Administrators from NC State’s Department of Academic and Student Affairs (DASA) announced Monday, Sept. 30, that Jessica Murphy, the director of Student Involvement (SI) since 2018, has left the university. Prior to her departure, multiple student leaders in Student Government (SG) and the University Activities Board (UAB) raised concerns about her actions in SI and all associated organizations over the course of a year and a half.
Several student leaders, including both the current and previous student body presidents (SBP), described an unhealthy work environment created by Murphy’s lack of communication, lack of respect for student autonomy and lack of trustworthiness.
Conflict and distrust during restructure
2018-19 SBP Jess Errico began voicing concerns about Murphy’s actions early in her term, saying she was particularly troubled by a student body officer (SBO) leadership retreat in the summer of 2018. She said the retreat cost $6,000 for seven students to attend and that Murphy did not consult student leaders before proceeding with the expenditure.
Before Murphy was hired, SI was organized into two areas: Governance and Operations, led by former adviser Laura Stott, and Programming and Organization Development, led by Jermisha Dodson. Stott advised SG, and Dodson advised UAB. Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief of Staff of DASA Justine Hollingshead, who was the interim director of SI before Murphy’s hiring, served as the adviser for the student body president, student body vice president (SBVP) and student body treasurer.
Murphy was hired into the position of director while SI was being restructured. Within a year of her arrival, the department turned over virtually its entire staff. After Murphy was hired, Hollingshead continued to oversee SI until an organizational change occurred in January 2019 where Barry Olson, associate vice chancellor for DASA, assumed leadership.
Meredith Spence-Beaulieu, former SBVP, described the relationship between officers and SI staff as “tough” during this reorganization period in an interview in February 2019. At times, Spence-Beaulieu said, the administration's advice ran contrary to state and university spending guidelines, and poor communication led to distrust on both sides.
Errico said the staff turnover at SI also brought chaos to the student organization registration process, and during the fall 2018 semester, many organizations lost registered status — and in some cases, funding — as a result.
Former Student Senate President Adam Schmidt, a fourth-year studying civil engineering and current president of the Association of Student Governments, said during an interview in June 2019 that while his direct interactions with Murphy were limited, on more than one occasion, he said SI challenged SG’s autonomy.
After the 2018 summer retreat, for example, Schmidt said Murphy told him that going forward, SBOs were required to copy the SI staff on all emails sent to administrators. In an impromptu meeting with Murphy, Schmidt said he would not comply with the policy because he believed it encroached on student autonomy. Schmidt said Murphy then implied that disregarding her instructions could constitute a referral to Student Conduct.
“She didn’t threaten me with ‘If you don’t CC me on your emails I am going to refer you to Student Conduct,’ but the juxtaposition with the conversation I had with her and her explaining that did feel very intimidating,” Schmidt said.
Afterward, Schmidt said he spoke with Errico, who also disagreed with the policy. In subsequent meetings with DASA administrators, including former Vice Chancellor of DASA Mike Mullen, Schmidt said he confirmed that refusing to comply with this email policy would not be grounds for a referral to Student Conduct.
Errico said she found working with Murphy to be unhealthy and “divisive.”
“The relationship with Dr. Murphy has been extremely tough and very emotionally consuming,” Errico said when she was still in office in February. “I definitely think there is an opportunity for that role to have served to unite students, to unite students and Student Government and its leadership, and I think it served to do the opposite.”
Interference with students and lack of communication
Isabella Lee and Madison Teeter, former co-directors of the SG Traditions Department, discussed their experiences working closely with SI leadership during an interview in February 2019. Both Teeter and Lee were student leaders at NC State starting in 2016 and 2015, respectively, and felt there was a significant change in SI after Murphy’s hire.
After Murphy arrived at NC State, Teeter said there was talk of transitioning long-established Traditions initiatives for the 2018-19 school year to SI. Despite being co-chairs of the department, Teeter said neither she nor Lee were consulted or even kept in the loop.
“That was our first red flag for Student Involvement as directors,” Teeter said. “There was this really big [decision] that was made, and it wasn’t even asked to the people that had been part of the department for probably the longest.”
Teeter said she and Lee set up a meeting with other student leaders and administrators the following week to discuss the matter. However, both Lee and Teeter said they learned that Kristen Kegerize, former coordinator at SI, was advised by Murphy to avoid this meeting.
“[Kegerize] had told us that herself and other full-time staff, in this instance, Laura Stott, were asked not to attend the meeting by Dr. Murphy,” Teeter said. “It wasn’t that Kristen or Laura and Dr. Murphy weren’t available; it was that Dr. Murphy specifically told them not to go to the meeting.”
Kegerize and Stott could not be reached for comment.
Later in April 2018, Murphy requested that Teeter and Lee set up a meeting with her; however, when they tried to schedule it, they found that Murphy’s calendar was entirely blocked off for two weeks, and the meeting never happened. Teeter and Lee sent Murphy an email expressing their concerns.
Lee was a part-time student staff member at SI during this time, and was scheduled for a performance review at the end of the 2018 spring semester. Lee said that during the review, Dominique Boyd, office manager at SI, told her that while she was successful in her role, she would not be rehired because of the email, as per a request from Murphy.
Boyd could not be reached for comment.
“While [Boyd] told me that my performance in Student Involvement was excellent and that I was really helpful as a Student Involvement staff member, that I was not to be hired as a direct request by Dr. Murphy because of the email that we sent,” Lee said.
Lee said she spoke to Mike Giancola, director of student ombuds, in May 2018 about the issues she and the Traditions Department had faced with Murphy and were suggested alternatives in dealing with her. Additionally, Lee emailed Mullen in January 2019 about concerns with Murphy, but was assured it was taken care of.
