In Memoriam: Kathy Wilbur

Former president remembered for dedication to higher education

| Author: Ari Harris | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

Kathleen M. Wilbur, thirteenth president of Central Michigan University, passed away Sunday, November 26. She was 70 years old.

“From the first moment meeting Kathy, her passion for CMU and for our students was evident. She was a tireless champion for the value of higher education, and she was an advocate for CMU even after her departure,” said CMU President Bob Davies. “She was instrumental in helping me find my footing in Michigan, creating pathways for me to engage with stakeholders on our campus, in Lansing and throughout the state. Her influence and impact on our university cannot be overstated – she made a tremendous difference in the CMU community.”

Kathy Wilbur attends a 2015 CMU commencement ceremony.Wilbur, known to most as Kathy, was a member of the CMU community for 16 years and left her fingerprints across the campus in many ways, said Toby Roth, associate vice president of government and external relations.

“So many of the programs and buildings that we take pride in today are part of Kathy’s legacy,” he said. “She was a tireless advocate for CMU, for our students, and for higher education. Kathy’s passion for helping students grow, network and advance through graduation into their chosen field has left a lasting legacy, both on today’s campus as well as upon generations of CMU alumni.”

Roth said many graduates fondly recall the way she was personally responsible for making an introduction on their behalf, or how she provided an opportunity for them to attend an event that was meaningful to their future career.

"Kathy understood the challenges students often faced while working toward a degree,” he said. “It was through her influence, personal donations and securing of funding for two vans that CMU was able to grow its Capital City Internship Program and help students throughout their internship journeys.”

Wilbur joined the Central Michigan University community in 2002 as vice president for government relations and public affairs. In that role, Wilbur advocated for many projects, including the design, development and construction of the Education and Human Services Building, often putting in late nights in Lansing to work with state leaders to secure support and funding for the project, Roth said.

In 2009, she accepted the position of university president on an interim basis. During her tenure as president, Wilbur was focused on putting students first, Roth said. 

“Kathy attended nearly every event. She wanted students to see her and know her, and to know that she was there to support them,” he said. “She could always be counted on to greet you with a smile on her face and an endearing sense of humor — she was an amazing person.”

As interim president, Wilbur also helped the university navigate through significant budget reductions, providing strong, compassionate leadership during a challenging time. In 2010, Wilbur returned to her prior role in government relations and public affairs. In 2011, she was appointed to serve as vice president for development and external affairs by then-CMU President George Ross. 

In the new role, Wilbur worked with teams across campus to secure support and funding for several important projects, including: 

  • Establishing CMU’s College of Medicine, including the construction of a new medical school building, in 2012. 
  • Construction of the Biosciences Building, which opened in 2017. 
  • Adding needed space to the Health Professions Building, which began construction in 2018 and opened in 2020.

Wilbur was the first woman to serve as president of CMU and was known for empowering other women in their careers in higher education.

“Kathy was supportive of women in leadership roles and helping them advance,” said Marcie Otteman, executive director of Alumni Relations and Constituent Engagement. “She made everyone she met feel like a long-lost friend. I can directly attribute my ability to connect people to one another from watching and learning from her.” 

Amy McGinnis, director of Student Experience in the College of Business Administration’s Student Engagement and Professional Development HUB and a faculty member in the Department of Management, said Wilbur was a role model and mentor for many.

“She supported me in so many ways — coffee meetings, informal conversations, celebrations of women at CMU — and always made time to speak to my Women in Management courses. She made a difference in the lives of so many at CMU and MSU.”

Wilbur was involved in numerous organizations dedicated to women’s causes, including the Women’s Caring Program and Zonta International. She was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 2007, and was a 2010 recipient of the Distinguished Woman in Higher Education Leadership Award, given each year by the Michigan American Council on Education Women’s Network.

Wilbur had an extraordinary career in state government and higher education.  Prior to her work at CMU, she served the state of Michigan in leadership roles with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, the Commerce Department and the Department of Consumer and Industry Services. She was involved with the state legislature, serving in communications and policy roles and as chief of staff to former Senator Bill Sederburg from 1983-1990. 

And, following her tenure at CMU, Wilbur served as Michigan State University’s senior vice president for government relations – a role she began in 2018. Wilbur held three degrees from Michigan State University and also served one term on MSU’s Board of Trustees. 

In October 2023, Wilbur announced her plans to retire in a letter that included this reflection on the power of higher education: “Educating and empowering our future generations fosters a relentless pursuit of knowledge. When you have the opportunity to work with students, you witness the transformational power a college education has and that is what motivated my long commitment to higher education.”

Wilbur was deeply committed to increasing access to higher education and was heavily involved in the mission of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Michigan Future Inc. As chair, Wilbur worked to improve Michigan’s economic future by preparing Michigan’s young people for successful careers, attracting and retaining talent, and transitioning to a knowledge-based economy. 

In a statement released on behalf of its staff and board of directorss, Michigan Future Inc. said of Wilbur: “Her decades of being an advocate for higher education and making Michigan a better place for all have been felt far and wide. While we are grieving the loss of Kathy, we will be forever grateful for the incomparable leadership she provided our organization to develop and fight for big change that would improve the well-being of all Michiganders.”

Wilbur is survived by her husband, Tom, and their children: son Tom, a 2010 CMU graduate, his wife, Leslie, and their daughter, Mary; and sons Will, Sam, and Ray. The family will hold a memorial service at 10 a.m. Saturday, December 16, at The Peoples Church in East Lansing

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