With nod to improving affordability, Murphy tabs Bridges as next secretary of higher education

Gov. Phil Murphy has been talking about making New Jersey stronger and fairer — and more equitable — since he took office. On Friday, when he announced Brian Bridges as his nomination to be the state’s next secretary of higher education, he spoke of a word that ties all of the above together: affordable.

“Making college more affordable and accessible has been a hallmark of our mission to build a stronger and fairer New Jersey for all,” he said. “After conducting a nationwide search for a new secretary of higher education, we’ve found just the right leader to build upon our progress.”

Bridges currently serves as vice president of research and member engagement at the United Negro College Fund in Washington, D.C., where he leads UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute and the Institute for Capacity Building. He serves as the organization’s chief research officer, principal editor and contributor for FDPRI’s publications, as well as the manager of internal and external projects involving capacity building, evaluation and assessment. Bridges also leads the UNCF Career Pathways Initiative, a project funded by the Lilly Endowment, to improve job placement outcomes at Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as Predominately Black Institutions.

Brian Bridges and Gov. Phil Murphy at the announcement. (Governor’s Office/Edwin J. Torres)

Murphy said that experience played a role in his selection.

“Dr. Bridges has the vision and experience needed to put a college education within reach for more students, including continuing our highly successful Community College Opportunity Grant program,” he said. “I know he’ll be a fierce advocate for our students and will work closely with both public and private college and university leaders to expand opportunity, while promoting equity and access for all.”

Bridges said he was humbled but invigorated by the confidence Murphy has placed in him.

“I have a deep and abiding faith in the power of colleges and universities to not only provide life-changing educational experiences, but to also serve as economic engines and hubs of innovation and intellectual discovery,” he said. “I look forward to working with leaders across the Garden State to develop and refine policies and practices that further improve student success, create efficiencies of scale, and strengthen the higher education enterprise.”

Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway said he looks forward to working with Bridges.

“The challenges that confront higher education today are daunting, but the opportunities are unlimited,” he said. “I am excited by the nomination of Dr. Bridges, and look forward to a partnership with him that will seize on the opportunities before us and how, together, we can leverage New Jersey’s higher education resources to help make New Jersey fairer and stronger for everyone.”

Michael Lomax, CEO of the UNCF, saluted the selection.

“Brian Bridges is a great choice to be New Jersey’s new secretary of education,” Lomax said. “Brian has led our research and institutional transformation work at UNCF, driving our strategy to ensure that our Historically Black Colleges and Universities produce ever stronger results for the students they serve.  Brian is a passionate, committed and relentless advocate for justice, equality and equity in the academy.

“All of us at UNCF will miss Brian, but we know that he will continue to champion the urgent cause of higher education access and affordability, and he will lead a new era of innovation and transformation for all of New Jersey’s colleges and universities and their students.”

Zakiya Smith-Ellis, the former secretary of higher education who now serves as Murphy’s chief policy adviser, said Bridges is the leader the state needs at this time.

“He is dedicated to advancing equity in education, and I’m excited that he’s decided to join our team and continue the work we began on behalf of students across New Jersey,” she said. “I am looking forward to working with him and am confident that he has the skills necessary to assume the mantle of setting statewide higher education policy.”

Murphy thanked interim Secretary Diana Gonzalez for her efforts.

“Diana has coordinated closely with our colleges and universities to navigate the challenges of the pandemic and will continue to serve the administration as a critical member of our team,” he said.

Gonzalez said she is eager to continue the work in the department.

“I look forward to working closely with Dr. Bridges to continue making progress on our State Plan for Higher Education goals, including addressing college affordability and access through the Community College Opportunity Grant, to ensure we take an equitable approach to emerging from this crisis stronger than ever,” she said.

Prior to joining UNCF, Bridges was vice provost for diversity, access and equity at Ohio University. Previously, he was associate director of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education and has held various other roles, including associate director at the National Survey of Student Engagement.

While at NSEE, he managed a million-dollar subcontract for the Building Engagement and Attainment of Minority Students project, a national initiative funded by Lumina Foundation to assist minority-serving institutions in their use of NSSE results for institutional improvement.

Bridges earned his doctorate in higher education administration from Indiana University, a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and a Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature from Francis Marion University.

Bridges was born in Brooklyn and reared in Beaufort, South Carolina. He will begin his new role on Nov. 16.