Centenary president says he's departing with university on stronger footing

Centenary University's outgoing president feels like he's leaving the school in a stronger position than when he started.

When Bruce Murphy took over in January 2020, the liberal arts school in Hackettstown had endured almost a decade of enrollment declines. Months earlier, the university had taken the rare step of terminating tenured faculty, warning in one dismissal letter of “a multi-million dollar reduction in net tuition and total revenue."

Unbeknownst to Murphy, another crisis was looming in the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down campuses across the globe.

Now, as he prepares to retire at the end of June, Murphy says Centenary has weathered the storm. The school of 1,200 students has seen attendance tick higher in recent years, and it's added several new degree programs as it looks to attract more nontraditional enrollees.

Dr. Bruce Murphy gives his inaugural address during a virtual ceremony to install the 14th president of Centenary University in Hackettstown in February 2021.
Dr. Bruce Murphy gives his inaugural address during a virtual ceremony to install the 14th president of Centenary University in Hackettstown in February 2021.

"COVID was tough, there's no denying that," he said in an interview Monday. "But we came up with a strategic plan and we made it through. I think we've made progress and had some positive years of enrollment growth."

Murphy reflected on his three-year tenure on the day after the university announced his successor. Dale G. Caldwell, currently executive director of the Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University, will become the first African-American leader in Centenary's 156-year history on July 1.

New degrees in healthcare, happiness at Centenary University

Under Murphy, Centenary introduced a series of new academic degrees and concentrations, including certified financial planning, data analytics and computer science. Healthcare offerings have been a priority, with new programs in medical laboratory science, health science, public health, exercise science, and a bachelor of science in nursing degree.

Last year, the school added a novel master's degree program in happiness studies.

"We're the first and only school in the world with that and we have 97 students actively engaged," Murphy said. Another cohort begins in March with more than 55 students already signed up.

"That's the kind of thing I think we need to keep doing," he said. "It's all over the national news. Institutions have to look for alternative revenue streams other than the typical, traditional high-school graduates."

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To that end, the school has also formed a partnership with Sussex County Community College, which is arranging for dormitory housing on the Centenary campus for its football team. The partnership has led to mutual engagement between athletes and students at the two schools, the president said.

Centenary also is expanding partnerships with other area community colleges as well as the Community College of the Air Force program, which allows active-duty air and space personnel to take online courses through the university.

Murphy said he is leaving the school in good hands.

Caldwell, a former Centenary trustee, has "a manner about him that is very presidential," he said. "I think he's a great fit for the face of Centenary. He's a great communicator. He knows the board members, which is great for a president coming in. He knows some of the issues and some of the personalities, which is a great advantage for him.

"I think he is inheriting a good university, a strong university, one that I'm sure he will take to even greater heights."

'Grateful' for support after tragedy

Murphy's time in Hackettstown is coming to a bittersweet end. His wife, Jeanne, was killed in a hit-and-run pedestrian accident while walking her dog in Hackettstown on Jan. 5, four months after her husband announced his plans to retire.

The driver was drunk at the time of the crash and has been charged with aggravated manslaughter and vehicular homicide, Warren County prosecutors said. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Feb. 24.

The support from the community after losing his wife, a retired Army colonel, has been "phenomenal," Murphy said. The university held a memorial service for her on Jan. 22.

"There were about 400 people there and it was live-streamed," he said. "They really responded. Not just the university but neighbors. Jeanne was the one who walked the dog so there were a lot of people, neighbors she knew that I didn't. People will tell you things you didn't know − her college roommate, people she served with in the military. It's been so gratifying and in a way, overwhelming. But it does help somewhat to get through this."

Their plan was to move to a retirement home in Florida.

"I'll still be doing that," Murphy said, "but it will be totally different."

William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: wwesthoven@dailyrecord.com Twitter: @wwesthoven

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Centenary University president Bruce Murphy sees turnaround for school