Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Collective Vision Charts JMU's Course
Montpelier Fall 1999

When President Linwood H. Rose unveiled the strategic vision for the future of JMU at his inauguration in September, the plan bore the stamp of many authors.

A year earlier - just days after becoming JMU's fifth president - Rose had rallied campus to look toward the year 2008, JMU's 100th birthday.

He established a 70-member Centennial Commission of professors, administrators, stu-dents, staff members, parents, alumni, donors, and both business and government leaders to help him define the characteristics of the ideal JMU of 2008 and to craft specific recommendations toward achieving that future ideal.

"It is readily apparent that JMU is an institution poised for a new level of distinguished achievement," Rose told the commission. "It is also readily apparent that to do so we must work together, share our thoughts, ideas and goals for the future, and formulate a plan for all of us to call our own.

"Your charge, your task," he said, "is to help me define the characteristics that ought to describe us as an institution in 2008. Then, I ask you to offer recommendations the university should consider as we seek to become the institution you define."

The project was ambitious, the goal lofty, the timetable tight, and the commitment taxing of members' time. Between December 1998 and April 1999, the commission was charged with identifying 10 to 20 characteristics of JMU in 2008, and drafting recommendations on how to achieve those characteristics.

Four committees studied academic and student support programs; faculty, staff and student development; resources and infrastructure; and external constituencies. Those committees, in turn, solicited input from all of JMU's internal and external constituencies.

In response to his request for input, Rose got it. Lots of it. More surprising, he got consensus.

"I was truly surprised that committees composed of alumni, students, parents, staff and faculty were able to put their own agendas aside and develop recommendations that will help position JMU as we enter the 21st century," notes Roger Soenksen, who chaired the committee of faculty, staff and student development. "When discussion centered on what was best for JMU, my committee had very few disagreements on specific action this university must take by 2008," the speech communication and media arts and design professor says.

Co-chairing the commission were Virginia Andreoli Mathie, a professor in the School of Psychology, and Alexander B. Berry, former rector of the JMU Board of Visitors.

Says Berry of their shared leadership, "Our positions and backgrounds are indicative of the diversity of the commission - a professor and a volunteer."

In addition to their leadership roles, Berry and Mathie shared strong feelings about the impact of the commission's work. "As volunteers in this important project, we experienced a heightened awareness of the success factors for JMU, the quality of the faculty and the dedication of all JMU constituencies to ensure success," Berry says. "A primary goal at our university is student success, and the commission was absolutely committed to this goal and to the ongoing excellence of JMU."

Adds Mathie, "Members of the JMU community were very fortunate to have this opportunity to participate in the development of a vision for JMU and the long-term plans to get us there. I believe this opportunity was well worth the time, effort and resources committed to this project."

Among the issues on which there was widespread agreement were that JMU should not grow to more than 15,000 students, and that we should remain primarily an undergraduate, residential, comprehensive university that also supports carefully-selected, high-quality graduate programs. Another strong area of consensus was that JMU's resources must catch up with its growth. Agreement was strong that we need to increase and enhance diversity. And all four committees were passionate in their assertion that JMU must make careful, conscious decisions about what to support and what not to support, regarding both new and existing programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Of course there were also times when points of view diverged widely across issues. "The commission was full of individuals who were intensely committed to providing the highest quality educational experience for our students and who had no reservations about stating their opinions and ideas about how to achieve this," Mathie observes. "It was clear that agreeing to disagree would be an important part of the discussion process, so it was all the more remarkable that broad-based agreement about key issues emerged early in the process and continued throughout the commission's work."

Adds Kay Knickrehm, political science professor and chair of the academic and student support committee, "One of the things that I observed on my committee was that members of the different constituencies approached the committee's work from very different perspectives and would express very different concerns. When it came to addressing those concerns, however, we found that we shared certain core values that made for broad agreement on important points. Everyone treated everyone else with the utmost respect and I think that was genuine - not just politeness."

The commission's final report to Rose took into account discussions from dozens of committee meetings as well as hundreds of pages of input received from members of the JMU community in open meetings and from web discussion boards, e-mails and forms in the student newspaper. Even the writing of the report was collaborative and included widespread input. The feeling of shared accomplishment across the commission was profound. Commission members believed they had succeeded in their mission to help Rose define an institutional vision, described by futurist Ian Wilson as "a coherent and powerful state ment of what the organization can and should be some set number of years hence."

Mutual respect and a deeper understanding of differing needs and values were a natural outcome of Rose's inclusive approach to creating an institutional vision. Across all four committees, members learned from one another and gained an understanding of the differing expertise and contributions of faculty, students, staff, administrators, alumni, and members of government and industry.

As Resources and Infrastructure Committee Chair Karen Forcht says, "For most of us on the academic side of the university, seeing first hand just how complex the facilities, buildings and infrastructure truly are gave us new insight into what it takes to keep a university 'city' operating efficiently. Hopefully, by viewing JMU through our newfound perspective, we can all better appreciate other people's tasks and jobs," the computer information systems professor explains.

Says Soenksen, "I was most impressed by the input of the students on my committee. They were excellent advocates employing sound reasoning and arguments. I expected staff, faculty, alumni, etc. to be outspoken and willing to express their views openly. However, I think everyone walked away from my committee feeling very good about the quality of students this institution is developing. The student members of my committee represented the very best of the best."

Rose made it clear from the start that while he remained responsible and accountable for the decisions he would make as JMU's president, the process of crafting the vision for JMU would be participatory and he would sincerely respect the input provided by the commission. As Soenksen de- scribes the process, "Not only is JMU entering a new presidential era, but the use of the Centennial Commission marks an equally important movement to seek data from a variety of perspectives and build consensus along the way, so all the constituents that make up the JMU community have a strong commitment to JMU's vision."

As the nature of organizational structures evolves across the nation in both the public and private sectors, Rose is in good company with this collaborative approach. Accord- ing to David Pearce Snyder, a nationally-respected editor with The Futurist, "Organizations are moving away from hierarchical bureaucracies to more democratic structures that place emphasis on cooperative relationships, including partnering and teamwork."

Rose said in May that "the entire report, from the promise statement and core characteristics to the supporting narratives and individual recommendations, is serving us well" in discussions with JMU's vice presidents and deans and with the Board of Visitors. He thanked the com-mission for "challenging us, individually and collectively, to reach for something special." Then he paid the commission the ultimate compliment by weaving much of their work and style into the fabric of his new presidency.

The full report of the Centennial Commission, as well as its membership and its discussion forums, is online .

  • Pauli Fitzgerald ('96)

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