A character of change
March 18, 2013 1 Comment
Throughout last week’s inauguration events, I was feeling a little nostalgic. I kept having flashbacks to 2008 when James Madison University celebrated its centennial. As part of the centennial staff, I was thoroughly steeped in Madison history. The more I learned, one overarching characteristic kept rising: Madison knows who it is. And from its very beginning, JMU has understood and remained faithful to its purpose in higher education.
So I was pleasantly surprised, while chatting with Clarresa Moore Morton before Friday’s ceremony, to hear her articulate the same sentiment. Dr. Morton, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Shenandoah University, had traveled to JMU, along with an impressive list of representatives from other colleges and universities, to affirm the installation of President Jonathan R. Alger. She remarked how unusual it is that JMU throughout significant growth and change has stayed true to its character.
As I reflected on Dr. Moore’s comment within the context of JMU history, I realized how perceptive she was. Madison has stayed true to its character and its mission to educate and enlighten in spite of a remarkable transformation from a small women’s teachers college to a major university. While that may sound like a lovely platitude, it’s not — because positive change is fundamental at JMU. How Madison has changed sets it apart and reveals its character.
Change, of course, is inevitable. At times it can throw institutions off course, but the kind of change that has marked Madison’s meteoric rise is different. To study the history of Madison is to see how visionary leaders who viewed the past as a solid foundation moved an institution forward.
Each of the five prior presidents set solid, focused goals. At the same time, each built on the institution’s strengths. They wove new tapestries using the strongest warps and threads of the past. They did not make the mistake of those who scrap their past in pursuit of a wholly changed future or, equally foolhardy, those who refuse to alter a single thread of the original cloth in a sentimental obligation to preserve tradition. You could call it middlin’ wisdom; I’d call it wise leadership.
Few would argue that JMU’s most visible changes occurred during the last three decades of the 20th Century, yet JMU’s core value — a pragmatic approach to student success founded on superlative teaching — was never abandoned. Instead, it was melded into new visions and objectives, and the best of the old and the new moved the university forward in a collective though not always unanimous way. Vision and strong leadership, however, prevailed, and the forward trajectory of the university remained remarkably steady.
If there is any best indicator that this is true, one need only return to the 1970s and the debate over whether or not to change Madison College into a university. When various constituencies were polled, the group most eager to see this significant change occur wasn’t current students or faculty. It was the alumni of the mid-century, 1930s and on, who gave the idea the strongest thumbs up. Many of these were school teachers who had learned their lessons well within a college community constantly looking for the best practice. Another example: Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, the remarkable success of Integrated Science and Technology, once decried and now lauded, is apparent. Vision and leadership made the difference.
Gradually JMU’s scope has broadened and deepened to embrace the community, the state, the nation and the world with a determination to be more than an institution of higher learning but also a catalyst for positive change. It sounds ambitious, even a little lofty or starry-eyed, but when one looks closely at the last decades at JMU, especially during the Rose years, that expanding vision — driven unquestionably by a world condensed and amalgamated through travel and communication — has found new life. JMU’s tangible, thoughtful and real capacity to engage and create change beyond the university’s borders is remarkable and inspiring — and true to its own character.
Written more than a century ago, first President Julian A. Burruss’s assessment of the purpose of his school still rings true.
To meet these demands of the new education it is obvious that the work of the Normal School can no longer be confined to theory and books, but must see its material in real things, in nature, in the practical activities of industry and commerce, in the business, civic and social interests of life.” He went on to discuss the duty of educators: “We must seek a broadening and enriching of the minds of our students, and the development of an impelling belief that teaching is the highest and noblest of callings, of an insatiable ambition to succeed and a burning zeal to render the largest measure of service in the world.”*
So as Madison embraces a new leader with a vision for an even greater level of engagement, it does so knowing who it is and how to change to create the brightest possible future.
*Madison College: The First Fifty Years, 1908-1958, by Raymond C. Dingledine, Jr.
The spectacular photo of the fireworks over campus is the work of Mike Miriello (’09M) who manages all things photographic for JMU marketing and communications.