Why Madison Presidential Listening Tour: College of Visual and Performing Arts

President Alger on tour

President's Journal —
College of Visual and Performing Arts, Forbes Center for the Performing Arts, Nov. 15, 2012

It was a joy to visit with the College of Visual and Performing Arts today as part of the "Why Madison?" Listening Tour. I met with a talented and committed group of artists and educators who came together to reflect on our strengths, our challenges and our future. The Madison Future Commission will deliberate on the input we elicited in our conversations in the strategic planning process as we plan for the future of Madison.

The arts are central in the life of my family
Let me start by saying that the arts are not a tough sell for me, and I told the CVPA faculty and administrators so during my visit. My family is very passionate about the arts. My daughter Eleanor's passion is one of JMU's hallmarks—musical theater. She sings and dances and played the cello for a time. My wife, Mary Ann, has been a pianist her whole life and has accompanied a lot of children's choirs over the years. I grew up playing the trombone and singing. In fact, I've sung throughout my life with choral groups and even toured internationally. If you see me up in the Forbes Center trying to sing along and just sort of biting my tongue, that's why.

JMU is known for excellence in the arts
While the performing and visual arts are really important to my family, they are distinctive strength for JMU. Madison is known for the arts. There are students from where we lived in New Jersey who have set their sights on attending JMU specifically for the arts education we provide. Our arts education will continue to attract top-flight faculty members and students from across the country and indeed from around the world. The Forbes Center for the Performing Arts certainly is a drawing card in the recruitment of students and faculty members. There is a lot of work to do in terms of increasing support, but we are starting from a position of strength. Unlike other parts of the country where you see the arts getting cut back as if somehow they are not essential, I'm very happy that the arts are continuing to be an important priority of James Madison University.

Being the best JMU we can be
As we've looked around the university and reflected on this question of "Why Madison," there are several themes that I think are important to the performing and visual arts, in particular. One is certainly the quality of the educational experience. The mix of the strengths of the liberal arts education on one hand, combined with the strengths you might see at a big research-intensive university, on the other, provides a strong and distinct education for our students. I am pleased to hear that JMU's Research Council has come to understand that scholarship and research also includes performance and creativity. We're not a small liberal arts college like Swarthmore, which I attended, but we do boast its great faculty-student interaction. That's very important to people, and we've heard that consistently as I've visited with alumni, parents and donors on the "Why Madison?" Listening Tour. It doesn't matter whether someone graduated two years ago or 20 years ago; alumni have been consistent on that theme. People also value that we have a rich array of opportunities for undergraduate research and creative projects, and for undergraduates to work at a very high level with faculty members who are doing world-class work here. That's something you might typically find at a larger research university.

Becoming the national model for the "Engaged University"
Our challenge at Madison will be to think about how we combine those elements into something unique and distinctive of our own. We must transcend these self-imposed and obscure classifications and become the best JMU that we can be and take pride in the JMU that is special and different. You've heard me talk about what I am calling "the Engaged University." I believe JMU is that university and has the opportunity to set the national standard for the Engaged University. That means being engaged both with ideas and with the world. A lot of schools talk about being that, but here it is very palpable. There really is a great commitment to engagement, and students are drawn to this university because of that. I think that's another signature strength that we should think about moving forward and what it means.

Task force looking at short-, medium- and long-term solutions
While Madison faces some significant challenges, I was heartened to hear that finances and compensation were not the first items on the lips of the CVPA faculty today. They understand that the budgets for public higher education around the country have been tough recently. Virginia is actually better off than some states. Nevertheless, salaries are very much on our minds. Last spring I asked Jerry Benson and Charlie King to appoint a task force, which today is already at work looking at opportunities and possibilities involved in addressing compensation of our full and part-time faculty and staff members. The task force is delving in fully to understand budgets, revenues and expenses, and what by law and policy can be done. I have asked this task force to propose a mix of short-term, medium-term, and longer-term solutions. If there were a magic bullet, I'm sure we would have already solved the compensation conundrum. This group will need to be creative and to address compensation solutions in a systematic way as we go forward.

