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Edie Murphree: Leading Emory finance with integrity, tenacity

As Edie Murphree prepares to retire after almost three decades at Emory, having spent 11 years as vice president for finance and the last 18 months helping smooth the transition for her successor, colleagues praise her wisdom, leadership and devotion to the University. Emory Photo/Video

When Edie Murphree first stepped into the role of assistant vice president of finance and controller at Emory nearly 30 years ago, she was entering a tumultuous world that was very much in transition.

Emory had just converted to a new, fully automated mainframe accounting system — called FAS — and the changeover did not come without growing pains.

A year into the transition, much of the University’s financial accounting system still wasn’t completely automated — some departments were recording entries by hand on green ledger paper. Reconciling monthly accounts could be a struggle.

To complicate matters, the controller’s office had seen nearly 100 percent turnover. Murphree would be starting out with an all-new staff, who would literally queue up outside her office door every day with nuts-and-bolts questions about working with the new system.

Fortunately, Murphree possessed both a working knowledge of FAS from her previous role as director of financial accounting and reporting at the University of Alabama and the appetite for a challenge.

She quickly pinpointed aspects of the system that weren’t fully realized, and with an IT specialist in tow spent months knocking on doors across campus, meeting with departmental administrators and staff to help ease concerns.

Looking back, Mike Mandl, executive vice president for business and administration and senior strategist for business initiatives, says that ability to roll up her sleeves, jump in the trenches and collaboratively solve problems are key qualities Murphree would demonstrate throughout her time at Emory.

As Murphree prepares to retire this month, having spent 11 years as vice president for finance and the last 18 months helping smooth the transition for her successor, Mandl leads a chorus of colleagues who commend the wisdom, energy and integrity she brought to the job, as well as her stabilizing leadership over the years.

“Edie has always exhibited a deep integrity, an unwavering commitment to Emory, and a sense of doing the right thing for the University,” explains Mandl. “When it comes to problem-solving, she’s tenacious about getting the right answer, relentless about producing high-quality work, and devoted to treating those she works around with great respect.

“I think the world of her,” he adds. “And I’m certainly grateful to have had her as a longstanding member of my leadership team.”

Appetite for learning

When Murphree arrived to lead the controller's office, Gary Teal was working in accounts payable and payroll, dealing firsthand with the challenges of integrating the University’s new accounting system.

“We really bonded personally and professionally,” recalls Teal, now chief administrative officer in the Woodruff Health Sciences Center. “She knew the system well and was the right person at the right time for Emory. It was a big change, and not everyone had faith in it. Edie was absolutely crucial to instilling confidence among administrators.

“She stepped into a situation that was daunting, to say the least,” he says. “But nothing scares her. I believe if confronted with a 400-pound bear, she would take it on. She gets things done.”

In the late 1980s, Teal and Murphree began working on their MBAs at the same time, taking night classes at Georgia State University and sharing encouragement. There, he saw anew her curiosity, dedication and appetite for learning.

“Her energy level and work ethic are just unbelievable,” he says. “She comes early, stays late, and never backs off from a challenge. She’s got that unique ability to work very hard and very smart.”

“I’m kind of in denial,” he adds. “I can’t imagine Emory without her.”

Passion for higher education

From her office in the 1599 building, Murphree reflects upon the arc of her Emory career — a path that always followed where the work led. It’s far beyond what she imagined, growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where her father taught statistics and computer science at the University of Alabama and nurtured her interest in numbers.

As a child, she always loved the logic of math. But her father discouraged her from majoring in mathematics, suggesting there was more to life than memorizing formulas.

At the University of Alabama, Murphree would instead major in accounting, a degree that took her to Houston, Texas, to work for a company on the cutting technological edge of preparing online financial statements.

Murphree enjoyed the mix of accounting and technology. Working with a $25,000 computer “the size of a tabletop,” she led efforts to handle the company’s payroll online — somewhat revolutionary in the mid-'70s.

After a few years, she returned to Tuscaloosa, married and began working for an accounting firm. It was a bad fit. Murphree hated the narrow focus of her work, yearning to grapple with a bigger picture. A brief stint with a savings-and-loan was enjoyable, but she soon grew tired of the daily routine work.

In time, Murphree applied for an opening at the University of Alabama, serving first as a senior accountant, then assistant director of financial accounting and reporting, and eventually as the director of financial accounting and reporting, responsible for the overall recording and maintenance of the University’s financial records.

Blending the worlds of finance and higher education, Murphree was hooked.

“The reason I loved it — and still to this day love it — is because of the variety and complexities of the nonprofit world and the number of businesses you get to work with in one place,” she explains.

“You’ve got research, endowments, student tuition and fees, and auxiliaries (such as housing), debt management, cash management, accounts payable and receivable — the whole university environment, which is fun.

“It’s not like being in a corporation where you have one business making or selling a product. You’re involved in six or seven different kinds of work,” she adds. “I’ve been here 29 years and I’m still learning.”

Smoothing the way for the future

Murphree’s retirement is part of a larger transition for Emory’s finance team, which also includes the retirement of Charlotte Johnson, former senior vice provost for administration at Emory, and the upcoming retirement of Ronnie Jowers, vice president for health affairs and chief financial officer for the Woodruff Health Sciences Center. Together, the three share over 90 years of experience at Emory.

In fact, Murphree and her colleagues were instrumental in crafting a transition plan for their successors, an aspect of which Mandl believes is enabling the successful transition of much knowledge, wisdom and experience in as smooth a way as possible.

“A key attribute of the plan was that Edie agreed to stay on and clean up some things that she was best positioned to handle, taking on a variety of roles,” he says. “She cares so much and was so willing and gracious about doing what was needed.”

It’s not often that a predecessor remains for 18 months to help smooth a transition, but for Carol Kissal, Emory’s new vice president of finance and chief financial officer, Murphree has been a tremendous resource.

“Edie was invaluable,” Kissal says. “She stuck to the plan, exhibited extraordinary insights to me, and completed a major grant management project that will serve Emory well going forward.”

When Kissal asked colleagues to share thoughts about Murphree’s contributions to Emory, the flood of praise that came back could have come straight from a leadership handbook.

A few highlights:

  • “A very gifted teacher who cares deeply that others also gain the knowledge to make good decisions and conduct the University business in the best way possible. She encourages and teaches those around her so that all have the critical and necessary information to grow in their positions…"
  • “Edie always put Emory’s needs above her own. She would always ask us ‘what is best for Emory’ when we were working through a decision. She had zero selfishness as a leader — it was never about her…”
  • “Edie was never too busy to listen. When you talked with her, you had 100 percent of her focus…”
  • “She has made her career all about improving Emory. Every endeavor she embarked on was not about recognition or accolades. It was about moving Emory forward in the world of higher education…”

Kissal sees her predecessor offering “a good example of the type of behavior executives should exhibit — welcoming, collaborative, curious and the ability to treat people with respect, no matter who they are.”

It’s a leadership goal that Kissal shares: “I look at myself as carrying the ball forward for her, continuing that tradition.”

“Edie left things in great order,” she adds. “I view it like a canvas. She’s painted a lot of fundamental things on the canvas, and I’m filling it in. That’s a really great position to be in.”

Looking back, Murphree believes three things kept her at Emory: the variety of the work, the quality and commitment of the people she’s worked with, and the essential importance of the work.

“Educating young people and doing research for the good of the world is so important,” she insists. “The people that are attracted to work in that environment tend to share that.

“In higher education, it’s not all about making money,” she says. “It’s really about the mission.”

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