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Brian Murphy For President: 'The easy course would have been to tap someone in a more traditional mold,' said Carnegie scholar Thomas Ehrlich at Murphy's inauguration as president of De Anza College. 'There's nothing traditional about Brian.'

Learning Curve

De Anza's Brian Murphy is shaking up higher education

By Najeeb Hasan

HE CAME 13 months ago, to De Anza College in Cupertino on a pure white steed. Well, not really, but he might as well have. If the naming of Brian Murphy as president surprised a few traditionalists, others saw it as the most exciting thing to happen to California's system of 108 community colleges in quite some time. And why not?

After all, Murphy was the mind behind San Francisco State University's Urban Institute, perhaps the leading institution in the country that connects students with civic work on the ground. His former boss, John Vasconcellos, credits him with writing the lion's share of the 1989 education report California Faces ... California's Future: Education for Citizenship in a Multicultural Democracy, a decidedly radical document that didn't mince words in warning about California's potential for "de facto educational, economic and social apartheid," yet still managed to win bipartisan support.

So Murphy spoke from experience when he wowed the De Anza selection committee with his vision to implement "civic engagement," one of the rapidly growing mantras of national higher education, into the school's curriculum. When contacted about Murphy, FoothillDe Anza Community College District trustee Hal Plotkin couldn't find enough superlatives to describe him.

"Choosing Brian was a courageous step," declared Carnegie scholar Thomas Ehrlich during the keynote at Murphy's inauguration."The easy course would have been to tap someone in a more traditional mold. There's nothing traditional about Brian. He's been on the barricades defending the rights of the oppressed, and he's been in leadership positions where he practiced what he preached. Brian says what he means and means what he says. Most of all, he has a civic passion for this community and for this campus."

The Interventions

Born in Palo Alto and raised in San Francisco and San Diego, Murphy had, to use a word that he employs often, two "interventions" that shaped his experience early in his life.

During his teenage years, Murphy's father, a physician, relocated his family to Afghanistan's southern desert, which in Persian was called the "Desert of Death," for three years to create a nursing school.

"He had an ethical and political center that was not about making money, but about doing something else," Murphy says of his father.

Murphy, an exchange student in France at the time, finished his program and joined his family there for a year in 1963.

"Because of the nature of my family, this was a resolutely noncolonial experience," Murphy says. "They were deeply embedded in the community, and it was profoundly real and immediate. It was in a very small town in the desert, and it sort of drove into me that there were wonderfully imaginative, creative, deeply intelligent men and women living on the margin. The Americans were building a dam system and the Soviet Union was building a road system, and so you had two massive powers building infrastructure, but I was living in a system where it was more about daily survival."

Murphy returned to the United States for college the next year and pored over obscure academic journals to write his first academic paper about Afghanistan; as he puts it, he wanted to understand where he had been. It was his first encounter, in a sense, with the theory underpinning civic engagement: spend time in the community, but create the academic space to critically analyze your experience.

Back in the United States, Murphy was quickly thrown into the context of the Vietnam War, the second intervention.

"I'm not sure how much of this you need to quote," he says diplomatically about his reaction to Vietnam, "so I'll just say it in a certain kind of way: I was one of those many people who declared that they would not serve."

But the obligation of service still pulled him. So while struggling with his draft board about whether or not he would qualify for conscientious objector status, he joined up with CARE and was sent to Algiers in 1969, seven years after its independence.

He ultimately lost his struggle with the draft board, but by that time the war had died down, and Murphy found himself a grad student studying political theory at Berkeley, where he first began to teach. Berkeley was followed by a posting at UCSanta Cruz and a plumb, tenure-track position at Santa Clara University, which he held on to for six years until 1984, involving himself heavily in the solidarity struggle with beleaguered faculty in El Salvador.

"He was a great advocate of human and civil rights," recalls Rev. Paul Locatelli, the president of Santa Clara University. "Whenever a human or civil rights issue would come along, he wouldn't just keep it in the classroom; he would challenge people. He would ask how would you ensure society is pursuing human rights. He would be for the underdog, and he still is."

Soon after, Murphy, the political theorist busy deconstructing natural law in medieval Catholic theory inside the classroom and the internationalist activist outside the classroom, would radically shift his focus, helped along by a chance encounter with Vasconcellos. They had met 22 years ago in San Diego when the then-assemblyman dropped by to look at a new educational program a mutual friend had been putting together. As Vasconcellos tells it, Murphy was there, the two exchanged cards, and—some 10 months later—when Vasconcellos was looking for someone to attend a San Francisco 49ers game with him, Murphy's card popped out of his pocket.

