Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

James Madison University President: People are the most important strategic resource

Johnathan Alger​ is the president of James Madison University (JMU)​. President Alger shares JMU's story of successfully navigating uncharted waters, while transforming a large organization, consisting of 22,000 students, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Founded in 1908, James Madison University (JMU) is a public university located in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. JMU is fast becoming one of the nation's leading lights in higher education because students enjoy unusually engaged relationships with world-class faculty who are here because they want to pursue knowledge and make teaching their No. 1 priority. JMU was named the No. 1 most innovative university in the south by US News & World Report. JMU was also named No. 1 Best College for Employment in Virginia, according to the US Department of Education. JMU was also the No. 1 most recommended public university in the US by The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education. JMU is a higher education trailblazer. 

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More than 2,800 students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of JMU packed the Quad to form a human 100 in celebration of the university's centennial.

Steve Emerson, Aerial Photographer

In the past few weeks, may Salesforce colleagues and I have been deeply engaged with higher education leaders across the globe, to better understand how we could help with their crisis management and high priority digital transformation initiatives. In March alone, I have engaged nearly 30 higher education chief marketing officers, to better understand the necessary communication and messaging best practices, including a relevant content strategy to best inform all stakeholders -- students, faculty, administration, and communities. 

The level of engagement with higher education provosts, presidents, and senior executives during the past few months have been both inspiring and educational. John Taschek, senior vice president of market strategy at Salesforce, has been driving and promoting our company's collaboration efforts with trailblazers. Taschek is a JMU alumni and his daughter Hannah is currently attending JMU. Taschek and I had the opportunity to connect with the President of JMU to learn more about crisis management lessons and how institutions can transform at the speed of need.

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John Taschek, senior vice president of Market Strategy at Salesforce and a JMU alumni. 

Johnathan Alger is the sixth president of James Madison University (JMU). Under his leadership, this public comprehensive university in Virginia with 22,000 students developed a bold new vision to be "the national model of the engaged university:  Engaged with ideas and the world," and a strategic plan focused on engaged learning, community engagement, and civic engagement. 

Before coming to JMU, President Alger served as senior vice president and general counsel at Rutgers University, where he provided strategic leadership on a variety of issues and established a comprehensive compliance program. President Alger is a nationally recognized scholar and speaker on higher education policy and law, and has given hundreds of presentations across the United States and abroad on a wide range of topics. President Alger currently serves on the national boards for the American Council on Education, Association of American Colleges and Universities, and Campus Compact -- as well as the Association of Governing Boards' Council of Presidents, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' Council of State Representatives, and the NCAA's Division I Infractions Appeals Committee. 

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Johnathan Alger, president of James Madison University (JMU), has transformed the entire campus to a mobile and virtual environment for all stakeholders. 

John Taschek and I spoke with President Alger about his experience managing JMU in a crisis and how his team was able to successfully navigate uncharted waters while successfully transforming a large organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Here is President Alger's takeaways from our conversation -- a very inspiring and hopeful story about servant leadership:

A shift from in-person to virtual learning

Although days are blurring together as we deal with the utterly disruptive effects of a spreading pandemic, March 11 stands out clearly in my recollection. Even though we already had made several tough calls such as bringing students home early from study abroad experiences all over the world, March 11 was the day I and the senior leadership team at James Madison University made the excruciatingly difficult decision to shift in-person learning to virtual, online learning (at first for a few weeks; one week later it was extended through the remainder of the spring 2020 semester).

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James Madison University Campus.

To achieve the physical distancing that health officials set out as necessary for flattening the curve of the coronavirus spread, our nearly 22,000 students would no longer be in the presence of their professors, mentors, one another or the closely-knit Harrisonburg community situated in the heart of Virginia's stunning Shenandoah Valley. That morning we were in a large meeting room on the fifth floor of our College of Health and Behavioral Studies building. I remember the weather outside was incongruously cheery. And as we concluded that there was no other choice, my ears rang with the surging of my blood as I looked into the eyes of my fellow leaders. At that moment, we all knew that we were sailing into the unknown.

