A tribute to Maurice Cecil Mackey, Jr.: 1929-2018

In 1979, Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees sought a strong-willed president to lead the university through a difficult economic period. The board found that leader in Maurice Cecil Mackey, Jr. (“Cecil”), an economist and attorney who previously had served as a federal official and president of two other major universities.

The Alabama native served as MSU’s 16th president from 1979 to 1985—a time of financial crisis for the state and the university.

Mackey, 89, died on Feb. 8, 2018.

“Cecil Mackey led MSU during some of its toughest budget years and his training as an economist was fully tested,” Interim MSU President John Engler said. “But he conducted himself with a grace and civility that always left those he encountered amazed at his inner strength. His presence on campus in the classrooms and courtside will be missed. To Clare and the Mackey family, I offer my sincere condolences upon the passing of a true Spartan.”

With MSU facing a nearly $30 million budget shortfall in the early 1980s, Mackey had to make unpopular budget cuts across campus, including downsizing the College of Nursing. Mackey initially proposed eliminating the college, but it was saved by an organized political effort that garnered national headlines.

“I was assistant to the president in Cecil Mackey’s early tenure. He came with a lot of experience and was extremely thoughtful and analytic,” recalled former MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “During some of the more difficult economic times for the state and the university, he demonstrated great personal courage in his approach to those sometimes-contentious challenges.”

But Mackey also oversaw a time of growth during his six years as president at MSU. He started a program for establishing endowed chairs, increased private financial support to the university, and opened the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, and other academic and athletic facilities.

“MSU has the Breslin Center and tennis building because of him. MSU acquired its first endowed faculty chairs because of him,” former Trustee Carole Lick said. “MSU’s fundraising increased considerably because of him. And so much more. Because of his quiet demeanor, he was not always recognized for all he accomplished.”

Colleagues described Mackey as a soft-spoken Southern gentleman and a man of principle. An avid runner and tennis player, he and his wife, Clare, remained in East Lansing following his presidency and Mackey continued teaching economics courses at MSU.

“Cecil was very easy to talk to,” Simon said. “There was almost no issue you couldn’t have a good conversation with him about.”

Mackey was known for his love and respect for higher education.

“I think that anybody associated with a university realizes how fortunate you are to be a part of a university in the United States,” Mackey once said. “The freedom and the opportunity that exists in our universities are unparalleled. It’s a privilege.”

Mackey wasn’t afraid to take on controversial issues. This included clashing with the MSU Alumni Association. Prior to his presidency, the association obtained permission from the Board of Trustees to incorporate as a separate organization. Mackey fought the move and the association retained its affiliation with the university.

After Mackey’s resignation was announced in 1984, the board expressed its regret. “Cecil Mackey has consistently demonstrated the strength of academic and administrative leadership sought by the Board of Trustees at the time of his selection in 1979,” the board said in its statement.

“The fiscal stress of the state and nation has tested the patience and commitment of every person associated with this university,” the statement continued. “The difficult decisions required of the president and the Board of Trustees have not always been popular. They have, however, been necessary and have allowed us to sustain the academic excellence for which MSU is internationally known.”

Mackey was born Jan. 23, 1929, in Montgomery, Alabama. His father, Cecil Sr., was a musician and leader of a popular big band. Mackey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Alabama, and a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, where he focused on economic theory, the history of economic thought and the relationship of government to business and finance.

In 1953, Mackey married Clare Siewert, a Detroit native who grew up in Chicago and earned her master’s in music education from the University of Illinois.

Mackey's military service included the Alabama National Guard; the U.S. Army; the U.S. Navy—receiving the “Outstanding Cadet” honor as the top airman in his Naval Air Flight class; and the U. S. Air Force. While on active duty with the U.S. Air Force in 1956, he developed the economics department and was associate professor at the United States Air Force Academy. That year, his first child, Carol, was born.

He received his law degree from the University of Alabama, while concurrently teaching as assistant professor of law from 1957-1958. He was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1958. Mackey studied post-graduate law at Harvard University until 1959, when he returned to the University of Alabama to be an assistant law professor from 1959 to 1962.

In 1962 Mackey became assistant counsel for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly. A year later he was hired as director of the Office of Policy Development for the Federal Aviation Agency, in charge of long-range planning and economic research. He became the director of the Office of Transportation Policy for the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1965 and developed programs and policies for transportation systems.

In 1966, the Mackeys’ second child, John, was born, and in 1967, Mackey helped establish the U.S. Department of Transportation and was named its first assistant secretary for policy development. He planned policies and programs and worked on regulation. In 1968, their third child, Ann, was born.

After leaving federal government service, Cecil pursued a career in university administration. In 1969, after a short stint as visiting professor at the University of Maryland, he was selected as executive vice president and professor of law at Florida State University. From there, Mackey moved on to the University of South Florida, where he served as president from 1971 to 1976.

His next stop was Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, where he became president in 1976, serving in that role until 1979. He also was a professor of law.

On Aug. 3, 1979 Mackey was inaugurated as president of MSU. He served until June 30, 1985. He also was a professor of economics, a position he continued to hold after his presidency.

During his MSU tenure, Mackey showed his commitment to diversity. He selected MSU’s first female vice president, Connie Stewart for University Relations, and first black vice president, Moses Turner for Student Affairs and Services. He also appointed minorities and women to many other positions of leadership and oversaw an increase in minority students to a then-record high of 8.5 percent in 1983.

Simon also noted that Mackey “was a region-changer in the Middle East, as he worked in the United Arab Emirates to open higher education to women.”

Mackey served on numerous boards and community organizations during his career, including stints as president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and as a member of the Michigan Governor’s Commission on Jobs and Economic Development.