institution.
Under President Louis W. Norris, men were admitted to MacMurray for the first time.
During the administrations of Gordon E. Michalson and John J. Wittich, MacMurray College reached its peak enrollment of over 1100.
Colleen Hester was the first female president.
- James F. Jaquess
Jaquess, Illinois Conference Female Academy's first president (or, as he was first called, "principal") was a 30-year-old Springfield Methodist pastor when he took office. During his tenure he transferred the "campus" from the Centenary Methodist Church to actual college-owned buildings. An expanded curriculum that included "collegiate" coursework enabled the institution to move from being an academy to a college. This was reflected in its new name — Illinois Conference Female College. He was an acquaintance of Lincoln and later in life became a Union officer in the Civil War and participated in a quixotic and unsuccessful mission to achieve peace with the Confederacy.
- Reuben Andrus
Only a one-year term as acting president after serving as a mathematics professor at the college did not allow Andrus to leave much of a mark on the institution. He returned to the pastorate and then during the 1870s became president of what became DePauw University.
- Asa S. McCoy
McCoy was another short-tenured president. In his case, resignation was triggered by the death of his wife during his second year. He came to the presidency on a provisional basis after serving on the college's Board of Trustees. President McCoy accelerated the shift from a "preparatory" program to one that had more of a collegiate emphasis. He returned to pastoral work, which was his preferred vocation.
- Charles Adams
Adams presided over the institution during the Civil War and the first years of Reconstruction. This was a time when many institutions for women in the East and Midwest closed their doors. The college faced financial uncertainty. The Adams presidency saw the college withstand a major fire in 1861 to the west wing of its main building. "Conference" was dropped from the name of the school. It became Illinois Female College. Enrollment was in the 200s.
- William H. Demotte
Among the early presidents, DeMotte was the only one who was not an ordained Methodist minister. He was the first lay head of the college. He was at Ford's Theatre and witnessed Lincoln's assassination in April 1965 while headquartered in Washington working for an Indiana organization that looked after the interests of soldiers. DeMotte's interests lay more in teaching than in administration. He taught a full load of courses. Major fires plagued the college during the DeMotte years. One destroyed the main building in 1870, forcing a return to Centenary Church for classes. A second fire destroyed the new three-story building, which was replaced with a new structure (Main Hall) that was faithful to the original plans.
- William F. Short
Short was a resident of Jacksonville for seven years before assuming the presidency of the college. Enrollment during his tenure declined, particularly in the collegiate program, into the mid-100s. He initiated activities to enliven and modernize teaching, including field trips. He saw to it that textbooks were updated, and he introduced lectures and demonstrations from specialists outside the college. He resigned to take over the superintendency of the Illinois Institution for the Education of the Blind.
- Joseph Harker
Harker's 32-year presidency was one of the most significant in the history of the institution. This Englishman, the son of a coal miner who grew up in southern Illinois, initiated major advancements in academics, campus infrastructure, and student life. Illinois Female College became Illinois Woman's College. He was a good recruiter of students and a fine fundraiser. President Harker inherited a budget deficit but he turned that around to achieve an endowment of nearly half a million dollars. He added to Main Hall and built Hardtner Gymnasium, Harker Hall and Music Hall. By 1920 Illinois Woman's College had received full accreditation. One of his great accomplishments was to entice the prominent Chicago businessman and former Illinois state senator, James E. MacMurray, to join the Board of Trustees. He also worked to strengthen the relationship between the college and the Methodist Church. When Harker retired in in 1925, the institution was thriving.
- Clarence P. McClelland
Succeeding Harker was the New Yorker Clarence McClelland. McClelland had experience in business, was a Methodist minister, and had been president of Drew Seminary for Young Women in Carmel, NY. The McClelland presidency was the most ambitions and most successful in the history of the women's college. Enrollment climbed to the mid-600s, the central part of the campus was built (Jane, Ann Rutledge, and Kathryn Halls; McClelland Dining Hall; Henry Pfeiffer Library; and Annie Merner Chapel), and the financial condition of the college was strengthened, as was the quality of the faculty. McClelland was fortunate to have a great partner, friend, and benefactor in James MacMurray, the president of the Board. His large monetary gifts allowed for the expansion of the campus. In recognition of his many contributions, in 1930 the institution was renamed MacMurray College for Women. Tragedy struck the college in 1929 when a flash from a photographer's camera started a blaze during a Washington's Birthday pageant in the school gymnasium. Three were killed and 15 others were injured. MacMurray College celebrated its centennial in 1946.
- Louis W. Norris
Norris was an ordained Methodist minister and former dean at DePauw University. Although a fervent supporter in the merits of a separate educational system for women, he recognized the changing tide in higher education. Enrollment in women's colleges was dropping; there was growing demand by the post-World War II generation for coeducation. At President Norris' urging the Board of Trustees voted in 1955 to establish a MacMurray College for Men as a coordinate institution. The first freshman class of men arrived in the fall of 1957. Three new dormitories were erected, as was an athletics facility. By the time President Norris left in 1960 to become president of Albion College in Michigan, enrollment exceeded 800 students. Budgets were balanced although large borrowing had been incurred to fund campus construction.
