ROI Influencers: Higher Education — Zakiya Smith Ellis, the valedictorian

She transitioned from her role as the state’s Secretary of Higher Education to chief policy adviser earlier this summer, but make no mistake about it, Zakiya Smith Ellis is still the biggest voice on higher education in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration. Because of that, Smith Ellis is the ideal selection as the No. 1 honoree in ROI-NJ’s first ROI Influencers: Higher Education list.

Smith Ellis has played a key role in the administration’s handling of the pandemic in regard to higher ed, including everything from reviewing institutions’ emergency operations plans to ensure readiness, issuing OSHE guidance, reviewing waiver requests to allow in-person instruction to continue as appropriate and advocating for federal funding for higher education.

Of course, in this time of crisis, she is not doing it alone.

From left are Diana Gonzalez, Lamont Repollet and Matt Platkin.

Diana Gonzalez, who is serving in the secretary’s role on an interim basis — for now — also deserves a mention. As does Lamont Repollet, who recently transitioned from his role as the commissioner of education (handling K-12 schooling) to president of Kean University. Chief counsel Matt Platkin and chief of staff George Helmy also are playing key roles in the decision-making.

Yes, these most unusual times call for some unusual selections. That’s why state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), who serves as the chair of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Maplewood), who serves as the chair of the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, deserve a mention, too. 

Smith Ellis, however, stands above them all. And not just for her work during the pandemic. She began her tenure by working on ways for the state to increase post-secondary attainment — which includes a strong nod to vocational programs — as well as heading the state’s Community College Opportunity Grant program, which has been designed to expand tuition-free community college to more residents.

From left are George Helmy, Sandra Cunningham and Mila Jasey.