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Statement from JMU president on diversity and inclusion


 

Dear students, faculty and staff:

James Madison University is firmly committed to a welcoming, inclusive and non-discriminatory environment for individuals of all backgrounds.  Messages that condone racism, violence or hatred are antithetical to our mission and values.  

Recent events in the Commonwealth of Virginia have once again reminded us that our history as a nation is fraught with contradictions that continue to challenge our society today.  400 years ago, Virginia was the site of the beginning of representative government in the New World.  Yet in that same fateful year, Virginia was also the site of the beginning of the enslavement of African-Americans in our society.  These events are being commemorated through the American Evolution program of which James Madison University is a part.

The repugnant and racist images from college yearbooks that have been in the news recently remind us of the painful truth that institutions of higher education have themselves reflected that history of discrimination and racism.  JMU is no exception, as past yearbooks (as well as other publications) from our own institution reflect many instances of blackface and other offensive content dating back to at least 1914.  Although such yearbook pictures have begun to make national news within the past two weeks, our own community has already been working to shed light on this very difficult history with the leadership of the JMU History department and the library’s Special Collections staff.  Dr. Meg Mulrooney and graduate student Austin Shifflett curated an exhibit titled “Black and White on Bluestone Hill” that was displayed on the second floor of Carrier Library from February through December 2018.

In 2017, we created a Task Force on Inclusion that helps facilitate thoughtful dialogue, analysis and reflection across the entire campus regarding issues of diversity and inclusion both inside and outside of the classroom.  The Task Force’s Working Group on History and Context has spent a great deal of time researching the history of the university, and how that history is reflected and shared across campus.  To date, the working group has provided valuable context regarding the history of the institution as well as of President and Mrs. Madison as people.  For example, the Working Group hosted a forum last fall as a first step in initiating community conversations about our history and how to move forward. The forum was a successful beginning to help us all grapple with this difficult topic. As they continue their important work this semester, I am asking the Working Group on History and Context to look further into the yearbook images and to help us to develop ways in which we, as an institution, can learn from our past and grow to better embrace our rich diversity.

As the university named for the man known as the father of the Constitution, we must confront issues of inequality and injustice.  While JMU bears the Madison name because of his major contributions as a principal architect of our structures of governance, the fact that President Madison and other Founding Fathers profited from the enslavement of African-Americans remains a central paradox of the founding of our republic. 

On Friday, our Board of Visitors took an important step in acknowledging the totality of the Madison legacy by voting unanimously to name our newest residence hall Paul Jennings Hall. The hall is currently under construction next to the Convocation Center and set to open this fall.  Paul Jennings was born into slavery at James Madison’s Montpelier.  He became President Madison’s personal manservant and served him until Madison’s death.  Mr. Jennings was an important historical figure in his own right who ultimately earned his freedom, became a homeowner, and wrote the very first memoir about life in the White House.  We have been working with descendants of Paul Jennings, including 2005 alumnus Raleigh Marshall, and with our partners at Montpelier to ensure that we honor this legacy appropriately. The fact that the idea to name the new residence for Paul Jennings came from a number of students suggests that we, as a community, are open to addressing sensitive topics in a respectful, productive manner.

The naming of Paul Jennings Hall is just one step in what will be a continuing journey for our campus as we seek to understand the complex picture of the founding of our nation, and the contradictions that have had a lasting impact on all of us.  I hope that such efforts will serve as gateways to more meaningful dialogue about serious issues with which we must continue to grapple as a community and a country.  Just last week, we were reminded of the power of such dialogue in an inspirational address by Madison Vision Series speaker Justice John Charles Thomas, the first African-American to serve on the Virginia Supreme Court.  The Beacon Newsletter is one important campus resource that will provide information related to upcoming opportunities and events for discussion of these issues, including the annual Diversity Conference next month.

No doubt, this is a difficult time for our commonwealth and for the many individuals and institutions that are dealing with these issues. These events provide a learning opportunity for our students, faculty and staff to apply principles of ethical reasoning as we continue to come together to learn from and with one another and to make our community an example for others to follow.  I look forward to working with all of you on these efforts.

Respectfully,

Jonathan Alger signature

Jonathan R. Alger
President

 

Published: Monday, February 11, 2019

Last Updated: Tuesday, July 2, 2019

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