Jolly green gentleman: As SUNY-ESF president prepares to step down, campus reflects on his friendliness, presence

If you shake his hand, he does not insist you call him president or doctor.

Students call him Big Neil. And he loves it, but he’ll probably introduce himself, in a soft-spoken voice, as Neil.

But until he steps down at the end of this semester, he is President Cornelius Murphy, the jolly, green-thinking gentleman at the head of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. To those at ESF, Murphy will be remembered for advocating and connecting with students and faculty.

Murphy works between 60-70 hours a week: He jumps through budgeting hoops, visits other schools, helps choose new faculty members, appears at events, writes the occasional Huffington Post article, attempts to squeeze in meetings and, if they are lucky enough to catch him at his desk, talks to his students.

He said whenever he speaks with students, they help make him a better person.

And the students, Murphy said, are the part of his job he will miss the most after almost 14 years at ESF.

“I think to be an advocate and supporter of our students is probably one of the most important things I can do,” Murphy said. “If I can help our faculty achieve their research goals and objectives and assist them in their teaching responsibilities, that is probably my next most important thing.”

ESF’s vice president, Joseph Rufo, has worked with Murphy for five years, and said Murphy combines two traits that are often mutually exclusive: He is a superb administrator and genuinely cares about people.

“Whenever we have an issue that involves an employee or a student he really does take that to heart and wants to make sure that people aren’t adversely impacted by a decision,” Rufo said.

Two years ago, the civil service contracts at ESF froze. There were no pay increases for custodians, receptionists or grounds workers. And because of the furloughs, some employees had to take four or five days off unpaid.

Many employees were living paycheck to paycheck to provide for their families, Rufo said, and Murphy became very concerned. Murphy wanted to be sure that none of the employees on the lower end of the pay scale were left behind under his authority, he said.

“He said, ‘Look, if there’s somebody who’s really struggling, we want to be able to step in and help out,’” Rufo said. “You can’t fake that. You can’t fake the idea of genuinely caring about people.”

Rufo said when the faculty first started the search for a new president, Board of Trustees chair Vita DeMarchi said ESF was hiring a new president — not “replacing Neil.” The idea was not to find a clone for Murphy, Rufo said, just because he is adored and respected.

“We need to replace the president,” he said. “But we can’t replace Neil, just like you can’t replace anybody.”

Syracuse University Interim Chancellor Eric Spina met Murphy years ago, when he served on an advisory board for the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, which Spina was dean of at the time.

What Murphy understood even before he was president, Spina said, is the strategic importance of the relationship between ESF and SU. Spina said it’s more than transactional — the schools have become better partners and collaborators in research settings, as well as social settings.

Murphy is very much focused on change, Spina said, and his personal and professional approaches go hand in hand.

“I think the qualities that Neil has as a person — eminently approachable, down to earth, focused on trying to make a difference — are the qualities that he has exhibited as president,” Spina said. “I think he’s kind of been a fun president, and he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves.”

Students at ESF love him, Spina said, and the faculty feels they can connect with him on any issues or ideas.

Owen Hennigan, a freshman environmental science major, said he talked to Murphy on a few occasions, but his grandfather, who was a water science professor at SUNY-ESF, has been friends with Murphy for almost 30 years.

“My grandpa has always said he’s a really nice guy who is very passionate about his job and makes a huge effort to get to know the students on a personal level,” Hennigan said. “He’s always just really friendly walking around campus saying hello to everyone.”

John Hartigan, a graduate ecology student, said he only spoke to Murphy a few times as an undergraduate. Still, after only a few exchanges, Murphy congratulated him by name when Hartigan graduated.

Ultimately, Murphy wanted the school to make a difference, Hartigan said. Innovative ideas were reinforced by proactive goals, such as making ESF the first carbon-neutral campus.

“He was very into ESF leading by example,” Hartigan said. “He thought it was important for a school that touts green teaching to strive for a green existence.”

This year, the focus was on water. Brendan Antonini, a freshman bioprocess engineering major, said he thought it was interesting how such a seemingly simple concept could be stretched across three lectures.

“Big Neil has conducted one of the three and it is amazing how much passion he puts into teaching students about something as simple as water,” Antonini said, “which can keep you interested.”

He’s given lectures in the past few years on nuclear and radio chemistry, advanced energy systems and professional practice. After taking a year off, Murphy said he plans to return to SUNY-ESF to teach part time in spring 2015.

In the meantime, he will try to adjust to no longer having a fast-paced work week and regularly attending event appearances, which he said have become familiar to him during the past 14 years.

He once hosted the game show knockoff “ESF’s Got Talent.” Another time, the ESF Insomniacs invited him to one of its late-night, weekend alternatives.

“It was a mechanical bull, and they insisted I ride the mechanical bull,” Murphy said, adding that he lasted maybe five seconds.

Those rare opportunities are the ones he will cherish.

Said Murphy: “At the same time, the new president has to have those opportunities, so I’m going to have to step more into the background.”


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