HARRISONBURG, Va. — College presidents nationwide are racing this year to school themselves on what federal civil rights laws require when sexual violence flares on campus.
Jonathan R. Alger, president of James Madison University, might have an edge over his peers. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Alger worked as an attorney in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Education Department from 1992 to 1996.
That is the very agency that is now investigating how JMU and dozens of other colleges and universities respond to sexual violence reports.
With his background, Alger understands the intricacies of a crucial letter of regulatory guidance from OCR in 2011 that spelled out what schools must do when a student reports sexual violence. He also understands how OCR interprets and enforces the 1972 law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination, as well as other federal statutes.
Among the key issues during his time in OCR, Alger said, was providing colleges guidance on race-conscious financial aid and racial harassment. In those years, he said, sexual harassment was starting to get more attention.
“These are still difficult and challenging issues for everybody,” Alger said in an interview here on campus this month. “They’re not limited to higher education by any stretch.”
Alger said he has sought to emphasize to the 20,000 students at the public university in the Shenandoah Valley, as well as JMU’s faculty and staff, that “we’re all in it together.” He appeared in a video JMU created to join a public awareness campaign called “No More,” which advocates an end to domestic violence and sexual assault.
In a letter to the community in June, Alger wrote: “[O]ur society currently is in the midst of a national dialogue about safety on college campuses, particularly about the serious issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment. I want to assure you and our entire University community that this institution does everything in its power to help keep our students safe.”
He declined in the interview to comment directly on a case that emerged this year in which a former JMU student accused the university of mishandling her report of sexual assault.
But he acknowledged that he is concerned about the public perceptions of JMU following the disclosure that it is under investigation for its handling of sexual violence reports. This week, OCR said such probes are underway at 79 colleges and universities.
“There’s been some misunderstanding about what the list does and does not mean,” Alger said. He pointed out what federal officials have said: That merely being on the list does not indicate a given school violated any federal law.
Alger, 50, was born and raised in the Rochester, N.Y., area and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Swarthmore College. He took office in July 2012 as JMU’s sixth president since the school’s founding in 1908. Previously he was a senior vice president and general counsel at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Before that, he was an assistant general counsel at the University of Michigan. While in Ann Arbor, he was involved in the university’s strategy in landmark affirmative action cases that became the subject of Supreme Court rulings in 2003.
In his time at JMU, Alger has helped develop a strategic plan that seeks to promote what officials call a “national model of the engaged university.”
He said he wants to highlight the school’s connection to its namesake, the nation’s fourth president, whose Montpelier estate is not far east of here. “Forgive me,” Alger jokes, “this is the nerdy constitutional lawyer” speaking. “Being named for James Madison — I want that to mean something to our students.”