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New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis speaking at Princeton University in 2019. Photo courtesy of Princeton University.

Murphy names Smith Ellis as his new chief policy advisor

N.J. Secretary of Higher Education will join governor’s senior staff

By David Wildstein, June 03 2020 9:30 am

Gov. Phil Murphy has named one of his cabinet members, Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis, as his new chief policy advisor, a senior staff position with wide-ranging influence over the governor’s entire agenda as the state looks to rebound from the health and economic impacts of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Smith Ellis has served as the Secretary of Higher Education since early 2018, when Murphy recruited her to come to New Jersey to coordinate policies for the state’s colleges and universities.  She will replace Kathleen Frangione, who left the administration to take a new job.

The move leaves Murphy with two open cabinet posts to fill: Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet is departing to become the new president of Kean University.

“It has been an honor to have Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis serve as our Secretary of the Office of Higher Education for the past two and a half years, and I’m thrilled to announce that she’ll soon join the Governor’s Office as Chief Policy Advisor,” Murphy told the New Jersey Globe.

Prior to joining Murphy’s cabinet, Smith Ellis worked in the Obama White House as senior education advisor for the Domestic Policy Council.  She also served as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, and worked at the Lumina Foundation.

Murphy praised Smith Ellis’ work as New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education.

In her time with OSHE, Zakiya has spearheaded our Administration’s efforts to make a college education more affordable and accessible, including our Community College Opportunity Grant program to provide tuition-free education,” the governor said.  “She has been an invaluable member of our team and I know her wealth of policy experience will serve us well in this senior role.”

She is expected to join the governor’s office later this month.

“For more than two years, it has been my honor to lead the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education and implement Governor Murphy’s vision for expanded educational opportunity,” Smith Ellis said.  “I am confident that the team at OSHE will continue to build on the work we have accomplished together and I will continue to be a fierce advocate for our state’s students.”

After a career in education policy, Smith Ellis will now deal with issues that touch every aspect of state government.

“My new position in the Governor’s Office will allow me to continue doing critical work to build a stronger and fairer New Jersey and I thank Governor Murphy for the vote of confidence and for the opportunity to fulfill such an important role during this time in our state’s history,” she said.

Prior to joining government, Smith Ellis served as school operations manager for Teach America and as director of government relations for the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.

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