Tag Archives: Joe Fitzgerald

Inside the Bubble the Slightest Breeze Is a Threat

This is the fourth column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

The Breeze was always the “award-winning student newspaper” in JMU public relations — until the paper began filing Freedom of Information requests with the administration. The battle became public when the school decided to give the local paper, The Daily News-Record, first access to COVID data The Breeze had been requesting repeatedly. The university spokesperson broke one of the first rules of PR: don’t become the story. The explanations for dissing The Breeze were convoluted, at best. They boiled down to The Breeze had called every day, but it hadn’t called before the DNR that day.

The administration lashed out at The Breeze again when the paper reported Alger skirting the FOIA. At one point the Richmond newspaper said the JMU spokesperson had provided inaccurate information. And when the Richmond paper ran an editorial lambasting state universities for the way they’d handled the beginning of the fall semester, they illustrated it with a photo of Alger. Later The Breeze requested the number of COVID cases broken down by dorm. JMU consistently refused. It would have been a service to parents all over Virginia, not to mention New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to know where on campus the infections were most prevalent. But the university didn’t have to release those numbers if it didn’t want to. Continue reading

Incautious Messaging and Cautious Optimism

This is the third column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

Except for the occasional late-night Facebook message, James Madison University has rarely responded to anything I’ve written. And those messages are like drunk dials from an ex; I appreciate the attention, but I wish they still loved me in the morning. One exception came the week before the September meeting of the Board of Visitors, a Virginia term for what the rest of the world calls a Board of Trustees. A JMU senior communications official responded to a Facebook question on one of my threads from a JMU parent. The official said she could contact the Board of Visitors through a link that he provided.

My friend composed and sent a long discussion of her feelings about JMU’s reopening plans. She lives in Tidewater, but has family in Harrisonburg and follows my COVID numbers posts about cases here. Later she and others who’d commented at the link provided by JMU, found out through a story in the Richmond paper that the comments were never shown to the board members.

People were allowed to comment before the board meeting. The comments weren’t forwarded to the board. You can’t make this stuff up. There’s no law that says they have to allow comment at all, and no law that says anybody has to read the comments. One more reason Virginia should tighten FOI requirements. Continue reading

Everybody’s Next One

JMU President Jon Alger (center)

This is the second column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

JMU was a first choice for many of its students, but has a perennial reputation as Virginia’s safety school. The joke is that JMU stands for “Just Missed UVA.” The acceptance rate has been rising since the 1980s and the enrollment rate, the “yield” in admissions terms, has been dropping at the same time. The two lines crossed sometime in the 1990s. The flip-side of “Born to Be Wild” was a song called “Everybody’s Next One.” The flip-side of U.Va., and of William and Mary, is JMU.

JMU isn’t often a leader or an innovator. Maybe it was in some ways when Ron Carrier was president. He could be bold to the point of brash and brash to the point of bullying. There were stories about him. There were fewer about his successor, Lin Rose, and none about the president in 2020, Jon Alger. A JMU communications official had once complained to a local newspaper editor about the difficulty of promoting the school with Alger at the helm, because Alger was seen as awkward and uninteresting. Continue reading

The Franchise and the Rat in the Cream

JMU block party pre-COVID

This is the first essay in a four-part series about the COVID epidemic at James Madison University.

by Joe Fitzgerald

The franchise. When the next friendly history of JMU is written, the booster writing it may include a chapter about the two visits by ESPN’s “Game Day” and how they helped introduce to a new audience the awesome campus and student body of James Madison University. The book may or may not mention the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. If it does, will the relevant adjective be “dynamic,” a favorite of the school’s communication team? Or will it be “bumbling,” “mendacious,” or “calamitous”?

It could go either way. For many years, those of us who worked at JMU got an email every summer telling us what parking lots we could use during the dynamic freshman orientation week. I realized every time that it had been written one year and used for ten more with the dates and maybe the parking lots changed. But the editor in me wanted to know why the adjective was there. Was it to distinguish it from the static orientation week? Or did the university’s communications people just love adjectives? Continue reading