Editor’s note: Upon further review, with Breeze advisors and SMAD faculty, The Breeze has come to the conclusion that President Alger wasn’t given the complete opportunity to respond to the critiques mentioned by sources in this article. However, following Alger's written response, the story remains accurate and unchanged.
When Jonathan Alger took over as the president of JMU, many argue, transparency and accountability from leadership turned toward a new direction.
Under Alger’s tenure, the JMU Board of Visitors (BOV) and its operational and decision-making processes were deliberately restricted from the public eye, multiple sources say, and that obscurance has been brought to a head in light of COVID-19 and its effect on JMU’s operations.
President and Board of Visitors skirt open meetings laws
Kenneth Bartee served on the Board from 2010 to 2014 — two years under former JMU president Linwood Rose, and two years under Alger, who began his presidency in 2012.
Bartee said that when Alger took office, the BOV — and by extension, the university — experienced a “significant change” toward the tightening of a vise on the information flow from the Board to the public, including a “clear direction not to speak to anybody outside the Board about what we discussed.”
Bartee clarified that even under Rose, there was a sense of protection for the university, which Bartee described as “one of the duties of a good Board.” But, he said, while he understood that it may not be good to have multiple voices all giving the public different messages, he didn’t understand the need for a close-mouthed approach to the public if the Board was in unanimous agreement on issues.
“What’s the harm with us talking if everybody’s agreed on the message?” Bartee said. “But, [there was] very, very clear direction from 2012 on: ‘You’re not to talk about anything that’s discussed in here, via open session or closed session.’ Sometimes, that made sense — personnel matters, things of that nature — and sometimes, it just didn’t.”
Among the changes implemented by Alger, Bartee alleged, were private calls with BOV members a few days before each public meeting of the Board.
Per Bartee’s description, before each of the public meetings, Alger and one other JMU higher-up — oftentimes Vice President for Access and Enrollment Management and Secretary to the Board of Visitors Donna Harper — meet with two Board members at a time for a conversation about where the Board members stand on each issue to be addressed at the public meetings. While each Board member only hears the perspective of the other member in their two-member call, the set of calls allows Alger the opportunity to observe where each member — and therefore, the BOV as a whole — sits on each issue before walking into the public meetings.
When describing the function of the public-eye Board meetings, Bartee said, “The agenda was managed.”
By restricting these pre-public meeting calls to two members of the Board and two administrative officials, the JMU administration is able to discuss issues with its Board without having to inform the public or offer the option of attendance — a legal loophole.
“[Alger] was very clear why [the calls were with two members at a time],” Bartee said. “[Alger said], ‘If I get three members on each call, then I’ve got to announce it’s, like, an open meeting’ … It became clear after a few of these calls that it was really about, ‘I want to settle issues before the meeting’ … If there was anything contentious, he wanted to be able to get out in front of that, including not talking about things.”
Under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), gatherings of three or more members of an official public body — a category the JMU Board of Visitors is included in — are required to be held as open meetings. The public is allowed to attend these meetings outside of specific exemptions, like the discussion of matters such as personnel decisions and legal counsel.
By holding these four-person meetings — two Board members, two administrative officials — JMU wasn’t and isn’t violating any laws. However, Bartee said he and other Board members began to view the practice as a move away from transparency.
“I don’t think, in the beginning, there was a lot of concern,” Bartee said. “If the president wants a phone call, you have a phone call — that’s part of your duty as a Board member, right? As it progressed … there was some reluctance: ‘Were we just trying to skirt the open meeting rules at this point?’”
Bartee said Board members voiced their concerns, but they were told by university legal counsel at the time, Susan Wheeler, that no laws were being violated — a legally correct statement. Wheeler didn’t respond to requests for comment by The Breeze via a message on LinkedIn.
JMU doesn’t publicly list contact information for individual Board members — instead, like 11 other public, four-year universities in Virginia, only providing a general contact email. Yet, The Breeze obtained the Board members’ individual email addresses and reached out to every member, requesting a comment on the two-member meeting process.