- Gordon E. Michalson
Michalson came to MacMurray from Garrett Biblical Institute, where he had been professor of historical theology. Michalson was a Kierkegaard scholar, an outdoorsman, and a skilled pilot. The higher education landscape had continued to evolve. Michalson felt that for MacMurray to be competitive, it needed to refocus on providing a general or liberal education. Courses that did not support the liberal arts were dropped in favor of instituting a core curriculum that would ensure that students would gain in-depth exposure to the liberal arts. His MacMurray Plan received nationwide acclaim. Michalson spearheaded a 10-year financial plan — the Green Dragon — to fund the new curriculum, investments in the faculty, new construction (a science building, a student center, and a fourth south campus dormitory). But the economic ups and downs of the sixties caused his plan to flounder and annual deficits to ensue. In the spring of 1968, Michalson announced his resignation to become president of the School of Theology at Claremont in California.
- John J. Wittich
Wittich was a Methodist layman who had earned his doctorate in educational psychology from Stanford. He had been head of the College Student Personnel Institute in Claremont, California. He arrived at MacMurray during a time of national student unrest. In his first few months he achieved national attention for the school when he cancelled classes for two days to hold a MacMurray All-Campus Conference to listen to grievances and to consider reforms. The Conference led to some concrete reforms in the realm of dormitory visitation policy, cars on campus, Black student organizations, student government, and counseling service expansion, among others. Earlier, mandatory chapel had been abolished. Some curriculum reforms were launched, and the education complex was constructed. Despite enrollment reaching over 1000 during the late Michalson and early Wittich years, the college continued to incur financial problems, and balanced budgets were difficult to achieve. MacMurray celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1971. Wittich resigned in 1980.
- B.G. Stephens
President Stephens came to MacMurray from Wofford College where he had been dean of the college and vice-president for academic affairs. Football was added to the school's athletics program. MacMurray also began a partnership with the Illinois Department of Corrections to offer post-secondary education programs for inmates at the Jacksonville and Lincoln Correctional Centers. He concentrated much energy on building relationships with the Jacksonville community — educationally, economically, and culturally. The nursing program took residence in the Norris Education Building, formerly Passavant Hospital. The Stephens era also saw the creation of a program for gifted children that achieved national recognition. Stephens left in 1986 to return to his native South Carolina.
- Edward J. Mitchell
Mitchell was MacMurray's vice-president of administration and dean of the college when he was selected to succeed President Stephens. He brought his business acumen to the task of putting the college's finances in order. After years of operating deficits that had put the college on the brink of failure, Mitchell raised funds and renegotiated loans with banks. Mitchell achieved a succession of balanced budgets, and a successful Sesquicentennial Campaign (celebrated in 1996) raised money for a modernization of Jane Hall and a rebuilding of endowment. He brought curriculum innovations, but he like his predecessors could not solve the longstanding enrollment problem, an issue that created friction with the Board and led to his resignation in early 1997.
- Lawrence D. Bryan
President Bryan came to MacMurray from Kalamazoo College. His ten-year stint was marked by several infrastructure improvements and curricular and administrative innovations. During his presidency, the college raised funds for the first new campus structure in a generation: the Putnam Center for the Arts and Springer Center for Music on the site of the razed Main and Harker Halls. New football and softball facilities were constructed. The curriculum was revamped to reflect fiscal realities and significant technologies were introduced. Bryan was active in the Jacksonville community and was president of the Jacksonville Main Street organization.
- Colleen Hester
Dr. Hester, the first woman president in MacMurray's history, came to Jacksonville from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where she was vice-president of strategic planning, institutional research, and evaluation. President Hester launched MacMurray's first online instruction and distance degree programs to meet a new demand, and she enhanced campus technology resources and utilization. She stabilized the financial condition of the college, achieving an aggregate net operating surplus over her seven years, reducing bank indebtedness almost entirely, and improving the institution's balance sheet by increasing cash and investment levels, and overseeing a doubling of endowment. The Highlander Points of Light initiative raised funds for numerous campus improvements. During her tenure the college experienced a major flooding of the south campus.
- Mark A. Tierno
President Tierno arrived at MacMurray from Cazenovia College in upstate New York where he had served as president for 15 years. The most notable event of the Tierno presidency was his 2017 "MacNation Tour" when he traveled 14,000 miles across 20 states in an RV decked out in MacMurray's blue and red colors to meet alumni and friends of the college. The tour garnered national news. Increasing budget deficits plagued his presidency and indebtedness steadily increased. The competitive environment became more difficult and the college was forced to "pay up" to acquire students, thus reducing net revenue.
- Beverly Rodgers
After President Tierno's departure in 2019, the college provost and vice-president of academic affairs, Dr. Beverly Rodgers, assumed the helm. By then the college's financial situation had become dire. Despite her herculean efforts, it became apparent to the Board that the situation could not be turned around. President Rodgers presided over the closing of the 174-year-old institution with extraordinary professionalism and dignity.
Chairs, Board of Trustees
- James E. MacMurray, 1921-1943
- Kathryn MacMurray, 1944-1960
- Thomas Lugg, 1960-1964
- Walter Wright, 1964-1971
- Ray Dickerson, 1971-1976
- Darrell Peterson, 1976-1980
- Harris Rowe, 1980-1992
- William Springer, 1992-1996
- Richard Ware, 1996-2000
- Howard Curtis, 2000-2003
- Allen Croessmann, 2003-2012
- Charles O'Connell, 2012-2020
- John Nicolay, 2020-