"I don't know how it was still there, 10 months later," says Vasconcellos with a shrug.

Vasconcellos and Murphy would build a two-decade-long—and still going strong—friendship; at one point, Vasconcellos asked Murphy to be his chief of staff, which Murphy accepted, says Vasconcellos, for a week, before he left because Sacramento's climate affected his wife's asthma.

"Part of what happened with me—and it happened to a lot of folks—was the discovery of the local," explains Murphy about his transition. "For a lot of folks focused on national and international, there was that abrupt discovery. I was still working on international stuff and was given a gift an opportunity when Vasconcellos asked me if I would be interested in working on the Master Plan of Higher Education. He was hiring a young professor in political theory that had never been a representative of bigger systems. My lens would be: What would this mean in the lives of students and the lives of the faculty? This was an engagement in direct, effective political action, if you will, state power at the state level. It was immediately clear to me that many of us who had absorbed ourselves [in other issues] had become ignorant of the dynamic of state and local politics that affected our lives."


Questioning Authority: Murphy brings to De Anza not only the philosophy of 'civic engagement,' which is moving from the fringe to the mainstream in American higher education, but also questions about the very mission of higher learning.

Vision Quest

Murphy is just now beginning to implement his vision for civic engagement at De Anza. He has two faculty members heading a task force, which is throwing around ideas such as establishing a Democracy Center on campus, and is expecting a report in January; meanwhile, he's been crossing the country to promote his vision at other institutions. For someone whose life and career have been so unorthodox, it's remarkable how difficult it is to find Murphy detractors.

"We know that there's a ton of research [validating] deep community engagement [for students]," says Murphy. "The grades are higher, they learn more, they stay in school longer, they see the point of it—by all of the nominal metrics universities or colleges use, it's a successful pedagogy; it works. The challenge I made was slightly different: I asked whether it would also be a good pedagogical strategy [to] look at the lives of our students and look at them with them, not at them, but look with them at their own lives. What could we do that would make it more likely that a student leaving this institution felt not that they just knew stuff—I'm competent to do well, or I can repair your automobile and do it fairly well—but I'm competent in my life. I'm not just a victim of some set of forces out of my control."

This is where, for Murphy, the idea of civic engagement becomes political.

"Part of that agenda, that's an agenda of civic education, of participatory education, which, for me, is also deeply political," he says. "It asks the question: What's the purpose of what we're doing here? And part of [the answer] is to prepare people to be participants in a democracy and in a culture that either tolerates or admires a lot of passivity."

By preparing people to be participants in a democracy, Murphy means a broad range of initiatives across the college's curriculum—from being block leaders as part of a political science class on local politics; to building partnerships with community-based nonprofits, social services agencies and government organizations; to sending the editors of De Anza's student newspaper to a journalism and democracy seminar at The New York Times (which Murphy has already done, using contacts at the Times he developed at San Francisco State University).

California's postwar investment in public education—the largest public investment in higher education of any industrialized society, in both the socialist and the capitalist worlds—has a touch of genius, says Murphy. California managed to combine two completely different theories of education; the state built one of the greatest research institutions in the world in the UC system, and also provided a system, the California Community College system, where there are absolutely no entrance requirements.

With that context, Murphy's mission now reflects the same questions he was wrestling with as a political theorist and human rights activist 25 years ago.

"You have this investment in higher education to what end?" he asks. "To what purpose? What's the point? Is it to provide public money for private goods? You know, Let me give you an opportunity to become wealthy? Is that the function of this? Or is the function of something else?

Hence, civic engagement.

"At a Midwestern college that a friend of mine works at, they were doing an end-of-year debriefing on a project they'd done on homeless shelters," Murphy relates. "And this one kid was so enthusiastic, he said, 'I loved working at the homeless shelter.' He was really excited about it; he said, 'I hope when my son comes to this university, he can still work in that homeless shelter.' And my friend thought to himself, 'I've completely failed. What I really need this guy to be thinking about is, Why is there homelessness? Because what he really needs to be thinking about is what can I now do to make it be that there is no homeless shelter when your kid goes to college.' And so he had to go back with his colleagues and say that the young student was a generous student, but we clearly did not give him enough critical space to ask tougher questions. In other words, he had a good experience being helpful, but we weren't analyzing homelessness in a critical enough way. It's about creating a context for students to talk about that, or to learn about that."


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From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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