Skelley's Look Back at 30 Years at JMU

 

College professors are essentially career students, and I, like many others, found the stimulation of academics and the youthful spirit of the college campus to be an allure I could not resist. Little did I know, of course, that my experiences at the University of South Carolina in the early 1960s would lead me to retiring as a professor, largely of public administration, in 2010 at James Madison University. Happenstance has much to do with life. After getting a AB degree (international studies) in 1965 and receiving an MA degree in international relations from American University (in absentia during a personnel inspection at Naval OCS in Newport, RI) in 1968, I found myself serving aboard ships in the Pacific during the Viet Nam War period. My taste for teaching, which I got prior to the Navy as a substitute teacher, led me to find a high school social studies job upon my discharge from the Navy. While this teaching experience was not inspiring, I liked teaching, and this experience prompted me to seek the PhD to qualify for college teaching. Armed with the GI Bill, I matriculated at the University of Georgia in political science. I sought a broader degree than international relations on the expectation that I would seek a teaching job in a liberal arts institution that would want a jack-of-all-trades.

In the fall of 1979 I started writing letters of application. I remember quite distinctly NOT responding to an ad from JMU because I was not familiar with the school and, from the perspective of Athens, GA, it was located in a small, rural town almost in mountains of West Virginia. It was only on second thought-"You need a job, and you shouldn't ignore any opportunity!"-that I applied. In many ways the job notice fit me quite well. The Political Science Department wanted someone who could teach American Government – I had taught this repeatedly at UGA as a teaching assistant – international relations – I had a master's degree in the field – and public administration, one of my fields of study at UGA. After being told at one point that the position would not be funded, I was called for an interview in April 1980.

JMU turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was spring. The campus was beautiful, the Valley was beautiful, and the town larger than I expected. After a day of interview rounds, Dick Nelson, the department chair, took me to Burruss Hall. The political science department was in the basement along with WMRA in those days, and I waited for him as he went into the office to pick something up. There was a student sitting on a bench in the hallway, and since I had not talked to any students, I struck up a conversation. I asked him whether he enjoyed going to JMU. His reply: "I am a graduating senior, and I hate to be leaving. It's been a great experience." Admittedly he was a sample of one, but his enthusiasm impressed me and made it easy for me to say "yes" when Dick offered me the job.

After Dick and I left his office, he asked me to drive a car he needed to pick up from Joe Bowman Chevrolet to his house, which I did. I had travelled by train from Georgia to Charlottesville. After dinner at Lloyd's Steak House with his wife Eileen, he took me to the train station. A few hours later, as I got ready to go to bed in the sleeper, I found Dick's car keys in my pocket. Not a very good way to impress one's new boss.

August 1980 found me living in Harrisonburg and moving into my new office in the basement of Burruss Hall – a very deep, windowless closet that had been used at some point to store science equipment and supplies. I set up my desk in the outer area and stored books and empty filing cabinets in the back closet within a closet. Unlike some other faculty, I had the office to myself. In my first two years I taught US Government and International Relations. To get ready for class took considerable effort, and I found myself greeting the housekeeping crew that came on about 10 pm as I left for home and greeted them good day, when I returned early the next morning. A relic from my days as a graduate student was a life-size poster of V. I. Lenin that a fellow graduate student gave me. I mounted it on cardboard and stood it in the file room behind my desk. More than one housekeeper, I discovered, was frightened by the man hiding in my office in the dark.

One of my early service responsibilities was to serve on the Arts and Sciences Symposium Committee, a university-wide activity housed and funded by the Dean of Arts and Sciences, who was Bob Shapiro at that time. After a year on the committee, I found myself as the chair, a position I held for three years. The committee came up with very engaging topics during these years, and I was responsible for contacting prospective participants, suggested by committee members, and the logistics of the event itself. Bob saw the event as a showpiece for the college, and he expected me to get the most prominent participants our limited budget would buy. In my role as chair I met James Buchanan, Nobel Laureate, Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, Lynne Cheney, Chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (and wife of Dick Cheney's, recent VP), AU President Richard Berendzen, Hugh Iltis, a staunch environmentalist, and others. The symposium had become an important event in the life of the university because of Bob Shapiro's exceptional support. We were trying to get CSPAN to cover the symposium, we videotaped some sessions, and we went so far as to have the comments of the panel that Lynne Cheney and Richard Berendzen participated on published under glossy cover for distribution. Alas, the distribution of this collection of comments was never to be. Berendzen was charged with making indecent calls, which took the gloss off of this memento of the symposium.

Hugh Iltis was one of the most interesting of our Arts and Science Symposium participants. World famous as a botanist, the discoverer of the origins of domestic corn, and avid environmentalist, Iltis outraged much of his audience by suggesting that the Pope was the greatest threat the environment faced. When I made my original contact call to Iltis, to my surprise he said he was familiar with Harrisonburg. He had played high school football for Fredericksburg against Harrisonburg in a game in which a Harrisonburg player got the ball and ran the wrong way scoring for Fredericksburg.

