Photography by John Ternan
David McMurray received the nickname he is so well known by even before he worked a single day at Laurier.
It was 1997 and McMurray had just been hired as assistant vice president of student services and dean of students. He was invited to a reception at Lucinda House, where he met some of his future colleagues. McMurray wanted to meet some students, too, so that night he took students from the hiring committee and incoming students’ union leaders for dinner at Wilf’s.
Because retiring dean of students Fred Nichols was affectionately known to students as “Deano,” the students felt McMurray should have a nickname, too, and asked if he had one.
“Well, my friends call me Mac,” McMurray said at the time. He left it at that.
After dinner, McMurray went back to residence, where he was spending the night. To his surprise, he was woken at 1:30 a.m. by the sound of students chanting “Daddy Mac! Daddy Mac! Daddy Mac!” outside of his window.
“I thought it was really special of them and I was really quite honoured by it,” McMurray recalls. “But I was sure it wouldn’t last beyond that first summer.”
Twenty-three years later, the nickname has stuck. McMurray has a burger named after him on Wilf’s menu, “the Daddy Mac Burger,” his licence plate sports the nickname and it seems like wherever he goes, whether on campus or afar, students and alumni still shout out, “Daddy Mac!”
– Adam Lawrence, dean of students at Laurier’s Brantford campus
McMurray has a way of making big impressions. When he announced his upcoming June retirement from the position of vice-president, student affairs at Laurier, he was flooded with cards and emails from well-wishers, some of whom he hadn’t seen in decades.
“I don’t know many people who can be so positive and welcoming with so many different groups of people,” says Adam Lawrence, dean of students at Laurier’s Brantford campus. “When David is with students, he’s an incredible support and advocate. He’s welcoming, inclusive and dynamic and he brings out the best in them. And he’s the same with staff, faculty and community members. He’s a great advocate for the overall experience at Laurier.”
That charm and a genuine passion for improving the lives of students helped McMurray make the jump from his position as a head resident overseeing a single residence building at the University of Windsor, where he studied kinesiology as an undergraduate student, to becoming Windsor’s director of residence at age 23.
He managed to thrive in the position and complete his master’s degree, all while still living in residence. By the end of his tenure at Windsor, McMurray was director of student and university services, involved with several provincial and national student services organizations and helped found the Canadian Institute on Student Affairs and Services.
One of McMurray’s first tasks at Laurier in September 1997 was to prepare an Orientation Week speech for incoming students. He recalls telling students: “We’re glad you’re here. Be safe. Make good decisions. Take care of yourself.” It all seemed boring to McMurray. He wanted to make sure next year’s speech was special.
“There was this popular song at the time, Raise the Roof, and I thought it was perfect because I wanted to lead them through their learning journey in times when they needed to lower the floor, widen the walls, or raise the roof,” McMurray recalls. “The first time the Orientation Week icebreakers heard it they loved it and the new first-year students were so pumped up they almost cheered the roof off of the Athletic Centre. It became an annual tradition for many years.
“And I said to all of our new students, ‘When I see you on campus, let me know where you’re at.”
Soon after, whenever students saw McMurray on campus, they’d signal they were “raising the roof” by lifting their arms above their heads.
Being engaged in student-success related programs and activities, McMurray was well aware that the student experience can present challenges. So he also wanted to hear from students when things weren’t going so well – and especially if they were experiencing a crisis. He kept four leather chairs in a circle in his office for those kinds of conversations and his door was always open.
“Everything stopped when a student arrived,” says McMurray. “It didn't matter what your schedule was that day. If a student came in, you put everything aside to focus on that student.”
Soon, McMurray’s office developed a reputation as a place where students could come for support and advice. Even if McMurray couldn’t solve a problem himself, he could provide help and make connections. And as Laurier has grown over the years, McMurray has made it his mission to ensure the university continues to be a close-knit community where students can always access one-on-one support.
– David McMurray
– David McMurray
When McMurray first arrived at Laurier, services for students were minimal: Two employees supported accessible learning initiatives; health and counselling were small independent services, career services were limited in scope; athletics facilities were in serious need of upgrades; and a small office provided support for international students, who made up less than one per cent of the student population.
When he first reached out to Laurier’s LGBTQ community, McMurray learned that some LGBTQ students were afraid to be visible meeting on campus.
