Then and Now: JMU Presidents’ Controversies

“Spring Fest 1010” that took place off-campus but was hosted by James Madison University students led to police battles that headlined newsprint with each step into blame or fame heralding the school’s response. And the school newspaper’s invasion by a team of the local Commonwealth Attorney heightened the public outcry.

Students protesting in Wilson Hall and being arrested, circa 1970, before Dr. Ronald Carrier became the school's president. (Courtesy of JMU Special Collections, Carrier Library)

Since the school’s inception just over a century ago as an academy for young women, the five successive school presidents have each had visions of accomplishment and always faced the media chopping block. Any time something major and/or colorful went wrong, newspapers quickly front-paged the story.

For example, first president Julian Burruss felt, “The development of a strong, noble and womanly character is of first importance….” His rules were stringent but media ignored any small discrepancies such as one girl placed on a quarter’s probation for attending a dance downtown without permission, knowing she couldn’t get permission. Ditto when another was suspended for rudeness to a teacher.

But on certain matters Burruss could not hold the newspapers in check.  Banner headlines in the Harrisonburg paper for February 15, 1913, reported “PRETTY SCHOOL GIRL ELOPES FROM NORMAL.” Immediately below in smaller caps ran “MISS LILLIAN CAMPBELL, LEAVES DORMITORY BY MEANS OF IMPROVISED ROPE, JOINS LOVER AND HASTENS TO BE MARRIED—STUDENT BODY SHOCKED.”

The faculty was more shocked and faced a dilemma since no specific rule banned elopement!  Deliberating from afternoon until after midnight, the faculty finally voted to expel the young lady from school for “leaving without permission.” The groom’s sister was asked to withdraw as well and the other roommate suspended for a year. The story made the Washington Post and newspapers around the state—yet the school didn’t lose face on this one.

And so it goes, both problems and kudos make the news. Yet president Burruss made few errors and when offered the presidency of Virginia Technical Institute, he couldn’t refuse the step up to his alma mater. Newspapers applauded his success.

However, those same papers only halfheartedly welcomed the new president Samuel P. Duke. Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record for July 23, 1919, simply stated the Virginia Normal School Board voted “7 to 5 in favor of Prof. Duke.” Clearly disappointed in the choice, the paper didn’t even accord Duke the title of state supervisor or list his many accomplishments. Their newsprint continued to evoke the vast local disappointment that Dr. Sanger, the local popular Valley choice, had not been given the position.

Yet Duke’s presidency ran smoothly—even when his Dean of Women Denise Varner bobbed her hair and numerous students followed this trend so absolutely forbidden in Duke’s rules of conduct. However, newspapers paid no attention as general student behavior toed the line under Duke at the newly named State Teachers College in Harrisonburg. While Duke’s list of restrictions seems ludicrous today, they generally extended ordinary rules enforced at students’ homes.

For 30 years Duke won only public accolades as he guided his faculty and students through the changing world in the Great Depression and World War II. Under his leadership, men were admitted as students for the first time and male athletic teams emerged. (The basketball team dubbed itself the “Madison Dukes” in hope Dr. Duke would fork over funds for basketballs and equipment—which he did.)

In 1949 a massive stroke ended Duke’s presidency. Soon designated President Emeritus, he and his wife were given the refurbished Zirkle House across Main Street (where JMU is now building its nearly-completed performing arts center) to be their home for the final six years of his life. And Gov. William Tuck appointed Dr. Tyler Miller to become Madison’s third president.

However, “The third time’s a charm” did not apply to third president Miller. While his first decade accomplished continuing growth with few changes, his last years were shadowed by the startling disharmony of the ‘60s and ‘70s. For example in 1967-68, student Jay Rainey came on campus wearing “hippie fashion” blue jeans, blanket ponchos, sandals, and flowing hair. Rainey refused to change and Miller refused his admission for next year. That decision drew wide press coverage when support on Raney’s behalf from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia won in court and the school had to admit him.

Also, a campus underground organization, Harambee, objected to Miller’s firing of three sympathetic faculty members without apparent reason as they were quickly replaced. In addition, demonstrations on campus led to student arrests. Those events included students marching on campus, a one-night takeover of the administration building, and a later welcome for Vietnam protester and movie star Jane Fonda to appear on campus to encourage students to join the antiwar activists.

Looking back years later, fourth president Dr. Ronald E. Carrier candidly assessed:

Tyler Miller had been a good president, was a very fine man. But the world was changing—dramatically. You’d had the assassination of John F. Kennedy; of Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King. You’d had the Berkeley free-speech movement; you’d had Civil Rights issues in Selma, Alabama, and Birmingham. You had the Vietnam War, had just had Cambodia, plus we had Kent State. You had some trouble here which was really minor but turned into more of an issue than it probably should have been.

Dr. Miller was caught in the vortex of a changing world, didn’t really want to go into it but didn’t know how to get out of it. Yet he got out in time before it damaged him personally—no one asked him to quit—and before the institution paid the price.

Newspapers had a field day. And at times presidents #4 and #5 have run the same gauntlets. One example is Carrier’s firing of a physics professor popular with the faculty but yearly unable to attract enough students to the physics program to warrant his continuing. The faculty called for Carrier’s dismissal but the Board of Visitors disagreed. Carrier remained and the school continued to flourish with expanding programs in all academic areas.

And now President Rose responded to Spring Fest by taking immediate action to contact parents school wide with a letter of his assessment and reassurance of responsive actions ahead. No student uprising or parent ire has followed. Both parents and students applaud his timely response and strong leadership. That, however, has not made the off-campus news.

For more detailed description of the events of the first four presidents—Burruss, Duke, Miller, and Carrier, read detailed chapters in Nancy Bondurant-Jones’ book, Rooted On Blue Stone Hill, a history of the school’s first ninety years.

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This post was submitted by Nancy Bondurant Jones.

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