The student view

UnknownOn the inauguration day of President Jon Alger, James Madison University’s Convocation Center was filled with people eager to see JMU history made. After all, this hasn’t happened often at JMU. Three students watching, including author of this post, Rachel Dawson, were paying special attention. They played a role in the events both before the inauguration and during the formal event. In her second post this week, Rachel relates their perspectives and what a new president means for the university’s future.

Viewing a new vision

by Rachel Dawson (’13)

Rachel Dawson ('13)

Rachel Dawson (’13)

The Convo was crammed with Dukes in purple eager to see JMU history made. All the work and preparation was about to become real. Senior SMAD major Meaghan MacDonald and I assisted with greeting and making sure special guests were in the correct locations during the speech. Sophomore writing, rhetoric, and technical communications major Rosemary Girard had been involved in the behind the scenes work shadowing President Alger’s head speechwriter, as well as assisting in editing and working with various speeches Alger gave while at JMU and on his listening tour.

Meaghan, Rosemary and I are students who give of our time to volunteer or work in the marketing and communications department, and we are committed to what we do and this university we do it for. Our views on the vision and goals of President Alger are different, and I think all three of us have unique perspectives in response to what President Alger has done so far and what he plans to do as well.

Meaghan has a less common JMU experience: “I am a first generation graduate paying my way through college because my father was out of work for four years,” she said. “When I first came to college, I was ashamed and embarrassed when people asked me where I was from, what my parents did and where they went to college. I have learned to get over that struggle, but I think it is very important that when Alger addresses diversity that he includes those aspects and makes those kids feel welcome and important.”

Thus, for Meaghan, who is from Jackson, N.J., a main concern is Alger’s vision for the diversity of JMU’s campus in all regards. “When it comes to diversity, I hope he is focusing on all forms of diversity outside of race, ethnicity, etc.,” she said. “I want to know his goals regarding economic and class background and again, with first generation graduates and how he can make that less taboo and make the kids feel more welcomed.”

Rosemary, from Arlington, Va., values JMU’s “open door” policy in all areas of student and staff life—a guiding principle that often leads to special opportunities and experiences for students. “This inclusive culture is what led me to contact the Office of the President,” she said. She was pleased to see that door open. For Rosemary, being able to participate in the speechwriting process and other communications work in the Office of the President spoke volumes about the character of President Alger himself.

“I have nothing but respect and admiration for President Alger,” she said. “As I’ve interacted with him over the past several months, I have been continually impressed by his intelligence and qualifications for the position. He has extensive knowledge of law, education, history and countless other topics. He has dealt with topics like diversity in education at the Supreme Court level, for example. His brilliance and career background are quite impressive and will serve JMU wonderfully.”

Because Rosemary has worked with President Alger and his staff for an extended period of time, she has seen the new president in action around campus and at work on his presidential duties.

“Aside from looking excellent ‘on paper,’ President Alger’s humility and kindness are what tie him to this campus,” Rosemary said. “The mere fact that he has allowed me to connect with his writing and communications team shows his dedication to students. In our speech meetings, even behind closed doors, President Alger exhibits an immense amount of dedication to education and propelling JMU forward.”

Based on the opinions of Rosemary and Meaghan, my own observations, and the general feelings and opinions I’ve witnessed around campus, I think the JMU student body is ready for the change President Alger wants to bring. We have high standards for the one who will lead the university so many of us love so dearly, and I think it’s safe to say we’re all hoping he’ll meet and exceed them.

To read and see a full report on the recent inauguration, look for the upcoming Madison magazine to be published in April.

Being involved

JMU senior Rachel Dawson in front of Wilson Hall

JMU senior Rachel Dawson in front of Wilson Hall

Communications and Marketing intern Rachel Dawson (’13) will graduate in August with a degree from the School of Media Arts and Design and double minors in British communications and media, and educational media. Rachel who is from Glen Allen, Va., will finish after just three years. With AP credits and a semester abroad studying in London, she had a head start at JMU. For this week’s blog posts, Rachel reflects on last week’s inauguration, what her Madison experience has been like, and why it’s important.

Reflections from an inauguration

by Rachel Dawson (’13)

In the big picture scheme of things here at JMU, my time as a student is pretty short. I’m graduating this year. For me to be a student as JMU inaugurated its sixth president was historic and monumental, and I was honored to be able to play a small role in the events of that inauguration.

As an intern for the Communications and Marketing department, I assisted in the inauguration by making sure key students, staff, faculty and alumni who President Alger would refer to in his speech were where they needed to be for the camera to show them and give them a few moments of well-deserved recognition.

