by Robert Powell
Soon after Jonathan R. Alger became only the sixth president of 104-year-old James Madison University in July, he began a “listening tour,” getting acquainted with the school’s students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters.
At every stop, he has asked one simple question: “Why Madison?”
“What makes this a very special place to learn, to work and to live?” Alger explains. “It’s been a tremendous set of conversations about where we are and where we can go in the future as a university.”
The new president thinks the Harrisonburg-based school, which enrolled a record 20,000 students this fall, can be a national model for mid-sized universities.
“What I see at James Madison University is an institution that has the best of both worlds in higher education,” Alger says. “We have the benefits that you frequently see only at smaller liberal arts colleges. We have a lot of faculty-student interaction, lots of opportunities for students to be involved in the life of the university and to have a real sense of community. ...At the same time you have the strengths that are typically only seen at larger research universities where there are lots of different fields of study. ...So I think at JMU students can get a great experience.”
Alger has firsthand knowledge about small colleges and big universities. A native of Rochester, N.Y., he graduated from Swarthmore College, one of the nation’s best small colleges, and earned a law degree from Harvard University.
Before coming to Harrisonburg, Alger, 49, spent seven and a half years at Rutgers University in New Jersey where he was senior vice president and general counsel. Before that, he was assistant general counsel at the University of Michigan.
Earlier in his career, he worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., for the American Association of University Professors, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office on Civil Rights and the law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius. His move to Virginia is a homecoming of sorts.
“Our family is delighted to be here in Virginia. It’s where my wife and I lived when we were married, and our daughter was actually born in Arlington,” he says.
Alger is a nationally recognized expert on diversity in higher education, having played a key role in two landmark Supreme Court cases in 2003 involving admissions at Michigan.
“The court said that diversity in higher education has educational benefits for all students,” he says. “Therefore, for a school’s academic mission, a university is permitted to try to seek diversity in all of its forms. That includes a wide array of characteristics; race, socio-economic status, gender, age, religion, geographic diversity, special skills and talents, different life experiences, first-generation students … all of those different characteristics when we talk about diversity.”
Meeting a school’s academic mission also requires money. Alger realizes that one of his primary tasks will be fundraising. The school has an endowment of only $60 million, compared with more than $5 billion at the University of Virginia and about $600 million at Virginia Tech. “The good news is that we have an alumni base now that is actively engaged with the university and wants to be supportive,” he says.
Virginia Business interviewed Alger at Alumnae Hall on the JMU campus in Harrisonburg.
Virginia Business: I understand that recently the university just crossed the threshold of 20,000 students. Do you foresee that growing much more?
Alger: In the next few years we’ll probably see that number going up just a little bit higher perhaps to 21,000 to 22,000. But we want to be very careful with our growth, because one of the things that we hear from our students and our faculty is how important faculty-student interaction is and the quality of that undergraduate experience. If we do grow, we want to make sure that the students are still getting that same quality of experience and that we have the faculty to support them. We’re being very careful and intentional about any further growth along those lines.
VB: One of your fields of expertise is the [the law concerning] diverse student populations. Is there anything that you plan to bring to James Madison to ensure that it’s a diverse population or maybe to increase diversity?
Alger: Diversity goes to the core of our educational mission because of its educational value to all of our students and faculty. That’s what the Michigan cases in 2003 were all about. There were two cases that went to the Supreme Court, and the court said that diversity in higher education has educational benefits for all students. Therefore, for a school’s academic mission, a university is permitted to try to seek diversity in all of its forms. That includes a wide array of characteristics; race, socio-economic status, gender, age, religion, geographic diversity, special skills and talents, different life experiences, first-generation students … all of those different characteristics when we talk about diversity….
Certainly at JMU we know that we’ve come a long way on that front, but there’s still much more work to be done. We want the university to provide access and opportunity for students of all backgrounds, and that’s very important as our public mission. We’ll be looking for opportunities to increase our outreach to students of different types of backgrounds to make sure they know that this kind of education is available to them. Likewise, for faculty and staff, we want to make sure that we have equal opportunity for individuals of all backgrounds to work here and enjoy the JMU experience.
