Murphy dons NSU chief’s hat

Dr. Bruce Murphy, while touring the university he was picked to lead, while work-shopping with faculty and institutional leaders, while crowning the Homecoming queen, made himself and his future staffers a promise: No decisions.

That was three-plus months ago, when the University of Louisiana Board of Supervisors tapped him to replace Stephen Hulbert as Nicholls State University’s president.

Murphy sat behind the chief’s desk for the first time last week. Fact-finding will continue, but now marks the moment when hours of studious preparation will begin to crystalize into decisions. And there are many to be made.

Last fall’s first-time freshmen enrollment was down nearly 33 percent from 2004, the last year Nicholls was an open-admissions university.

In a vacuum, swapping pupils for standards is a trade-off many will find agreeable. It delivers an earnestness to the classroom, necessary in a TOPS-driven state, and professors won’t have to lag behind for the sake of a few. Now that tuition increases and institutional autonomies are linked to graduation rates, it may even be imperative.

After all, enrollees’ composite ACT scores rose by 2 points to 21.7 over that same period.

But students’ pay for their classes, and money is a pressing concern. The governor by way of the Legislature and onerous state Constitution protections on state dollars stripped Nicholls of $17.9 million  – 50 percent of its funding – over a four-year span marked by diminutions to state higher education.

However, it seems to Murphy that now is not the time to complain. Any gripe about state funding has been delivered by people with more than a day’s worth of experience, anyway, so who would listen?

So back he goes to enrollment. Fewer state and federal dollars mean universities are being shaped more like an enterprise than a public institution. Murphy has embraced this truth, hoping to “tap” into the military and international “market,” among others, while supporting the idea of enhancing Nicholls’ academic standards.

Murphy’s preliminary roadmap for Nicholls is defined by his hope. The school needs students and it has a few hallmarks – culinary, geomatics, petroleum and maritime studies – that if accented appropriately could spur enrollment, he says.

These unique programs could be paired with study abroad opportunities and a focus on general programs like the popular education and nursing curricula and, possibly, a master’s in English and a more robust criminal justice program than previously offered. Then it’s a matter of finding, recruiting and enrolling students.

It’s not a groundbreaking strategy, but tactics can always be refined.

Nicholls, with a dwindling budget, underpaid faculty and a wealth of unique industrial opportunities, is at a juncture. Leaders must consider what they want the university to become, and Murphy’s fresh eyes have aided this necessary navel-gazing.

Open-minded inquisition ruled the first three months. Now come the decisions.