To meet alumni and Baltimore Ravens player D.J. Bryant, to see a group of JMU’s finest athletes who are also honors students, to meet successful alumni and see them seated next to JMU professors who inspired and supported them as students, and to connect with many others brought President Alger’s inaugural speech to life for me.

His remarks, in reference to the “Why Madison?” listening tour, shifted the focus to “That’s Why Madison,” and the featured guests demonstrated so clearly the model of engagement President Alger is striving for. One example that stood out to me was Pulitzer Prize winning alumnus Jeff Gammage sitting next to his former adviser at The Breeze, Dave Wendelken. As a SMAD major, I have a class with Dr. Wendelken, and seeing how he played such a valuable role in the later success of Gammage was exciting and encouraging to me.

Students at JMU are working hard, not only in their academics, but in their extracurricular activities and sports as well. And JMU faculty and staff aren’t just distant teachers speaking from a podium—they’re taking an interest in these students and motivating them to be the best they can be.

Alumni aren’t just graduating and never looking back—they’re investing in current students and helping open doors for them in the workplace and beyond. There’s a worldwide network connecting everyone at and from JMU, and I am confident it’s only going to grow deeper and wider under President Alger’s leadership.

I became a student when JMU was led by President Rose, and have seen the shifts that have occurred in President Alger’s time here. I see President Alger around campus, interacting with students, taking an interest in their lives, genuinely listening to their thoughts about the life of this university. I’ve seen him take time to connect with students as individuals, not just as the mass body of JMU Dukes. He is leading by example and showing that being involved is something that spreads into every domain of life—learning, community service, athletics, careers, etc. I see President Alger genuinely caring for the life of the university, its student body, and its faculty and staff. Even though President Alger doesn’t know my name or my face specifically, I feel like he does. At a university with over 18,000 students, that’s an impressive feat to accomplish just by him being who he is.

I believe President Alger’s visions for this campus are not only possible but powerful. I know I will graduate with a degree that is not only proof that I gained knowledge in the field of my major, but that I also have a strong foundation and understanding of how to be a team player, a globally aware individual, a grounded and moral being, and a better person in general. JMU is known to be a place of increasingly high quality academics as well as the home of high quality people.

I’m proud to be a student here. I’m proud to call President Alger our new president. I’m proud of the vision and goals he has for this campus and our university. I’m proud to know I won’t be forgotten when I graduate, because I know the JMU family goes beyond Harrisonburg. I’ll be graduating with an incredible education and support system behind me and incredible opportunities ahead of me. JMU is ready for the change that President Alger is bringing. I fully believe his leadership will only make JMU a better, stronger, and more influential university, and I support him fully.

On Thursday, Rachel will continue her posting  with thoughts from other students. 

If you’d like to read the entire text of the inauguration, you will find it here:

The JMU website features extensive photo coverage of the entire inauguration week’s events at

A character of change

The skyline over James Madison University explodes, concluding the Inauguration of President Jon Alger.

The skyline over James Madison University explodes, concluding the Inauguration of President Jon Alger.

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.


The great and important overlap

Brian Kaylor introduces panelists (l-r) Jim Shaeffer, Meg Mulrooney and Chaz Evans-Haywood

Brian Kaylor introduces panelists (l-r) Jim Shaeffer, Meg Mulrooney and Chaz Evans-Haywood

For every college and university in every town and every city in every part of the country, there is town and gown, yin and yang, give and take, push and pull. JMU in Harrisonburg is no exception.

Since 1908, Harrisonburg and Madison have grown together and sometimes groaned together, side by side. Occasionally, there are spats, but for the most part it has been a mutually beneficial arrangement. A university’s presence in a community, a state, a nation can and should have a positive impact. It should be a catalyst for positive change.

Last night citizens from the community, students and Madison faculty came together for a Citizenship Forum as part of the weeklong celebration of Friday’s inauguration of President Jonathan Alger. They discussed higher education’s responsibility to society to help produce educated, informed and enlightened citizens, who will in turn influence their communities.

In the wise words of panelist Jim Shaeffer, “We’ve got to live with each other at the end of the day.” It is, perhaps, the best reasoning I’ve ever heard for civic and civil engagement, but how do we get there? What is higher education’s responsibility in producing educated, informed and enlightened citizens?

Jim, associate vice president for outreach and engagement at JMU, was joined on the panel by Chaz Evans-Haywood (’96), Clerk of the Circuit Court for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, and Meg Mulrooney, JMU associate professor of history and associate dean for University Studies. Brian T. Kaylor, JMU asistant professor of political communication, advocacy studies, rhetorical methods and public speaking, moderated the discussion.

JMU senior Oliver Brass addresses the Citizenship Forum.

