College of Southern Maryland President Dr. Maureen Murphy reflects on the American experience during a global pandemic and the important role community colleges have always played in closing social equity gaps.
Dr. Murphy, you earned a Ph.D. in American Studies. Why?
I am fascinated with the ever-changing American experience. [This country was] founded using a pseudo-Greek framework and many wonderful enlightenment ideas appropriated from the existing Native American cultures. It is a grand experiment that we keep trying, trying, trying, to see if it works. Until fairly recently, I was optimistic about our great American experiment. I’m not sure what I think today. But I am optimistic that human beings will figure things out.
What is the mission of CSM?
I believe that community colleges are social justice through education. That’s what CSM is. We were initially founded in 1968 to give access to higher education to people who did not have it, to meet people where they are and take them where they need to be. We serve the underserved. Our student populations tend to have a higher degree of diversity and lower socioeconomic status than those in traditional four-year institutions. So, to that end, I think that we have a very, very powerful mission. Right now, I can’t think of anything more powerful.
The College of Southern Maryland has been recognized twice as one of the Aspen Institute’s top 150 colleges in the United States (the Aspen Institute is an international nonprofit, nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas). They develop their rankings using outcomes of nationally recorded data in four ways: in learning, transfer, alignment to the labor market, and equity. And I’m most proud of the work that we have done in the equity arena.
You founded the Minority Male Conference during your presidential tenure at Brookdale Community College. Tell us more about that and equivalent work you’re doing at CSM.
When you see a need that is screaming to be met, you just do it. Our outcomes with minority male students were terrible. Absolutely terrible. So, we needed to do something, and that conference satisfied the need. It also spurred a lot of other activity, and it’s still doing very, very well.
At CSM, we have a mentoring program called Men of Excellence. It’s very labor-intensive, very comprehensive, and has had extraordinary success. I’m very proud of that. And we’ve recently had a request from our female minority students who said, ‘What do you have for us?’ We are working on it and going to launch a new program in the fall because we need to. It’s important. When you look at it just from the perspective of student learning outcomes, minority women tend to do pretty well. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t need support.
What’s another way that CSM responds to the changing needs of a diverse student population?
We realigned a couple of years ago, and one of the things we did was rename our student services division to Student Equity and Success. Words matter. That group hosts weekly Talon Talks sessions to address student interest topics and features guests from various departments. At a recent Zoom Talon Talk, we discussed how racial injustice affects us all. It was open to students and employees, and we had over two hundred people attend. It was pretty powerful. It showed we need to continue these conversations. It’s really, really important. We have a lot of work to do, and we’re there to do it. We absolutely need to be there.
What does it mean for you to be a good leader?
I started as a faculty member. I thought I was going to retire teaching English. I absolutely loved it! I picked up a class as an adjunct and fell in love with the mission and the students. I’d been teaching for about 10 years, and I was offered an interim appointment as a dean. I took it out of curiosity and felt that I was pretty good at administration, bringing lots of different pieces together to advance that mission. So that’s really what my interest is: it’s about the work.
We’re all engaged in the work in different ways, and we touch it in different ways. Honestly, I think we can unequivocally say that the most important work happens between the professors and the learners. That is the most critical work; that’s where it all happens. But for that to happen, and for it to happen in a meaningful and successful manner, a whole lot of systems need to be managed. I’m good at pulling those things together behind the scenes to allow the people who need to do that work the freedom to do it unencumbered. I also found that I’m an excellent financial manager. I’m good at dealing with shrinking budgets and prioritizing the mission.
Particularly at public institutions, you have to know your funders well. I get to know the Southern Maryland Delegation and have relationships with all of them. Blessedly, they’re terrific people. Our delegates and senators are supporters of the College, and we’re grateful for that. But I have to be responsive, and I’ve got three sets of commissioners to engage and help them to understand how we’re benefiting each county.
Students who attend community college have a distinct sense of urgency. Can you speak to that?
First of all, our students are there to make their lives better, period – end of story. We have very few students who are there for any other reason. There is an economic impact that they’re expecting to have at the end of this education. All of our students work. Sixty-five percent of them are part-time from necessity. Keeping them engaged and making sure that they are moving through their programs in a way that helps them achieve what they want to achieve is essential. To that end, we have to be focused precisely on our career paths and our curriculum paths to make sure that they align. Eighty percent of our graduates stay in Southern Maryland. Our graduates stay here, they live here, they work here. As we’ve been going through this pandemic, all of the first responders come through us.
Besides the mission, what else inspires you?
Something I am really missing now in quarantine is interacting with students. They inspire me. I am always astounded when I get to know them and learn about their lives, their complexities, and how they find a way to achieve their goals with grace. Can you imagine being in your last semester, before graduation, and then COVID-19 hits? It takes resilience to a whole new level. We’ve got students whose hours have been cut at work or who have lost their job altogether, or whose kids were in school but now they’re not. Those folks are amazing. So incredibly amazing. It’s humbling.
Do you have a message for the Southern Maryland community?
This world needs every single person. We need every person to grow and develop and to participate meaningfully in our culture right now. We need everybody. And that’s why I’m glad CSM is here. For many of our students, we are the option. They’re bound by geography. They’re bound by circumstances, and we’re here for them. If we want to move forward in this country, we need every single person.
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