Focusing on "the third leg" of the revenue stool
One of the discussion points today was fundraising. It was especially helpful to have the CVPA leadership as well as our University Advancement representative in our conversation today. We talked about not being able to ask Richmond to solve all of our resource issues any more. Nor can we ask students and their parents to meet constantly rising tuition costs. While we will continue to advocate for every dollar we can get in state support, what's left is the third leg of the stool—financial support from alumni, from other private sources, corporations, foundations, and grants. I believe we have an untapped resource in grants, and we must devote some of our efforts to applying for more.

Bringing our 7 percent alumni giving rate more into line with our 97 percent alumni satisfaction rate
One of the things I have been bringing up all along the "Why Madison?" Listening Tour is our alumni giving participation rate. According to our research, 97 percent of our alumni have said they had a great experience at JMU. Well, that's astoundingly high. I've never seen that kind of number in another institution. And, yet, only 7 percent of our alumni give back financially to the university, so there's this huge disconnect. We're way at the top on one rating and we're way towards the bottom on the other. In talking to alumni, there are a lot of reasons. Our history is different. We're a young university. A lot of our growth was in recent decades. Alumni have told us we haven't always asked them to give, or we have communicated our needs wells or alumni just assumed "Oh, JMU is a state university. The state will take care of things." We clearly have a lot of work to do to create that culture of philanthropy as one of our challenges going forward. That's certainly something on all of our minds.

We must work intentionally to open JMU to students from underrepresented backgrounds
As I mentioned in our conversation with CVPA, one of the things I have noticed at JMU is that while we're a very good value for in-state and out-of-state students, we still have challenges in terms of access and opportunity for students, in particular from underprivileged and underrepresented backgrounds and first-generation students. We have some great programs, like Centennial Scholars, but there's much more we could do when we think of the diversity of our student body and faculty and staff.

Funds for critical mass scholarships
In addition to our diversity scholarship concerns, I heard another term today from CVPA. Collaboration and ensemble playing are so integral to the functionality of this college that Dean Sparks asks that we fund what he calls "critical mass" scholarships. Those are scholarships that CVPA can use to sign those top-performing students to fill critical slots that will complete vocal or instrumental ensembles or dancers or other performers who can help flesh out the retinue needed to perform the sophisticated literature and advance the creative environment worthy of JMU's marquee status in the arts.

A Madison recording label is a promising idea
I was pleased to hear that this faculty is thinking creatively about ways to create new revenue streams in a way that promotes the strengths of our faculty and students. One promising idea I heard today was exploring the possibility of establishing our own recording label. We certainly have the musical talent, a great sound engineer with the technical expertise, phenomenal acoustics, and an enthusiastic audience! Ideas such as these are exactly what I hoped would emerge from the "Why Madison?" Listening Tour. I want us to explore this idea seriously and through our strategic planning process and encourage the Madison community to suggest additional ideas of this caliber.

Drawing stronger relationships with University Advancement
The faculty and administrators discussed ways to draw tighter relationships with University Advancement, perhaps calling on the Center for Faculty Innovation to help educate the faculty about the ins and outs of fundraising and how faculty relationships play a role. It is critical that academic departments and individual faculty members share information about their alumni relationships with University Advancement. The development officer for CVPA volunteered to assist in the transfer of information. One faculty member suggested equipping our development officers with digital books about the Madison Art Collection. I think this is one way to increase the quantity of communications that we can use to reach out to our alumni. They really are interested in what the departments are doing and how they can help. We need to think more about how we can push out more communications to our alumni and donors.

Leveraging faculty-alumni relationships to fund our future
To raise the dollars necessary to create scholarships, we will need to call on our alumni. When I met with alumni during the tour, one of the things they said meant the most to them was their relationships with JMU faculty members; indeed, many alumni continue to be in touch with their faculty mentors. It will be important as we go forward for our academic departments and University Advancement to form a tight partnership so that those faculty-alumni relationships can rise to the forefront during our fundraising efforts and as we prepare for our capital campaign.

Madison's famous friendliness is for real
One of the newest members of CVPA (he arrived at JMU about the same time I did) commented that during his interview process he was taken aback, almost suspicious of how well JMU gets along—the sense of community and affability that exists here at Madison. His story was so striking, that I repeat it here: He said he called up his wife and said, "There's something wrong. I think they're hiding things because everyone gets along. There was an attitude among the students. I'd be walking in the hallways of the music building and a student would say, 'Hi, how are you? There was an attitude that was very open and friendly. Students are working with the faculty. There's not this divide between them." He went on to say that the students all know one another, and they know the faculty and vice versa. It is clear that JMU and CVPA in particular are the kind of places where people want to work together across programs and with other colleges.