JMU senior Oliver Brass addresses the Citizenship Forum.

Jim has spent 30 years in outreach and engagement. He characterized the intersection of civic involvement, community involvement and education as a Venn diagram whose purposes overlap. Based on the Carnegie model, he says, civic engagement should provide mutual beneficial exchange of ideas and strengths, partnerships and reciprocity. “All of us bring strengths to the table,” he said, “You leverage the strengths of both.”

That’s exactly what happened in Chaz’ office, for example. After he was elected, Chaz was faced with an office full of documents dating back to the 1700s. His predecessors had “saved everything,” he said. Preserving that history has been an important task for his office, and JMU students have played a part. “The students were excited about the technology and how they could use it [to preserve the court’s history].” It was a win/win for the clerk’s office and for the students. Students provided enthusiasm and ideas based on their technical saavy. The opportunity to work in an office setting helped hone students’ critical relationship skills.

When students and community groups intersect both also have responsibilities. Chaz pointed out to the students in attendance that they — as voters in local elections — influence the lives of his children through votes on issues such as local school funding and the allocation of funding.

To make those decisions, Meg Mulrooney said, students — as future citizens — need good judgment. One of higher education’s responsibilities is to prepare students to make these decisions wisely and to apply learned and practiced skills in ethical reasoning. Teaching ethical reasoning across the curriculum is the focus of the Madison Collaborative, a new program that will ensure that every student will graduate equipped with the critical thinking skills to function as thoughtful and positive members of society.

The obligation of higher education to teach ethical reasoning in action and civic responsibility goes even further than teaching, Jim said. “As a public university, we have a moral obligation to share our resources, our expertise with the community.”

“The Madison community must also model community engagement to students,” he also said.

The Madison faculty does that well. “As a student, I found those teachers who helped me get involved in the community,” Chaz said.

Participants in the event included current students, members of the JMU debate team, faculty members, community members, one toddler (who was the least interested in the event) and even friends of the Algers, the Matsons from Princeton, NJ, who were on campus to celebrate the inauguration of their good friend Jon Alger.

The Citizenship Forum was an evening of engagement in action, one that is repeated in offices, classrooms, clubs and organizations — anywhere that the university and the community overlap.

For more of Jim Shaeffer’s perspective on JMU’s civic engagement, read his blog, Shaeffer’s Forays.


Forbes Center for the Performing Arts at James Madison University

Forbes Center for the Performing Arts at James Madison University

Historic events — whether they are meteorological or institutional — put us all in a mindset of anticipation. And that pretty much sums up this week on campus.


Looming over the Midwest is a snowstorm that might hit us on Wednesday. Or it might not. Far more certain is an event next week, which we anticipate to be far more important and historic.

Monday begins the university’s weeklong celebration of the inauguration of President Jonathan R. Alger. We are making last minute preparations and getting ready for the event that happens infrequently at Madison. Mr. Alger is only the sixth president to lead the university in its 105-year history.

Despite the possibility of snow this week, it is a good time for last minute preparations. The campus is empty, the residence halls are vacant and the classrooms are locked. Students have dispersed for a weeklong Spring Break. For many of them, though, the last thing on their minds is the upcoming inauguration because many — hundreds in fact — are participating in an Alternative Break Program. They have traveled throughout the country from Florida to California and beyond to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Jamaica, to name a few destinations. Wherever they have landed, they are becoming the hands, the feet and the faces of service to communities and organizations as varied as homeless shelters, HIV/AIDS organizations and refugee resettlement camps.

It’s symbolic — and quite appropriate — that inauguration week follows Alternative Spring Break. When students come back to campus this weekend, they will bring new experiences and understandings. Returning to their classrooms, they will bring these new perspectives that will enhance learning, especially as they share what they have given and gained during their week of service. This kind of engagement parallels and reinforces the vision for the university that President Alger addressed in his acceptance speech more than a year ago. He said:

James Madison University can serve as the national model for what it means to be the “engaged university” of the 21st Century.  This vision is not that of an isolated ivory tower, but rather of an institution that is fully engaged with ideas and the world.  JMU relishes its historic and timeless role as a place where knowledge is developed and enhanced-while also answering the call to put knowledge, creativity, and critical thinking skills to good use in addressing the most pressing challenges of our society and our world. 

Next week the Madison community will change as Jonathan R. Alger formally accepts the mantle of president. And once again, we will anticipate —  not a single-week event like a snowstorm — but decades of opportunity for growth, progress, collaboration and civic engagement that will deliver positive change here on campus and around the world.

For much more on next week’s festivities, including many public events, visit the university’s inauguration website.
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