Giancola was unable to comment on meetings that occurred with students due to the nature of his position.
Mullen could not be reached for comment.
Departure from established leadership style
Like Errico and Spence-Beaulieu, 2018-19 UAB President Raven Blount stepped into her new position within the first few months of Murphy’s role as director.
Blount was a member of Murphy’s hiring committee. During an interview in March 2019, she said when Murphy was hired, she seemed student-focused, but that soon changed.
“UAB is student-run, so we're used to having advisers that kind of guide us and help us get to our conclusions, rather than supervise us or tell us what to do,” Blount said. “Jessica [Murphy]… she's definitely like a, ‘You're going to do this, you're going to do this, you're going to do this.’”
The situation became so difficult that Blount brought it up to Chancellor Randy Woodson and Mullen at a late 2018 Chancellor’s Liaison Meeting focused on wellness, saying her UAB experience had negatively affected her mental health. However, she said, nothing seemed to come of it.
After the Chancellor’s Liaison Meeting, Blount sent a follow-up email to Woodson and Mullen, stressing that both students and staff in SI had expressed multiple concerns with Murphy’s leadership and needed help. Mullen replied to Blount’s email, copying Woodson, and said he was aware of these issues and she could talk to him any time.
Blount said Woodson and Mullen never reached out to her again.
In response to the claims, Associate Vice Chancellor of University Communications Brad Bohlander, commenting on behalf of the chancellor, said Woodson was never directly asked to respond to the email, but in meetings with Mullen, he did follow up about the subject.
“It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that if people are telling you that something is happening, whether it be students or staff — the fact that administration has continuously brushed it off, it's mind-blowing,” Blount said. “For me personally … I don’t feel like administration or anybody is taking anything seriously, and that’s really scary to me, because they’re in charge of everything that’s functioning.”
After Murphy left the university, Zach Hover, the current UAB president, discussed his concerns about the workplace environment she created.
“She didn’t create the most positive environment that an office surrounding students, or like an office that is there [to] support students, would necessarily need to have,” Hover said.
“More critical than constructive”
Current SBP Emma Carter, a fourth-year in sociology and international studies, said when she served as an Association of Student Governments delegate during her sophomore year, she had an overall good experience with Murphy. However, once she stepped into the role of SBP, this changed.
“I think she tried to build the relationship over the summer, but I had some hesitancy with her trying to come down on Student Government and change some of the processes herself and try to take away the student autonomy,” Carter said.
Carter said if an event did not go well or as planned, Murphy would end up “ragging” on the students who planned it.
“There's a way to offer constructive criticism, and that’s not the way to do it,” Carter said. “It’s not to say ‘Hey, here are the negatives. Here’s what you really suck at.’”
Hover also said the way Murphy offered criticism to students came off as harsh.
“I think there is obviously always room for improvement for everyone, but when it comes to talking with students, there is a certain way that students need to be communicated to, and I think at times, she just missed that mark and it didn't come off as she had hoped,” Hover said. “It came off as more critical than constructive.”
Additionally, after learning last minute that Murphy was planning on attending an Association of Student Governments meeting hosted by NC State, Carter sent her an email. Carter, who was planning the event, said she would have liked to know of Murphy’s attendance earlier for planning purposes.
“The email literally said, ‘Are you okay with wraps and chips for lunch? Want to make sure we improve the relationship with Student Government going forward.’ That was the end of the email,” Carter said.
Following the email, Carter said Murphy called a personal meeting with her.
“That’s when [Murphy] asked me if I had a minute, and I sat down, and she basically told me how unprofessional the email was, how it hurt her feelings, and even discussed the mention that she doesn’t leave a paper trail, because someone can public records request that information,” Carter said.
Carter walked out of Murphy’s office frustrated and confused as to why her email had affected Murphy to that extent. She later expressed her concerns to Olson in September. Carter said she decided to contact Olson because her irritation with Murphy reached a tipping point.
“[Olson] implied that he had received other comments and was kind of figuring it out,” Carter said. “He had me forward him emails and send him the notes I had taken, but didn’t imply, in my meeting, that he had known about this [from previous years] besides the comments he had heard this year.”
In Carter’s time as SBP so far, she said Murphy has had the most significant personal impact on her, in the workplace, out of anyone.
“In this role, I have been able to stay strong about a lot of things, but just her presence is kind of intimidating,” Carter said. “Even if you don't care for her opinion or what she thinks of you, she still makes comments that put you down.”
Carter said Murphy’s actions toward students made SG members uncomfortable, and this ultimately led her to speak to Olson about the concerns.
“This stuff has been going on for a while; we’ve been talking about it and nothing has been happening, and we’ve been vocal about it in the past and vocal about it this year,” Carter said. “I think it turned into a toxic relationship because those in Student Government didn’t feel comfortable around her.”
Carter hopes in the future, students will more actively express their concerns with leadership, administration, or anything related to the university.
“I want to empower others to speak out, but also that there is power in numbers,” Carter said. “This year, it wasn't just a Student Government thing ... there were other student organizations that were affected by this. Of course, getting rid of someone is not always an option, not always the answer, but speaking to someone and offering them some feedback and saying, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve experienced’ is very important.”
On Friday, Oct. 4, Olson appointed Michele Kurtz as interim director of SI.
When asked for a response to claims made about her and her departure from the university, Murphy declined to comment. Olson also declined to comment.
Dan Gilliam and Jonathan Carter contributed to the reporting of this article.