The rector of the Board, Lara Major, provided a written comment via email in response to The Breeze’s request, confirming that the meetings still occur. No other Board members responded to requests from The Breeze.
Major’s statement read as the following
“Prior to each Board of Visitors public meeting, President Alger and other JMU administrators call board members to make them aware of the topics on the agenda. In order to be in compliance with Virginia's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), no more than two board members are on each call. While board members do have the opportunity to ask questions about items on the agenda, no decisions related to the operations of JMU are made on these calls.”
Caitlyn Read, university spokesperson and director of communications, also provided a written statement for the university via email to The Breeze, also confirming that the meetings are still in practice.
“Before each public Board of Visitors meeting, members of JMU’s senior leadership team brief board members via phone, two board members at a time, as to what items will be on the agenda for the upcoming meeting. No decisions are made on these calls. It is done in this manner to ensure compliance with Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.”
Sen. Mark Obenshain (VA-R), who sat on the Board from 1995 to 2003, said that while he was serving, no such meeting practice existed, lining up with Bartee’s assertion that the meetings began during Alger’s tenure. However, he said, the practice presents a direct contradiction to the concept of an open and transparent government.
“I’m not familiar with that practice, but I can surmise what it means, being familiar with our [Freedom of Information Act] laws,” Obenshain said. “I would certainly hope that’s not something that any member of public bodies engages in — they would be inconsistent with the spirit of our open government laws. I hope that’s not something that any college or any administration or any public body, including college boards, are promoting.”
Megan Rhyne, the director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, also clarified that the practice is within the law under the Freedom of Information Act, but yet, she said, the allowance by law has created a method used by public bodies and related officials to have body-wide conversations without having to disclose the meetings to the public.
“I don’t like it as an idea, but it is allowable,” Rhyne said. “It is done frequently across the state in both local government and, I’m sure, in higher [education] and in state agencies. I think the original intent of that section [of the Freedom of Information Act] was just to allow people to talk one-on-one, but it has definitely changed into a way for an administrator or a third party to meet with everyone without doing it in public.”
JMU faces monetary pressure for accountability
JMU is also facing increasing calls for transparency from some of its most prolific donors and related public figures.
In a letter obtained by The Breeze from alumnus Jeffrey Tickle (’90) to the BOV about his concerns over the current leadership, Tickle described the extent of his monetary giving to the university. Tickle mentioned the commencement of JMU’s first “capital campaign” under former president Rose, during which he said he pledged and paid $1 million. Additionally, Tickle said in the letter, he’s provided $10,000 annually to the Saturday STEM program, alongside a gift of $100,000 to the Atlantic Bank Union Center — described in the letter as “the new convocation center” — and a recent pledge of $2.5 million. Tickle also described JMU’s location within his “estate plans,” which he said in the letter would have afforded the university “another several million dollars.”
However, in the next paragraph, Tickle wrote the following:
“Unfortunately, due to my ongoing and increased dissatisfaction with the university’s leadership, I will no longer be giving and my estate plans will be changed.
In his letter to the Board of Visitors, Tickle described his frustrations with JMU's administration, and particularly President Alger.
Tickle goes on to describe specific grievances he holds against Alger, who he said has shown “poor judgment [and] a lack of leadership,” including Alger’s comparatively decreased activity in the state legislature as compared to former presidents Ron Carrier and Rose, and JMU’s decreasing selectivity — which Tickle attributes to increasing enrollment concerns.
As previously reported by The Breeze, the university’s admission rate has seen a steady incline in recent years. While over the past decade, the university’s enrollment has remained decently steady, in the 2010-11 school year, JMU’s acceptance rate sat at 61%, in the 2019-20 school year, the rate hit 77%.
Additionally, Tickle cited the “embarrassing failure of the university’s reopening for the fall semester” as a catalyst for a sharp increase in his loss of confidence in university leadership.
Tickle ended his letter by saying that while the Board who approved the hiring of Alger misstepped, the current Board has the opportunity to make what Tickle said he believes to be a correction to a previous mistake by moving to not renew Alger’s contract. And he’s not alone in his critiques.