We must preserve this core element of the Madison culture
This new faculty member is already in the full swing of interdisciplinary collaboration. He came from one of the largest universities in the country, which he said he found to be very impersonal and almost antagonistic. In my opinion, this welcoming quality, the ability to make a difference—which our alumni as well as our students and faculty talk about—is a core element of the Madison culture that we must preserve and enhance as we go forward. And from his comments and my own experience at larger universities, it appears that the comparatively smaller size of Madison's colleges, schools, departments and programs plays a large role in our educational culture.

Top arts recruits can tell us how to recruit students
Our art faculty commented on how extraordinary it is to have our top arts students want to come to JMU and to want to stay at JMU for their entire education, rather than trying to position themselves to transfer to another arts school. A faculty member called it unprecedented that the four freshmen last year with the top-rated portfolios—who were looking at the top premier visual arts institutions—chose JMU. We must follow up with these students and learn from them precisely why they chose JMU and JMU's arts program in particular. What we learn from them is what we must emphasize during our student and faculty recruitment.

The upsides and downsides of arts learning communities
We spent quite a bit of time talking about the pros and cons of JMU's learning communities, in particular the arts learning community in Wayland Hall. In this setting, arts students can come home from their classes, rehearsals and performances and experience total immersion in additional arts programming and study even in their residence hall. I found this discussion very enlightening, and it will be especially relevant as we think about whether and how to establish additional learning communities at JMU, for the arts, for other programs or for a mix of programs. By most accounts, the arts learning community in Wayland Hall is working. Students who are intensely involved in their own arts program—strings or theater or art history, for example—live with students in other arts programs—like voice, sculpture or dance—which supports the broad arts perspective the College of Visual and Performing Arts faculty is advocating.

Should an arts learning community be more open?
I understand there are some arts students who do not live in Wayland who feel left out of what they feel is an exclusive program. And at least one faculty member would like to explore opening the Wayland program to non-arts majors from other residence halls. The latter would certainly help overcome the faculty concern that we not allow the arts learning community to close off these very talented and singularly focused students from the broader JMU experience. While our music students might want to focus on music alone, for instance, they are not in the position at their age and stage to see how limiting that perspective is. The faculty must constantly look for mechanisms to keep those interdisciplinary doors open so that study of the arts and the broader Madison education have the opportunity to enrich one another.

Ensuring that in-depth and full-breadth education
In fact, I have been hearing that perspective echoed by alumni along the "Why Madison?" Listening Tour. A lot of them have said their GenEd requirements seemed like an annoyance until sometimes years later, when they came to appreciate the value of studying things from different perspectives and the value of acquiring a very helpful set of skills--critical thinking, communications skills, and analytical skills. Employers have also said repeatedly to us that this integrated and holistic perspective is something they recognize and appreciate in our graduates. While the development of core competencies must never be given short shrift, I am hearing that our alumni and our employers are crediting the connections among different fields for really helping people for the rest of their lives. So I'd like us to keep this in mind as we think about how we structure our programs and our intense learning communities. We must make sure people get the in-depth experience in music or whatever it might be, but also the full breadth of a JMU education.

Some students seek a broader experience
On balance, we have a very large contingent of arts students who don't seek that round-the-clock arts experience. For a change of pace, they want to have friends from a broad array of areas and be involved in activities outside of their art study. I find this to be one of JMU's signature strengths. The CVPA faculty must be commended in its commitment and openness to all JMU students interested in the arts. Professors are just as supportive of their arts students who might not make a career of painting or percussion or scene design as they are of the ones who will. The faculty also appears to be very welcoming to non-arts majors who want to participate in the arts. Quite a few of these students perform in our shows.

JMU arts education graduates in high demand
When I asked the CVPA leadership why they chose to come to or remain at JMU, one of our newer faculty members credited this educational and interdisciplinary integration and well-rounded graduates as the main reasons he chose to come to JMU—turning down two other top offers. As fine arts coordinator for Fairfax County, he was responsible for hiring 60 fine arts teachers annually. He said he sought JMU graduates because he knew by direct observation and by reputation that they were going to be well-skilled, masters of their discipline, and also well-rounded. His interest in coming to JMU was to come to the source of these graduates, where he could participate in helping to prepare the best teachers who were professionals in their discipline, but also very well-rounded.

