Embattled Brookdale Community College has a new president following the scandal-ridden 20-year administration of Peter F. Burnham, who pleaded guilty July 24 to theft by deception and two counts of official misconduct amid continued allegations of his improper personal spending habits.
He may be headed to prison for at least five years.
Dr. Maureen Murphy quietly — and without fanfare — arrived on the Brookdale campus last month. She was the former president of Jacinto College South in Houston. She’s Brookdale’s first female president and was recommended to the board of trustees for the college’s top job by an 11-member committee.
But don’t expect — at least for now — any major college shakeups under the new president. And that’s too bad. Brookdale needs a good cleansing from top to bottom. Pure ethics never has been a Brookdale strong-point.
Murphy seems determined not to make any waves and keep the school, with its 15,000 students, on an even keel. She knew the place was rocked by one weekly bombshell after another last year in the aftermath that forced Burnham to resign in disgrace.
It also raised anew serious questions about whether the lockstep political board of trustees was doing an effective fiscal oversight job or just sleepily rubber-stamping for payment Burnham’s excessive vouchers.
Regardless, one of Murphy’s main tasks now will be to climb through the well-known Brookdale culture climate maze of political cronyism, patronage and favoritism that led to the Burnham debacle.
And, while this is going on, the college will have to react to the call by county Board of Freeholders Director John P. Curley for the board of trustees’ members to resign, except for the two new members who were appointed recently.
Curley wants more “financial accountability” from the board. And he is right in making that demand. The freeholder board is divided on how to handle the controversial trustee issue. So Murphy already has, in front of her, a full plate of political hot potato decisions to be made.
“No college is perfect, and Brookdale has had its challenges,” Murphy said through a college spokeswoman. “Over the last 16 months, the college has put in place systems to ensure the integrity of all college processes. The college has hired an internal auditor who is engaged in a systematic review of college business units. If we encounter a problem, we will take immediate corrective action.”
Academically, Murphy said Brookdale “will continue to serve Monmouth County communities" through its excellent and affordable educational programs” adding:
“The college is now focused on the operationalization of the Jubilee Plan which identifies four strategic goals — inspire student success, maximize resources, strengthen and expand Broookdale’ s alliances and partnerships and leverage Brookdale’s excellence.”
Murphy cited as Brookdale’s biggest challenges the same ones that, she says, face many other community colleges — “decreased funding levels, aging buildings and infrastructure and the decline in the numbers of traditional-aged college students.”
She said she felt confident the focus at Brookdale on the so-called Jubilee Plan will address these challenges and guide us forward.”
That all sounds good and noble and, hopefully, it will come to pass.
But first, Murphy should make sure that Brookdale gets its ethical act together so Monmouth residents know the institution is a place of honesty and integrity. Burnham kept clear of the ethics issue. He would not even discuss it.
So the place for Murphy and the trustees to start cleaning up is by renaming Larrison Hall, an academic and administrative college landmark building. That has become a tarnished symbol of what’s wrong with Brookdale.
Larrison Hall was named for the late longtime Republican Board of Freeholders Director Harry Larrison, Jr. who was charged with accepting $8,500 in bribes from two local developers . It came after an ongoing investigation into political crime and corruption by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
College and university buildings should have an almost sacred aura about them. They are beacons of truth, honesty, morality and scholarly pursuit. They are the hallmarks of life in the academy. Larrison Hall doesn’t measure up.
A Larrison Hall bronze plaque, one of three placed in the building’s entrance ways at the time of the 1998 dedication declares that the then-freeholder director “epitomizes the commitment and dedication of public servants in this county…The Brookdale community is grateful for his vision.”
But there is another view. And it comes from then-U.S. Attorney and now Gov. Christopher J. Christie: “Harry Larrison was one of the most enduring political figures in Monmouth County and long held himself out to be a fine public servant. In fact, as alleged, he used his power, prestige and political clout to corruptly serve himself.” Larrison died before the case went to trial.
Being a force in renaming Larrison Hall may be another one of Murphy’s major challenges.
For the good of Brookdale today and in the future — it is the right thing to do. And let’s hope Murphy has the courage to do it.
Arthur Z. Kamin of Fair Haven is an independent journalist. He has been an adjunct Brookdale journalism and English instructor.