Especially for an organization known mainly for the unusually close interpersonal relationships between its students and faculty, shifting JMU from in-person classes to remote learning was a momentous decision -- not only because it ran counter to the unique selling proposition to which our students and their families responded when choosing to attend -- but also because it was going to be a mammoth ask of our faculty and staff, most of whom came to JMU precisely because of its interpersonal closeness. Yet guided by the two priorities of maintaining public health and safety and continued academic progress, it had to be. What happened in the coming days at JMU (and other campuses around the country) was nothing short of miraculous.

Navigating uncharted waters 

With more than 4,000 employees and an annual budget of well over half a billion dollars, JMU is a large, complex, and decentralized organization. We're also a state agency in the Commonwealth of Virginia. So navigating uncharted waters during an unprecedented crisis, while also staying within the strictures of multiple layers of government, was our gigantic challenge. Most immediately, that day our cascading set of decisions included:

  • How to arrange for roughly 6,500 students to safely retrieve their belongings from residence halls after spring break; and
  • How to transition nearly 5,500 academic course sections from in-person to online without disrupting learning.

We had been communicating with the JMU community about the pandemic since late January. But in the days following March 11, and after making a dizzying set of huge decisions as a team, we communicated to the community about the growing crisis using multiple channels, including a COVID-19 website accessible via our emergency notification panel -- familiar to most students as the spot to excitedly check and recheck when university operations may be disrupted by snow.

Social media also plays a key role at JMU. News of changes in operations spread quickly, and not without some misinformation disseminated by folks operating on hearsay and some bad actors trying to take advantage of the crisis. Thus we had to be resolute and respond on that front with lightning speed. As the situation rapidly changed and the necessary torrent of communications from the university flowed, we quickly shot and disseminated a video message from me aimed at encouraging the community through the transition.

A digital university adapting to the 'new normal' 

Astonishingly, 5,441 courses were shifted from in-person to online in just over one week. Our Research Support and Teaching staff in JMU Libraries accomplished a massive lift helping faculty to make the transition. It was certainly not without challenges, but it went better than to be expected for an institution so focused on in-person learning. Stories from students and faculty began to flow in. And after the first week of the "new normal," we issued another video message acknowledging the community's tremendous efforts (this time, captured on my phone by my daughter Eleanor at home rather than in a university studio, to maintain physical distancing even with our own staff).

Focus on stakeholder and community's health and safety

Of course, while delivering on a mission focused on learning, JMU exists within a larger community and affects the lives of many other groups beyond our students, faculty, and staff. As an institution focused on engagement with the real-world challenges all around us, we quickly pivoted to use our resources in ways that addressed rapidly emerging community needs, such as sheltering the local homeless population in a university building, shifting our traveling K-12 literacy program to online, helping the local farmers' market set up a drive-through capacity, and gathering personal protective equipment currently unused by our academic science and healthcare programs to donate to local practitioners.

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JMU gymnasium is converted to a homeless shelter.

The most important lesson learned during a crisis 

We've learned a lot from this crisis already. Our emergency plans provided a crucial starting point, but there was no real playbook for a pandemic of this ferocity and duration. We have had to make deeply consequential decisions quickly and with incomplete information while striving to reassure constituencies anxious for information and answers. Most of all, we've been reminded once again that our people are by far our most important strategic resource. Everyone has had a role to play. 

The faculty, of course, made an enormous transition to keep our fundamental educational mission alive, but there have been many unsung heroes who have also stepped up: librarians, information technology specialists, housekeepers, communications and human resources specialists, and facilities staff among many others. This pandemic has starkly underscored the crucial importance of relationships and interconnectedness in our approach to learning. We can and will adapt and innovate after this emergency through technology and other means, but we must also never forget the hope, inspiration, and resilience that derive from the extraordinary people who constitute the beating heart of the university. 

This article was co-authored by John Taschek, Senior Vice President at Salesforce