Over my years as President of JMU, I have enjoyed reading Breeze coverage of our community each week. It has usually provided a forum for hearing different opinions and hearing from the student perspective, which I have always valued. Tonight, however, as I sit here and read the most recent article in The Breeze, “Alger moved JMU away from transparency, skirts open meetings laws,” I must admit that I am extremely disappointed in the tone, the tenor and the inaccuracies of fact within this article.
It is important to note that neither the university nor I was approached for comment on any of the opinions expressed in the article by a small group of individuals, except to confirm the existence of preparatory phone calls between the university and members of JMU’s Board of Visitors. While it is not uncommon in this high-stress environment for people to lash out at leaders, there appears to have been no attempt whatsoever to get anyone to address these opinions who might offer a different point of view.
Since I was not given the courtesy of responding before the article was published, here is what I would have shared.
By way of background, when I came to JMU in 2012, I was very excited to engage with the Board of Visitors, which was comprised of many prominent people, all with a dedication to the University that was impressive. As we discussed how to improve communications and board meetings, we developed a system of preparatory calls to brief board members on upcoming agenda items and to ensure that we could gather information that they might need to exercise their fiduciary responsibilities.
These calls increased transparency with the board and led to more engaged and informed board members who, in turn, have been much better prepared to meaningfully participate in public board meetings, offer substantive feedback, make and challenge decisions, and provide leadership as they should. As is pointed out in the article, this is a common practice, because it leads to a more informed and prepared board, something everyone should be in favor of. Many board members have found these calls to be a helpful practice.
As far as who speaks for the board, the board charter, unchanged since my arrival on this point, states that the Rector is the only person authorized to speak for the Board of Visitors. This is a best practice of most boards of any kind and is meant to streamline transparency, not to stifle inputs.
Offering oral public comment sessions at university board meetings is not a common practice across the Commonwealth, and when JMU has held open comment sessions in the past, very few, if any, people have ever attended. The university will continue to seek multiple, meaningful ways to collect feedback from its many constituencies.
Fundraising and Enrollment
The article shares at length opinions contained in a letter from an alumnus. The article’s author goes as far as to speculate about the university losing major donor backing. At no point are any facts about university fundraising under my leadership presented. Before my term began in 2012, the three-year rolling average for private giving to the university was below $10M annually. Working with a terrific team, I made private giving a greater priority, invested heavily in Advancement, and launched Unleashed: A Campaign for James Madison University. The university’s current three-year rolling average has more than doubled to $21M under my leadership. Additionally, the university’s endowment has doubled, and currently stands at $116.7M.
While it is true that our acceptance rate has risen in recent years, this is not a negative reflection on the quality of our institution or our students. While the number of students applying to JMU is steady or increasing each year, the higher admissions rate is due to the fact that students are applying to more colleges, and more students need to be admitted to ensure the yield we seek each year. This is true at many institutions across the country.
While there are many factors that cause students to go elsewhere, we know that one of our biggest challenges is the university’s limited ability to offer scholarships and financial aid relative to the high-caliber institutions with which we now compete for students. That is why scholarship support is the #1 priority in the Unleashed campaign. Donors threatening to pull donations in response to an increased acceptance rate only exacerbates this problem, and hurts most the future students who may never have a chance to experience JMU as a result of reduced scholarship dollars. At a time when many families’ finances are challenged, I am certain this is not what most of our donors and supporters want.
JMU is a major university, and with that comes tremendous responsibility to ensure that all constituencies are as well informed as possible. In my first year here, I conducted a nationwide Listening Tour with students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members on campus and across the country. That Listening Tour resulted in a new vision and strategic plan for the institution. Since that time, I have been a very active presence on campus, in the community, and across the Commonwealth and the country.
I have sought to raise JMU’s profile and stature, and currently serve on many influential national boards. These include the American Council on Education, American Association of Colleges and Universities, and Campus Compact—as well as the NCAA’s Division I Infractions Appeals Committee and the Council on Competitiveness’ University Leadership Forum, to name a few. I meet with many members of the Virginia General Assembly during every session, and have also hosted many legislators here at JMU. I also serve on the boards of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, which advocates for public higher education at the state level, and the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
During these years the university’s reputation has continued to grow on multiple fronts. JMU is highly ranked for its innovation, undergraduate teaching, engagement, and overall value. For two years running, JMU has also been recognized as the “Top College in Virginia for Getting a Job.”
While I am sure that there have been mistakes during my tenure, I take full responsibility for every aspect of our operations, and I am extremely grateful for the many colleagues around me who are so devoted to this institution. I am committed to serving JMU with passion, energy, integrity, and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
President, James Madison University