“I remember hearing the students say that they were meeting in ‘secret’ places. I’ll never forget that word ‘secret,’” says McMurray. “I thought, ‘There must be some way to fix this.’”
McMurray was able to secure space in Macdonald House and opened the Office for Student Diversity, today known as the Centre for Student Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
In 2010, McMurray was promoted to vice-president: student affairs, which gave him an even greater influence in student affairs and services, as well as a voice at the president’s cabinet on university matters. Over the years, he has helped develop and expand nearly every aspect of the student experience at Laurier including teaching and learning, accessible learning, student health and wellness, athletics and recreation, residential services, food services, experiential education and career development, Indigenous student support, international student services, and equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“Laurier’s identity is about educating the whole student,” says McMurray. “You can get a fantastic degree at universities across the country, but Laurier has a very distinctive and earned reputation for learning both in and beyond the classroom that focuses on the whole person. That strength defines our student experience. And we don’t just say that – students tell us that. It’s why they come here.”
Developing and maintaining strong connections with the undergraduate Students’ Union and Graduate Students’ Association has played a big role in McMurray’s success. He recognized early that student leaders and administrators could work together toward the common goal of improving student experience.
“David has been instrumental in creating a collaborative, connected and integrated approach to student services that is unique,” says Kathy Bazinet, current president of Laurier’s Graduate Students’ Association. “He always made time to talk and, although there was seldom disagreement, there was a mutual respect.”
For many years, McMurray organized trips to other universities to introduce student leaders to new ideas, consider alternative ways of doing things and share Laurier success stories.
“David has become one of my closest colleagues,” says 2019-2020 Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union president Zemar Hakim. “Our relationship speaks volumes about how the revered student experience at Laurier is a result of students having a voice. David is accessible and empowers student leaders to find solutions to problems they identify. He understands that students understand students best."
– Zemar Hakim, undergraduate students’ union president, 2019-2020
Beyond Laurier, McMurray has provided support and consultation to universities and colleges across Canada, reviewing the student experience at 38 institutions. He is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal for excellence in higher education, administration and student services, as well as the award of honour, recognition and service from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.
“It has been a highlight of my career personally and professionally to have worked so closely with David McMurray,” says Laurier President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy. “I have learned so much from him and his reputation as one of North America’s most outstanding leaders in student affairs is well deserved. Laurier’s exceptional student experience is due in no small part to David’s vision for and commitment to our university and our students.”
There’s a fruit basket in McMurray’s office that earlier in his career was filled with cards from grateful students he had helped. As the years passed, the basket could no longer hold the number of cards McMurray received. Today, hundreds of cards fill bookcases and cabinets around his office, along with framed photos, posters and other items from throughout his career.
– Jan Basso, assistant vice-president of experiential learning and career development
“It’s going to be hard packing this place up,” McMurray says. “I’m going to be so busy right up until the end, but I do want to have some private time to pack, re-read and reflect on all of these cards.”
It’s not just students who are grateful for McMurray’s years of service. Colleagues, some of whom have worked with him for decades, credit McMurray for inspiring them, serving as a mentor and creating an environment where co-workers feel like family.
“To learn from him, to be inspired by him and to share in the unique culture of student support, growth and development that he has championed and nurtured has been a career highlight,” says Jan Basso, assistant vice-president of experiential learning and career development. “He has been a role model, mentor and friend to those of us in student affairs and we have all shared in the spotlight he has created for Laurier.”
Even after retirement, McMurray plans to continue to offer consultation to universities and colleges interested in improving student experience. He will also remain involved in related professional associations.
McMurray is, however, looking forward to spending more time with his family, including his four grandchildren; travelling with his wife, Associate Professor Josephine McMurray; going for long-distance bicycle rides; playing his drums; and spending as much time as possible with his “best friend,” Ben, a champion Clydesdale he keeps at a stable in Maryhill, not far from Laurier.
Even though he’s retiring, McMurray has made sure his commitment to Laurier lives on. He has taken out a life insurance policy and named Laurier as the owner and beneficiary. His donations will go toward endowed scholarships and support for students: one for students who have contributed to residence life and demonstrated outstanding leadership and another to enhance mental health and wellness for all students.
“It has been a great privilege to serve Laurier and its outstanding community of students, staff, faculty and alumni,” McMurray says. "There is no doubt the university will continue to create Canada's best student experience, both inside and beyond the classroom. That’s a very big part of what makes Laurier so special and I am honoured to have made a contribution.”