VB: What do you see as JMU’s strengths and what areas do you think it needs to improve?
Alger: In terms of strengths, first of all, the academic quality here is absolutely first rate. We have world-class faculty and terrific students. I am convinced that the education that students can get here is as good as they can get anywhere in the country.
What I see at James Madison University is an institution that has the best of both worlds in higher education. We have the benefits that you frequently see only at smaller liberal arts colleges. We have a lot of faculty student interaction, lots of opportunities for students to be involved in the life of the university and to get to know each other and to have a real sense of community, which is a real core strength of James Madison University.
At the same time you have the strengths that are typically only seen at larger research universities where there are lots of different fields of study. Undergraduates can get involved in research….So it’s a very exciting combination.
Now in terms of areas that we can improve, there are lots of areas where we know we can continue to do better. One for example is the whole area of fundraising and the endowment. This is a university that’s grown a lot in recent decades. It used to be a teacher’s college and has grown quite a bit larger in the last few decades. [The school became co-educational in 1966.] Our endowment is very modest for a university of this size. It’s only about $60 million whereas some of our peer institutions of course have much larger endowments. We know that’s an area where we need to continue to grow.
The good news on that front is that our alumni are now at a point in their lives and careers where they have been successful at business or law or medicine or other professions and disciplines, and they loved their experience [at JMU]. On my listening tour I have repeatedly met with alumni who’ve talked about how JMU changed their lives. In the past, the assumption was the support will come from the state or we’ll just raise tuition and then we’ll get the funds that we need. We know that we can’t rely on those sources in the future to meet all of our hopes and dreams and aspirations. We have to do more. What I’ve been talking with the alumni about is our collective responsibility as we go forward to support the institution in a new way. They seem ready and eager to do that.
VB: What do you see as JMU’s role in terms of economic development of the region?
Alger: I think JMU is a tremendous economic engine for the Shenandoah Valley. Indeed, I think universities in general are some of the best economic engines we have in our society. We are institutions that are very stable. We provide a well-educated work force, of course, and people (students, faculty and staff) who will spend money in the local region. But also [a university is] a source of innovation where there are great ideas that can lead to the development of new businesses. We can collaborate with other organizations and entities in the area.
One of the things that really attracted me to JMU is that there was a really strong sense of community engagement here, sort of the opposite of the isolated ivory tower. The idea is that, yes, we’re engaged with great ideas, but we’re also engaged with the world. We’re applying that knowledge to try to solve the challenges of the world around us.
For example, right here in Harrisonburg, SRI [International] has a presence. [SRI developed a partnership with JMU in developing the non-profit company’s Center for Advanced Drug Research in Harrisonburg.]I was just out in Menlo Park, Calif., [where SRI has its headquarters] a couple of weeks ago talking to their leadership about trying to further expand our collaboration with them. I think they were attracted to come here in large part because of JMU’s presence and because of that spirit of collaboration that the university and the community have. [The university and SRI recently signed a memorandum of agreement that, among other things, will provide JMU faculty and students research opportunities at SRI while giving the company’s employees access to university labs and other resources.] There’s a lot that we do to try to support economic development in the region. We’re very committed to that role and our community partners I’m happy to say are committed to working with us too.
VB: I noticed in a write-up about your recently appointed new provost that he talked about the fact that many of the faculty have not really received a raise for several years. Given that situation and the continuing restraints on the state, how does an institution like JMU compete for top faculty?
Alger: If we look at our academic success, the faculty is right at the heart of our educational mission. They are the frontline educators with whom the students interact, so it’s really important that we be able to recruit and retain world-class faculty. We’re competing now not just with other universities even within the state or within the region but nationally…We’ve been lucky, frankly, so far in that faculty have come here …in large part because they know that JMU is really committed to teaching.... When they come here they can have a real sense of community and a sense that they can come here and make a difference….
