By Rick Malwitz
LINCROFT – When Maureen Murphy went to college right after high school, it would not be a lasting experience. “I didn’t want it,‘’ she said, about her decision to drop out of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.
Following her marriage and the birth of her first child she had an awakening. “I realized I could do a whole lot better if I went to college. My husband said to me, ‘Go back to school.’”
So at the age of 28, she enrolled at the University of Louisville, an experience that would start her on a career path as a community college administrator.
Last month Murphy became the ninth president of Brookdale Community College where nearly half the students are taking what educators call a non-traditional path – as she once did. “I know what it is like to be an older student.
“Going back to college was for me a wonderful experience,” she said in an interview in her office. “Once I caught on, I was a good student.”
About 45 percent of the students here did not enter college right after high school, which is typical of two-year community colleges. “These are students who go to school only when they are ready for it,” she said.
Murphy eventually earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Louisville and a master’s degree in English from the University of Missouri.
Then, while teaching at a community college in St. Louis, she entered a doctoral program in American Studies at St. Louis, not to enhance her resume, but rather for the sake of learning. “I did that mostly for me,” she said.
Prior to being named the president of Brookdale, Murphy served for five years as president of San Jacinto College South in Houston. Coming to New Jersey was a homecoming of sorts. “I love the fact that Monmouth County is treating me as one of their own.”
Her father, a career navy officer, was a native of Atlantic Highlands, with relatives sprinkled throughout Monmouth County. Murphy, who was born at the Great Lakes Naval Station, north of Chicago, and raised in Wisconsin, spent annual summer vacations in New Jersey. As a teenager she experienced a true rite of passage for a Jersey girl. “I was 14 when I went to my first Bruce Springsteen concert in Asbury Park. We took the bus,” she recalled.
Murphy was teaching at St. Louis Community College when a temporary opening for a position of dean became available. “I never intended to leave teaching, and I wasn’t even sure what a dean did. I was actually the third choice for the job,” she recalled.
She discovered she liked working as an administrator. After leaving St. Louis she had administrative jobs at two community colleges in Virginia before accepting the post as president of the two-year school in Houston.
Josh Elkes, chairman of Brookdale’s Board of Trustees, said of the selection of Murphy: “The trustees unanimously believe her experience and qualifications are suited to the administrative, academic and funding challenges that Brookdale will face as we write the next chapter of our history. I’m confident she will build on our successes here at Brookdale and lead us to successfully implement our vision for the future.”
The schools in Houston and Brookdale both have about 15,000 students, including students on a two-year track out of high school, part-time students who are obtaining credits while working, and adults seeking new skills for a changing workplace.
Murphy was the choice of an 11-member committee made up of trustees, faculty, administrators, a student and a community member. She was selected from a list that had been narrowed to 93 candidates.
For her husband, Joe McArdle, the move to New Jersey was a welcome change. Location is not important for his job, she explained. “All he needs is a laptop and an airport. What he was looking forward to here (in New Jersey) are the four seasons. No one lives in Houston for the weather.”
Bridging Troubled Waters
The appointment of Murphy, announced in February, also helped the college move beyond its recent troubled past.
Peter F. Burnham, who served as college president for nearly 20 years, resigned last year after an audit discovered financial wrongdoing. On July 24, he pleaded guilty in a Monmouth County courtroom to two counts of official misconduct and one count of theft by deception. He will be sentenced next month.
He admitted to using $44,000 in college funds for personal use and fraudulently getting federal financial aid for his son’s tuition at Monmouth University while receiving reimbursement from Brookdale as part of a compensation package.
Murphy, who said her knowledge of the controversy does not go far beyond what has been reported in area newspapers, said, “I don’t dispute the need for accountability.”
Murphy will earn $194,000 annually. She does not have many of the perks that had been added to Burnham’s contract. Burnham had a base salary of $216,000.
According to Murphy’s knowledge, “Nobody questioned the quality of the education,” during the investigation into Burnham’s misdeeds.
Following Burnham’s departure, William Toms served as interim president. Murphy lauded Toms for his role in the launch of Jubilee 2013-2017, a series of events and projects that will mark the 50th anniversary of the school.
Having served at community colleges in three states before arriving here, Murphy is aware that Brookdale has financial challenges that are common across the country. She noted how state funds and tax revenues are declining in a weak economy.
She is also aware how community colleges play an important role in the affordability of college.
Fall semester tuition and fees for Monmouth County residents will be $2,148, a 2.5 percent decrease from tuition and fees in the fall of 2011. Tuition and fees are double for out-of-county residents, unless their county college does not have a program a student wishes to pursue there.
Tuition and fees at Rutgers University are more than three times greater, at about $6,500 per semester.
When Murphy visited the campus here initially last year, she was puzzled, at first, by the layout. College campuses typically have a central quad. Not so at Brookdale.
It was explained to Murphy that the campus was originally constructed on a former horse farm owned by Harry Payne Whitney. Some of its barns were converted for college use when the college was established in 1967.
The administration building, which houses her office, resembles a restored barn, and in her office is a drawing of Regret, a horse born on what once was the Brookdale Farm. In 1915 Regret became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby.