Why Madison Presidential Listening Tour: Outreach and Engagement

President Alger on the Why Madison Listening Tour

President's Journal —
Outreach and Engagement

Rethinking the definition of the JMU student
Today I met with the Office of Outreach and Engagement—a very flexible, nimble and entrepreneurial group that has enlarged the definition of the JMU student in a way that allows us to make a real impact on our community. This group is helping JMU to reach some of the true outposts of Virginia that are underserved in terms of education and economic development. These efforts are very important as we think of ourselves as an engaged university, which I have been emphasizing during my many "Why Madison?" Listening Tour visits with academic units, advisory committees and alumni. Through the Office of O&E, we are educating not just our traditional 17- to 22-year-old students on a traditional campus, but responding to the varied needs of adult learners.
How do we make our menu of JMU programs available in a way that's convenient for the community?
Outreach and Engagement administers myriad programs that focus on many age groups. Most of these programs focus on adult learners—22 years old and up—with credit courses and degree programs—like the Adult Degree Program; and noncredit courses that tend to be professional certification courses or courses created especially for local industry to develop their workforces. Another effort focuses on supporting the PK-12 outreach efforts of the university. There are other important programs around the university—the Lifelong Learning Institute, for instance—that operate in other departments. It will be important for us to look at our entire menu of offerings and find a way to coordinate them that enables members of the community to easily find, understand and connect with them—a one-stop shop, as I heard it put.
Aligning our thinking with Carnegie
That thinking aligns with the priorities of our Carnegie Classification as a Community Engaged University—a distinction shared by only 8 percent of colleges and universities—which the Office of Outreach and Engagement coordinated on JMU's behalf. While a university-wide steering committee continues to look across the entire institution, I want us to be mindful of what engagement truly means. We should take our cues from Carnegie. As one person noted: Engagement is not something JMU does "to" another or even "for" another, but "with" another, so that the benefits and resources are mutual and reciprocal, and we can form true partnerships.
"This is why we get up in the morning"
The name of this office—Outreach and Engagement—is not lost on me, as I continue to emphasize the importance of engagement—by which I mean engagement both with ideas and with the world. I was inspired to hear several members of this office talk about their initiatives and say, "this is why we get up in the morning." While we want to remain professional and think analytically and critically about what we do in higher education, I'd like to take a moment and say, yes, it IS OK to admit that you want to help students make their dreams come true and that you want to help them change the world. That is how good ideas can take hold. As I have been hearing from alumni, students and professors all along the "Why Madison?" Listening Tour, it also is an inspiring characteristic of the JMU educational culture.
Building on the successes of a young, vibrant program
Emphasizing advocacy, access, affordability and accountability as concepts that drive their work, the Office of O&E has grown from a staff of two to a staff of 14 in eight years. They are a self-supporting unit that serves 4 percent of JMU's student body and draws on the JMU faculty, other professionals and outside contractors to deliver programs. O&E has positioned itself to anticipate and respond to the marketplace and deliver JMU's educational resources to where the need and opportunities are.  For instance, this office moved a master's program serving 12 students from the JMU campus to a remote site, where it now serves 90 students. O&E's innovative spirit is also reflected in the brand new grant-funded Return to Madison program, which serves JMU students who want to complete their JMU degrees sometimes years after leaving the university. It will be important to build on this strong and entrepreneurial base and identify benchmarks from other institutions to see how our very young program compares with more established programs.
An example where distance learning can truly be effective
In several of my visits with academic units and the Faculty Emeriti Association, there has been considerable discussion on the pros and cons of distance learning. Adult learning is prime example of where online programs can find an effective niche in higher education. Through the commonwealth's 4VA program, for example, O&E has been able to reach out to other departments on campus and create online modules that can be completed by students anywhere. This is especially helpful for mid-career professionals and students who cannot afford to drive to campus.
How can we work together to dream big for PK-12?
I heard about several impressive and popular collaborative programs—like Lego League, College for Kids, Techfacturing, Exploring Identity, Saturday Morning Physics, partnership with Boys and Girls Club, and dual enrollment programs—that O&E coordinates for JMU. I would like to use this opportunity to ask JMU to dream big and look into how we can tie these and other programs together into an avenue to reach out to at-risk or underserved children. I have mentioned a few times in my "Why Madison?" Listening Tour visits a program that we developed at Rutgers to identify and work with middle school children with academic potential who are nonetheless at risk for not completing school. We offered educational and mentorship programs and held out the carrot of a free ride at Rutgers for participants who could qualify for admission when they graduated from high school. It has been very successful. Each one of those students has stayed in school. While this program is one of many models to reach students well before they are ready to apply for college, it is an example of what I mean by dreaming big. A program of this scale would require enormous resources and coordination. I like Jim Shaeffer's idea of taking this concept to JMU's Carnegie Classification steering committee for discussion and development.
We have seeds for leadership in civic education
Finally, given our teacher education mission, I see some real leadership opportunities stemming from our multiple ties to Montpelier and our track record with the Center for Civic Engagement and Project Citizen, for forming partnerships to provide support to practicing teachers in terms of civic education and engaged citizenship.

Published: Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Last Updated: Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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