Mackey, the school's 16th president, served from 1979 to 1985. He died Thursday in south Florida, according to a cremation company.
He previously led the University of South Florida and Texas Tech University.
Michigan State says the school faced a nearly $30 million budget shortfall in the early 1980s, forcing Mackey to make such budget cuts as downsizing the nursing college.
Former governor and interim school president John Engler says Mackey "led MSU during some of its toughest budget years and his training as an economist was fully tested."
Mackey is survived by his wife, Clare; two daughters and a son; and five grandchildren.
No cause of death was announced. Memorial services will be held later.
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