Ability to develop as an artist
Another veteran dance faculty member said she has remained at JMU because she has been supported as she developed as both an artist and an educator. That has meant special projects, interdisciplinary endeavors, international collaborations, service-learning and more. She also mentioned reasons that I have been hearing all along the "Why Madison?" Listening Tour—the collegiality of colleagues; the emphasis on teaching; the one-on-one relationship with students, which she notes becomes harder as the programs get larger; the focus on the creative path for each student, in this case, dance majors; the students who evolve almost into artistic and scholarly colleagues by the time they graduate.  I love that phrase, "the creative path for each student." That really resonates with a lot of thing things that I've heard around the university. It's not a cookie-cutter approach to higher education, and it's resource-intensive.

Madison students stack up with the best
As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy participating in the arts and patronizing them as well. My family and I have been to a number of student performances already. It's not just the level of individual talent, but when I see how many students are talented in different ways it's just remarkable. I've been at the University of Michigan and Rutgers, both of which had major programs in the arts. I would stack up our Madison students with any I've seen.

A "magical" community of artists
Yet another faculty member emphasized JMU's integrated and collaborative atmosphere as a distinctive feature of JMU, whereas compartmentalization and divisiveness are common in other renowned arts programs. Madison's collegiality produces students who care about one another and their art. He called CVPA's community of artists "magical."

Madison's DMA program unlike any other
Integral to our conversation about our identity and preparing to chart our course for the future will be the role of graduate education here at JMU. We are predominately an undergraduate university in terms of numbers, and yet our graduate programs are very intentionally growing from our strengths. As a state institution we justify these programs carefully. We don't grow for the sake of growth. Our DMA, for instance, is really unlike anything around. More recently Shenandoah University and George Mason have been following in our footsteps, but the emphasis that we place on educating people to be teachers and not just performers has made our program different. Additionally, the DMA program has had a trickle-down effect on the quality of the graduate music program. It really has blossomed as our master's students' level of playing has gotten steadily better every year, along with their intellectual capacity.

Adding graduate programs judiciously
Despite that success, some faculty members have spoken up about the conundrum that has come with the excitement of additional graduate programs and students and without additional resources. New obligations on top of teaching, that hallmark one-on-one attention to both graduate and undergraduate students, service, faculty research, creative activities—are pressing on work-life balance and in danger of diluting the vaunted Madison Experience. Faculty members are straining to handle it all. For instance, the voice program has added a number of voice pedagogy classes and literature classes but still operates with the same four full-time voice faculty members and two adjuncts. I am hearing this from committed, expert musicians who praise the college's collaborative environment, expect to give at the highest level and are at the forefront of where the arts are heading. And yet these caring professors say that despite their enthusiasm for the program, there are not enough hours in the day to mentor doctoral, graduate and undergraduate students.

Someone from the visual arts underscored similar tensions and additionally pressure on faculty morale and retention when art history introduced a graduate program several years ago without additional resources. This faculty member recommends that JMU be very judicious in adding graduate programs.

We shouldn't just emulate other institutions, but pursue what makes sense for JMU
A common thread along the "Why Madison?" Listening Tour has been the lack of resources--whether those that go along with new programs or in terms of faculty and staff compensation. Meeting these obligations will require creative thinking. Those are important points to keep in mind when we think about things like faculty workload and tenure and promotion criteria. In higher education, as I have emphasized along our "Why Madison?" visits with academic units, we're sometimes our own worst enemies. There's no law that tells us the specifics of faculty workload or what the tenure and promotion criteria must be, but a lot of that is developed in higher education and sometimes we get somewhat rigid in our own structures. We get in the way of our own creativity and flexibility and the potential for JMU to be different from other institutions. Provost Benson and I have had some conversations about workload and work/life balance. What I'd really love is for JMU to not just emulate what everyone else is doing, but think about those questions for ourselves and what makes sense for JMU.

The Forbes Center is a top draw for students and professors
One of our gems is the Forbes Center, which not only offers our students a world-class environment to develop their art, but also enables us to reach out and enrich the artistic culture of the surrounding community. Our talented students can go a long way in making bridges to the community as it comes to understand how we're creating these extraordinary artists every day and bringing in a variety of artists and masters to perform and consult and raise all of our horizons.

