2020 Women Who Mean Business honoree: Jenni Murphy

Article Jenni Murphy Sacramento Business JournalDec. 5, 2020
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The connection between growing up on a farm in Eaton, Ohio, and helping shepherd detoured former college students in Sacramento toward their diplomas isn’t an obvious one, but Jenni Murphy embodies it.

“I’m hardworking and persistent, and when I fail, I get back up and keep growing. That’s the grit of our students,” said Murphy, dean of California State University Sacramento’s College of Continuing Education. “That’s part of why this feels like home to me.”

As head of the CCE, Murphy has thrived in running a school that has to be self-sustaining. One of her biggest success stories was ProjectAttain!, a program targeting the approximately 4.5 million Californians between the ages of 25 and 64 who’ve taken college credits but haven’t gotten a degree.

The effort has included coordinating with deans of other colleges at Sacramento State to offer summer courses to help those just short of graduation requirements find the classes needed to get their degrees.

“When you’re trying to attract a new business here, the first thing they’re going to ask is, ‘What are your college attainment numbers?”‘ said Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen. “Jenni saw that was a problem, did the research, and found that more than 65,000 people [in the region] were within five classes of graduating.”

Nelsen, who has been at Sacramento State since 2015, credits Murphy with helping boost the percentage of Sacramento State students who graduate within four years to 22% from 8%, while more than tripling the number of students taking summer classes to more than 6,000.

“There should be no shame if the traditional [education] model didn’t work out. There shouldn’t be barriers to return, but there are,” said Murphy, who added that items as seemingly trivial as a missed physical education class or a fine on a library book can be roadblocks to diplomas. “Life doesn’t always happen in that straight way, especially for students of color or women.”

Murphy’s efforts reflect the culmination of work experience that took her from hospitality and tourism to higher education after she found herself out of a job because of the dot-com implosion in 2001. Since joining Sacramento State’s CCE that year as a senior program manager, Murphy worked her way up and was appointed to associate dean in 2014 and, after two stints as interim dean, a full appointment as dean in 2018. Meanwhile, Murphy earned her MBA from University of Phoenix’s Roseville campus in 2002, and her doctorate in educational leadership from Sacramento State in 2012.

“Once I started, I realized it was a career path and that adult learning was a field in and of itself, and I wanted to stay,” she said. “When I was doing my doctorate work, that’s when I learned about the data of how many people start college and don’t finish.”

Such work for the benefit of the community has also translated into the local nonprofit sector. In addition  to serving as board chair at the Girl Scouts Heart of Central California (Murphy is a former Girl Scout as well as a troop leader for her daughter), Murphy since 2015 has worked with Sacramento-based The Impact Foundry, a resource center for Northern California nonprofit organizations. In addition to serving as a bridge between nonprofit organizations and higher-education institutions, Murphy has also been instrumental in helping many people who’ve long worked in nonprofits get their long-delayed degrees, according to The Impact Foundry Executive Director Kim Tucker.

While Murphy and Nelsen both acknowledged the additional challenges women may face when attempting to either get a degree or rise through the academic ranks, Murphy said she’s grateful to work within a California State University system “where there’s a focus on race and gender equality,” and credits Nelsen for helping to sharpen that focus at Sacramento State.

Meanwhile, like the college she leads, Murphy, according to both Nelsen and Tucker, conveys a down-to-earth attitude that runs counter to the ivory tower reputation often associated with educational institutions.

“She’s always so upbeat and positive about everything,” said Nelsen . “A lot of people see road blocks. She’s looking at ways to get around whatever’s blocking the road.”

“On an individual level, I’ll appreciate anyone who’ll sit down and drink a bourbon with me,” added Tucker. “She’s about being a real person doing real work in real-time situations.”

Jenni Murphy

Title: Dean, College of Continuing Education, California State University Sacramento

Age: 51

Education: Doctorate in educational leadership, California State University Sacramento; MBA, University of Phoenix; B.A., communication, Arizona State University

Top lesson learned in 2020: “How to operationalize self-care and put on your oxygen mask first as a leader. It’s so very true that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.”

Biggest hope for 2021: “Societal and political commitment to addressing racism, structural inequities and climate change.”

Most memorable mistake you’ve made during your career: “There are so many mistakes, but the ones I remember the most are the ones where I didn’t get back up and try again. I’ve really learned that it’s more important to recover and learn from your mistakes than to never make them.”

One piece of advice you’d give your 21-year-old self: “Keep going in the direction you want to go, even when there’s not a map, because finding your own way doesn’t always mean you are lost.”

From the Sacramento Business Journal: https://www.bizjournals.com/sacramento/news/2020/12/05/women-who-mean-business-jenni-murphy.html