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January 21, 2015

Communications VP Bill Murphy announces plans to step down

Bill Murphy

There was a time when Bill Murphy worried that taking a job in public relations at a university would mean the academic equivalent of wearing loud sportcoats and trying to sell used cars. The then PhD student realized how misplaced the stereotype was when he joined the public affairs office at the University of Chicago, where he was finishing his dissertation in Irish history.

“I saw that there was real substance in university communications,” Murphy says. “The work that was being done was worthwhile, it was fun, and it was very attractive for someone who, like me, was drawn to a career involving academia.”

That career, begun in 1974, has taken Murphy to leadership roles in university communications at Chicago, the University of Illinois, Ohio State, and Rochester, where he was named vice president for communications in 2006. Murphy announced in January that he planned to retire at the end of June.

During the past eight years, Murphy has overseen Rochester’s university-wide communications operation, leading initiatives to strengthen media relations; help set strategic goals for the institution; improve communication among faculty, students, alumni, parents, and other audiences; and underscore the role that research institutions play in the economic and cultural vibrancy of American society.

“We are better known among our peers, we have a stronger sense of our identity as an institution, and we have more enduring connections as members of the University community because of the programs and initiatives that Bill has put in place,” says President Joel Seligman. “He is a true champion for articulating why universities like Rochester matter to their faculty, their students, their alumni, and their communities.”

Ed Hajim ’58, chairman of the Board of Trustees, says Murphy has significantly improved the University’s communications programs, transforming the way Rochester communicates with its constituencies.

“Bill’s work has been one of the fundamental reasons that the University has moved to a new level,” Hajim says. “Through his innovation, his creativity, and his leadership of his team, we have established a communications program that will be effective in the 21st century. He has created a true legacy.”

Provost Peter Lennie says Murphy has done a great deal to burnish the University’s identity among the University and Rochester communities as well as among some of the nation’s top universities.

“Bill is extraordinarily effective at advancing Rochester’s story among all of our communities,” Lennie says. “He has a sophisticated appreciation for our missions in teaching, research, clinical care, and service, plus a historian’s sense of perspective, a rich appreciation of data, and a very forward-thinking approach to the opportunities presented by new technologies.”

In 2007, Murphy led an initiative to develop a new graphic identity— a set of logos and other materials designed to help provide a cohesive look to publications, online resources, stationery, and other representations of the University— and in 2008, he led a process to introduce a revised Yellowjacket mascot, Rocky, to replace the previous incarnation of URBee.

With colleagues at Duke and Stanford, he helped lead the 2009 creation of Futurity.org, an online source that features research news from leading universities in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Europe, Asia, and Australia. He’s also led an effort to build a suite of University-wide e-mail newsletters designed to share news and information with faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni, as well as increasing the frequency and page count of Rochester Review.

Richard Feldman, dean of the College, says Murphy deserves credit for inculcating the idea that sharing news about the University is critical to the institution’s success and that there are ways to talk about scholarship and research without putting faculty in the position of feeling immodest.

“He makes you feel as if you’re just telling your story,” Feldman says. “And I think that reflects a personal modesty, an unassuming character, that he brings to this.”

And while several Admissions and Advancement initiatives have contributed to a growing sense that Rochester is making a name for itself, Feldman says University Communications has been a key contributor as well.

“Compared to where we were, it’s night and day,” Feldman says. “We’re communicating, we’re letting people know about what our faculty do and what our students accomplish in ways that we never did before. Obviously the means for doing that has shifted as well, but, nevertheless, under Bill’s leadership, we’ve done it, and we’ve made it a priority. And he’s always been eager to talk with us about how best to do it.”

Teri D’Agostino, chief of staff to Medical Center CEO Mark Taubman and the former director of the Office of Medical Center Public Relations, says Murphy is an “incredibly effective” leader who’s particularly astute at recognizing the talents of the people he works with and in building consensus.

To develop the graphic identity, Murphy established a universitywide process to gather ideas and input. The approach took longer and was more complicated than if he had hired a consulting firm, but ultimately worked better because it was collaborative, D’Agostino says.

“That’s the mark of a really good leader,” she says. “Bill’s very understated; he’s very thoughtful; he’s most comfortable when he’s directing behind the scenes. And he’s more effective because of the style that he brings to his role.”

Murphy notes that digital technologies have dramatically shifted the way most people get their news over the past decade, a trend that accelerated while he has been at Rochester. Newspapers and TV stations are giving ground to bloggers and web aggregators and social media are supplanting conversations among neighbors and friends.

“That’s been a tremendous challenge,” he says. “When I started in this business, one of the primary ways that universities communicated to the outside world was through earned media, that is, by getting newspapers to write about the work of faculty and students or by getting TV stations to cover it.

“Over the past 10 years or so, university communications offices have had to think about other ways to reach the public—to communicate more directly and to be open to the innovation the new technologies offered. That was not only the thinking behind Futurity, but it’s also the thinking behind our initiatives to do more with photography, with video, and on the web.”

“We’re trying to do things to adapt to those changes, but the changes are dramatic and they will continue for the foreseeable future. We really don’t expect the pace of change to slow down— and it may accelerate.”

Murphy plans to return to his first calling as a historian after he steps down, studying Irish social and economic history in the 19th century and perhaps teaching from time to time. He will, however, continue to think of the University of Rochester as one of his favorite academic homes.

“I love the culture here,” Murphy says. “We’re very decentralized, but it’s a culture that’s open and cooperative, and there’s not a lot of ego that gets in the way. There aren’t a lot of turf issues. People just want to get down to business and solve the problems at hand. And that’s been terrific.”

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