Pride of housekeeping staff matches that of our faculty
We talked a lot about how our faculty and staff take pride in their art and in mentoring students. And it's worth mentioning that our housekeeping staff at the Forbes Center is known for providing that same level of pride and care in their work. That's true throughout campus. It really is important for a public university. I came from a place where maintenance was one of the first things to go when there were budget cuts. As a consequence, building and grounds staff often felt like second-class citizens, underappreciated and undervalued. Here, it is so different. The pride that people take in terms of the facilities is just remarkable. I want us to think hard about how we sustain community to make sure everyone feels valued and respected, and how we can foster and celebrate people for their contributions.

The visual arts are on the rise
The Forbes Center has been the center of attention of late in the arts culture of JMU, but I want to emphasize the continuing relevance and importance of the visual arts at JMU. At the moment we are renovating and enhancing Duke Hall to serve as the epicenter of the visual arts at JMU. In addition, the arts faculty today put forward the intriguing idea of creating an arts museum at JMU that not only could house our growing collection of artifacts, but also serve as a dynamic educational tool for our students. At the moment our galleries and collections are housed around campus, which does open access to many pockets of the university, but also prevents establishing a clear identity and headquarters for the visual arts. While our students already receive experience in curating through our galleries, an arts museum would offer a sense of identity and permanence to the experience and also welcome the community onto the JMU campus.

Considering an arts museum at the former Rockingham Co-op
One director went so far as to suggest the former Rockingham Co-op, which JMU now owns, as a logical location for an arts museum. It was the place where the community did its shopping and might serve as an important connection between JMU and the community of Harrisonburg. Another faculty member described its potential in terms of public art—perhaps showcasing folk art, the art of our diverse immigrant communities and other unique regional attributes. We will need to create a coherent plan for acquiring and culling our art collection, just as we must with our Special Collections in Carrier Library. Coalescing our galleries and expanding them into a museum would allow us to build a coherent plan for risk management, upkeep, curation and acquisition. Still another faculty member underscored the role a museum at the location could play in expanding our notion of community, culture and diversity. A museum in the former Rockingham Co-op would also assist in transforming the Grace Street corridor into an arts corridor encompassing the Music Building, Duke Hall, the Forbes Center, and the studio spaces on Grace Street. The museum would offer an activity for students on audition days, and be a draw for visiting middle school students. I think this idea is well worth investigating, given its potential for enhancing the academic mission, diversity and community relations.

Both faculty and students appreciate their relationships
I appreciated the comments of one of our administrators who is an alumna and a JMU parent, who reminded us that with 20,000 JMU students, not all of them can have that one-on-one relationship with faculty or conducts research with a professor; it takes a student who has that hunger to explore and connect with a faculty member whom they think can take them to the next level. CVPA interviews prospective professors with those potential relationships in mind, and those are the faculty members who stay here. As I have found as I have spoken with faculty in other academic units during the listening tour, this holds true across the university. Our faculty members are fed by those relationships, just as are our students.

Madison's positive and forgiving atmosphere
We also talked about the predominantly positive and forgiving atmosphere that exists at JMU, despite our recent rapid growth. From procurement to the budget office to the academic program, the first response is not on the mistake but on how to make it right. Coming from quite large institutions, I can attest that forgiveness was not always top of mind there. I like that we don't point fingers and play "gotcha." I really appreciate this environment in which people are not terrified of making a mistake. That's how we make education work. How do we deliberately cultivate and foster that? To create that kind of environment is the responsibility of all of us. That just can't be done with an edict or one person. It must be part of our culture. I think that really helps people learn and grow and feel comfortable with taking risks and making decisions if they know it's okay to make mistakes and learn from them. I would really like that to be a signature strength of the university because I think one of the things that will keep good faculty and good staff members is that that they're not just pigeon-holed when they're here. To create a culture and a climate where that's really fostered and encouraged is something I'd like us all to do across the university.

The role of the arts is critical in a democratic society
I want to thank this creative, talented and joyous group of faculty and administrators. There is an awful lot that we can do collectively. The talent here is extraordinary. And so is the sense of community. The arts are integral. I feel deeply in the importance of the arts in a democratic society and am happy to help serve as their advocate here.


Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Last Updated: Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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