I came to JMU with the expectation of being a teacher, but I also realized that there was a scholarship expectation. Kay Knickrehm and Devin Bent invited me early on to participate in a research project to produce a paper on the political realignment (the end of the "solid Sourth") for The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC. Collaboration is always a challenge, and I had no background in electoral politics. I learned a lot, but felt very vulnerable when I learned that I would have to present the paper. Devin gave me some advice during this project. Devin, not one to mince words, told me my writing would improve if I struck out every other word. It was an important lesson in editing one's own work to avoid wordiness. My research and publication record is not distinguished, but I enjoyed the varied research subjects I have addressed and believe they were relevant to my teaching. Over the years I have addressed managerial capacity of small governments, management theory, Japanese management techniques, quality circles, the New Public Management, the impact of retiree migration on rural towns and counties, and public administration theory. This body of work has particularly informed my teaching of public management at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

 

For at least 20 of my years at JMU I served as the department's internship coordinator. This responsibility was a particular pleasure. I spent time with students one-on-one helping to determine what would be an appropriate internship experience. Internship providers were professional contacts that provided insight into the practical issues of running public agencies. The internship site visits carried me all over the Commonwealth and into adjacent states, acquainting this Sandlapper with the diversity of the region and its many government activities. Locally, internship kept me acquainted with town managers, sheriff deputies, Commonwealth Attorneys, and directors of nonprofit organizations. Internship provided a platform for observing community governance. It is a credit to JMU's students that the feedback from internship providers was almost always positive and frequently laudatory. On the whole, I would receive, out of a total of 60 or so interns a year, only one or two complaints. I well remember a provider once saying to me that his office had just about decided to not take any more interns, but our JMU student had changed his mind. The most disconcerting aspect of internship for me, as a teacher, was a frequent comment of students in their Career Reports: "I learned more in this internship than in any of my classes." I comfort myself with the rationale that experiential learning is not the same as "book larnin'." Both have their place.

The Political Science Department's proposal for a Master of Public Administration program was submitted to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia in the mid-70s, well before I arrived at JMU. Dick Nelson believed that the department needed applied programs to make political science "relevant" and students employable. He advocated profession-oriented programs like the undergraduate public administration major, paralegal studies, and criminal justice. The proposed MPA was an extension of this logic. He and Devin Bent were instrumental in finalizing what the program would look like, and the first students were matriculated in the fall of 1982. Most of the students were people employed in local government agencies who looked to enhance their careers with a graduate credential. Despite our non-urban market we had some 30 students come into the program, a pent up demand. I taught the public administration seminar, the introductory course, and for a couple of years the required American government seminar. Classes consisted of an eclectic mix of students, some with considerable work experience and some right out of undergraduate programs. I always found this combination healthy: the inexperienced learning from the experienced; the experienced having to examine the narrowness of their observations against the theoretically based questions of the inexperienced. I am pleased with the large number of public servants who have enhanced their knowledge and careers in the program. I served as MPA coordinator during the early 90's and again for 9 years of this past decade. The program survived a serious slump in student numbers to return to strong interest in 2007. Much of the recent vigor in the program is attributable to Gary Kirk's teaching, tireless efforts to get a Roanoke satellite program off the ground, and his leadership of the effort to accredit the program – an effort helped along by the acquisition in recent years of outstanding young faculty. Gary is now coordinator of the program, having had it thrust upon him three months before he expected it by my becoming ill in the summer of 2009. Program enrollment now exceeds 50 students.

While the graduate students presented an interesting academic challenge, the undergraduates were always a pleasure. JMU attracts very "solid types." JMU students are joiners – organization people – or at least those in the political science department are. Many of the past presidents of the SGA are department majors. I had the pleasure of being advisor to the SGA from 1980-1982. Little advice was solicited by the students. Members of Student Senate would often complain that the Senate didn't get much done; they seemed to think that in a "real" legislature the problems of personal agendas, obstructionism, grandstanding, unwillingness to compromise, etc. wouldn't exist. Student Senate was more of a life lesson that the students realized.

Many public administration students participated in the Public Administration Society in my early days in the department. Before the legal drinking age was changed to 21, the society held a spring cook out – read "beer bust" – in Devin Bent's back yard. Devin lived a few blocks away from JMU in Old Town. Students, drawn by spring, burned burgers and dogs, not to mention beer, had to walk to the Bent's because there was no parking on the street – a great safety factor where driving was concerned. Curiously, participation in the Public Administration Society dried up about the time the drinking law changed.

Encounters with students regarding their hopes, dreams, and expectations make teaching a satisfying profession. The reader will notice that I have named no students here, largely out of a fear of leaving people out that I should or could include. All my students have taught me much and allowed me to share my knowledge and experiences. I have had, in addition, the pleasure of congenial and astute colleagues. An atmosphere of collegiality among the political science faculty has persisted over my 30 years. The department is exceptional in its lack of interpersonal tension and conflict; rather, it is a place very much dedicated to teaching students and creating an environment in which each faculty member can develop as a scholar. This reminiscence is a rambling and imperfect recollection of some of the past written on the spur of the moment. Should any reader want to remind me of specific events, please drop me an email. Let me just say that the job at JMU has been very much what I was looking for in 1980 when I first visited. JMU and Harrisonburg is where I found work, met my wife, raised my children. I have no regrets and a deep sense of appreciation for the students, faculty colleagues, and leadership of the university.

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Doug Skelley