Having said that, we also know that now other state and private institutions certainly are starting to see [pay]increases, and we have fallen behind somewhat. We know that’s something that needs attention. One of the things that I’ve done is I asked our new provost and our senior vice president in the financial area to work together to create a task force to look at compensation for faculty and staff and to have everything on the table. We want to look at all the different revenue streams as well as expenses and to think … of creative ideas that would address this challenge.
VB: You talked about fundraising. Do you have a goal, a target of raising the endowment to a certain level within so many years?
Alger: We haven’t set a precise goal yet. That’s part of the process that we’d be going through in the next year or two. We certainly have high hopes for the future. We’ve only had one capital campaign in the prior history of the university. That was a $50 million campaign a few years ago and that netted about $70 million…We would hope to do much more the next time around. The good news is that we have an alumni base now that is actively engaged with the university and wants to be supportive... Now that we’re communicating with them about this need, they’re indicating that they are ready to step up to the plate.
VB: What sorts of things do you do outside the office? I saw some reference to choral singing.
Alger: I’ve actually been a singer and involved in music my whole life. This is one of those rare occasions where I’m not part of a formal choral group just because of my schedule, but I hope from time to time I’ll get to do some singing….I sang for many years when I was in Washington D.C., with a group called the Choral Arts Society of Washington, which performed at the Kennedy Center and toured internationally with the National Symphony. So that’s been a very important part of my life. My wife [Mary Ann] is a pianist. Our daughter [Eleanor] has a passion for musical theater. All of us love music and the performing arts, and we very much support those here at the university.
I also have a passion for American history and being at James Madison University that’s a good thing to have because of course. James Madison was the father of the Constitution. One of the themes that I hope to continue to explore is how we take that legacy and talk about what it means in the 21st century … how you produce citizens who are going to be engaged in a thriving democracy.
VB: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you want to talk about?
Alger: I think it’s an exciting time in higher education…. There’s no one other institution that has done exactly what we’re doing. For us, we’re going to be going through a strategic planning process going forward, and I’m very excited about that. It’s a very inclusive process. We’re going to involve faculty, staff, students, members of the community, former board members and members of our foundation board to talk collectively about a strategic plan going forward so that we can provide the very best educational environment that we can, given those signature strengths that I talk about. …
Just one specific example of an area we’ll be focusing on going forward: We are going through a reaffirmation process right now with our regional accreditor [the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools]. Part of that is to have something called a quality enhancement plan, which is a requirement that you have a central focus for the next several years. Through a process that involved the active engagement of faculty and staff around the university, we developed a focus on ethical reasoning in every aspect of an individual’s life. So we’re going to be…making sure that we think about how that ties in with all the different areas in the curriculum and all the different disciplines that we have represented here. I’m really excited about that because it goes right to the heart of our mission. This is a university that has a heart and a conscience and that theme I think really reflects that.
The other strength that we haven’t really talked about yet that’s really important in terms of where higher education is right now in this country is assessment. One of James Madison’s signature strengths is in assessment and accountability. We have a center here that is known around the country for how it assesses our academic and educational programs. How well are they working? How can they be improved?
Other colleges and universities actually come to us to learn from us how you do that. That’s a central theme now in American higher education and certainly one on which the government has focused as well. How do we show that we’re really doing what we say we do? How do we show that we’re meeting our mission? At JMU we don’t take it for granted. We have a tremendous faculty in that area that are nationally known in that field. I’m very excited about the fact that we don’t stand still. We’re constantly studying and assessing our programs and figuring out how we can improve them. That’s what can lead to innovation in higher education.
The last thing I would mention is that we as a university, even with all the new technology and opportunities, have not lost our sense of the importance of what I would call liberal education. We have a general education program that is very strong here where students are exposed to different areas in the social sciences and the humanities as well as the sciences. That is what we’re finding is really important to the long-term success of our students. Employers have told us they love to get JMU students or alumni as employees because they have communication skills, critical thinking skills. They know how to work in teams with other people. They know how to roll up their sleeves, to be creative and innovative. Those are skills that are developed in large part through exposure to a wide variety of disciplines so that students can think about problems from various angles. So, even as things become specialized and you have the kind of growth in certain disciplines, I think that focus is really important for the university.
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