Dave Sanderson, a previous member of the Board of Directors for the JMU Alumni Association, said that he’s recently talked with three out of the five largest donors to the university. Those donors, he said, have had conversations about pulling their donations and potentially not giving in the future.
Alongside a current deficit of $31.4 million for the 2020-21 operating budget — $12.6 million short from the general budget because of the effects of coronavirus on enrollment, $18.8 million short because of a lack of on-campus student revenue and fees, according to JMU Senior Vice President Charles King’s presentation at the Sept. 18 BOV meeting — losing several seven-figure donors would only drive the university further into the fiscal sinkhole created by the coronavirus.
Public figures push alongside donors, call out lack of public leadership
Tickle is also one among others calling out Alger’s lack of presence in Richmond.
Del. Jason Miyares (VA-R), a JMU alumnus, described Alger as “invisible in the General Assembly,” saying, “We don’t hear from Alger. I got sworn in in January, 2016, right? I think I’ve seen him, in the five years plus, maybe twice.”
Miyares said that to the best of his knowledge, university presidents will visit the General Assembly “at least once or twice a session.”
Sanderson also echoed Tickle’s and Miyares’ statements about Alger’s absence as a leader of the university. Though Sanderson doesn’t serve as a member of the General Assembly, he said he’s heard multiple times over that, as Miyares said, Alger can’t be found in Richmond. Miyares also said that he’s heard from “prominent alumni” who have expressed — as Tickle did — heavy frustration with Alger’s leadership.
“The lack of presence of the president in Richmond advocating for the university, leaving that to other people — I think some of the challenges that the university is having right now is because of the lack of being out in front of it, whether he believes in these things or not,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson described a lack of congruence between the supposed mission of the university and what’s really happening on the ground in Harrisonburg, which he said stems in part from Alger’s lack of leadership presence in a moment of quick-moving change for the university, describing Alger as “not a war-time president.” The problem, he said, comes down to Alger’s failure to perform his duties as the public leader of the university, informing and leading the community he heads.
“If the president wants to be the president of James Madison [University], he needs to be there and present 100% of the time,” Sanderson said. “He needs to be down at Richmond; he needs to be out in front of students; he needs to be out in front of alumni.”
Miyares and Sanderson also both expressed misgivings about the BOV’s ability to hold Alger — and by extension, the university administration — accountable in light of recent decisions, such as the Board’s choice to not accept live public comment at the Sept. 18 public Board meeting, instead opting to allow electronic submission of comments. As Miyares said, “[The BOV’s] fiduciary duty is to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Their fiduciary duty is not to James Madison University.”
A letter from Obenshain and Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (VA-D) sent to Lara Major, the rector of the Board, on Sept. 17 emphasized Miyares and Sanderson’s concerns over accountability among the BOV:
“The written comments that the Board is accepting may be very helpful for members of the Board in seeking to understand the nature and extent of the concerns of interested parties. An element of transparency and accountability will be lost without dedicating a portion of the meeting to online public comment.”
However, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Board members weren’t provided with the 650 submitted comments until nearly two weeks after the Sept. 18 meeting took place.
Obenshain, as a previous Board member, said that though he understands the discomfort that accompanies taking live public comment after events that paint the university in a negative light, “that makes it all the more important to let, you know, important constituencies know that they are actually being heard.”
“[The BOV] has forgotten that … [its] loyalty is to the citizens of Virginia — they are literally a watchdog,” Miyares said. “Their job is not to just sit there and, quite frankly, be a rubber stamp … Your fiduciary duty is to the Commonwealth of Virginia, but you make a decision that essentially cut out the very people that you owe a duty to.”
JMU leadership faces calls for change from all sides
In the conclusion of his letter, Tickle implored the Board to right what he said he sees as a previous wrong in appointing Alger by choosing not to renew the president’s contract. While neither Miyares, Sanderson or Obenshain directly called for Alger’s removal, all three expressed concern over the leadership currently running JMU, as well as the Board behind it.
“As an outsider, as an alumni, and as a member of the General Assembly,” Miyares said, “I know that whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working.”
Contact Jake Conley, investigations editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.