Snow Angel Philosophy

by Joe Fitzgerald

Snow angels or philosophers? It seemed like an easy choice to me. A James Madison University admissions official read the letters from a male who wrote about how well he understood the great philosophers and a female, from Ohio if memory serves, who wanted to know if she’d be able to make snow angels in Virginia. Easy choice. Somebody who’s read philosophy in high school is going to be better equipped to learn at a post-secondary level.

The admissions official went with the snow angels. I don’t remember the adjectives she used but I remember thinking they didn’t have a lot to do with education.

Only a moment, and a long time ago. My kid turns 34 next week, so it’s been a while since I had a reason to attend an admissions event.

I think of that when I hear references to JMU’s selling points. The school has a rock wall, claims the best food service among Virginia’s colleges, and is the best-looking campus. (Ron Carrier said he loved mulch so much he’d roll around in it if he could; the last time I saw him he was spreading mulch in a public area, apparently because he could.)

A splendid nursing program, top-notch media arts department, an English department that’s still steeped in literature, but first you have to get them through the door with the rock wall. And maybe the rock wall is the better draw for the snow angel crowd, if that’s who you want.

During the pandemic, when JMU was having one of the worst Covid-19 clusters in the state, I was writing that the school’s problems began with the decision to treat the pandemic as an administrative issue and worsened with the decision to treat it as a communications problem. That’s not all there was to the story, but it’s fair to concede that JMU at least tried to use two of its biggest strengths. It’s more than fair to point out that administration and communications might not be the best ways to manage a public health emergency.

Some years back, Heather Coltman described reactions to the way JMU is run. “The newcomers say, ‘Oh, my God!’ and the old-timers say, ‘What’s wrong?’”

I thought it was brilliant at the time, and still do, but it meant a lot more when it was the only thing I knew about her. That and the fact she was being called the provost instead of the academic VP. More specifically, the title is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. It’s a long title, but then she heads an academic world that no longer has program directors or department heads, but instead has academic unit heads. When JMU President Jon Alger, who has the shortest title on campus, originally renamed department heads, a lot of people chuckled and rolled their eyes. Now, years later, normal people call one another AUH with a straight face.

I imagine, for the record, that Alger has made other changes over the years. One obvious one is appointing Coltman, who recently said, “It has been and continues to be a priority of my office, to work with faculty collaboratively to operationalize shared governance.” In case it’s not clear from the context, operationalizing shared governance in this instance meant showing up at faculty senate meetings with a team of lawyers to try and keep them from condemning her for what they called heavy-handed behavior.

The faculty senate voted this week to condemn her anyway, so operationalization apparently failed. JMU’s student newspaper, The Breeze, reported, “Coltman and JMU President Jonathan Alger told The Breeze they want to move forward and partner with faculty constructively and collaboratively in the future.”

“Just not right now?” one could ask, but that might be mean.

When the faculty senate’s “Resolution Regarding Transparency and Accountability of A&P Hires Within the Division of Academic Affairs,” was originally brought up, the administration answered with a demand to know who the authors are. But any union person knows you don’t tell management individual names because the house always wins.

The administrative and communication lesson no one ever learns is that when the head gasket blows, it’s too late to change the oil. By the time administration’s micromanagement of a Holocaust memorial overruled the concerns of Jewish faculty, it may have been too late. Maybe when the faculty senate began to discuss a culture of fear and intimidation, somebody could have stopped playing the piano in the parlor and checked what was going on upstairs. Maybe when the faculty senate questioned the ethics of hiring practices, threatening libel actions was not the best communication and administration move.

The Holocaust memorial is the event that made worldwide news because it’s always the symptom and not the underlying ailment that gets headlines. Everything else has been covered mostly by The Breeze alone. And you wonder how a university that made headlines 30 years ago with deep-seated disagreements between faculty and administration could have the same thing happening again now.

Heather Coltman was a relative newcomer when she said, “The newcomers say, ‘Oh, my God!’ and the old-timers say, ‘What’s wrong?’” She’s been there long enough to qualify as an old-timer now.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.