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American University Names New President: JMU's Jonathan Alger

American University announced Monday that its 16th president will be Jonathan Alger, a higher education policy specialist and president of James Madison University in Virginia for the past dozen years.

Alger, who goes by Jon, will take office July 1, when current AU President Sylvia Burwell leaves after seven years leading the private university in Northwest Washington.

American Universitywhich enrolls approximately 14,000 students, was chartered by Congress in 1893 and includes schools of law, public affairs, and international service.

Burwell, who announced last summer that she would leave at the end of this school year, was a non-traditional choice for the role. Former Obama administration official and Rhodes Scholar, she knew Washington and its power structures, but did not have advanced degrees or experience in academic leadership.

Alger, on the other hand, comes with a long background in academia: Before his long tenure at JMU's helm, he served as senior vice president and general counsel at Rutgers University, and at the University of Michigan he played a leading role in two Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Cases on Race and Admissions. He has taught courses on leadership, law, higher education, public policy and diversity. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School.

During his 12 years at JMU, a public university of about 22,000 students in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Alger increased external research funding and doubled its endowment. Under Algiers, JMU rose to the highest level of college football. Algiers created full-tuition scholarships for students who are the first in their families to attend college and launched the Madison Center for Civic Engagement.

“Jon Alger is known for his community involvement, his deep commitment to scholarship and research, and his passion for learning,” Gina Adams, UA graduate and chair of the board of trustees, said Monday of the University. “His vision for the American university, his understanding of the unique attributes of an academic community, and his proven ability to address the complex challenges facing higher education have prepared Jon to lead the American university into the future.”

Thomas W. Merrill, president of the UA Faculty Senate this academic year, said he was pleased with the choice, partly because of Algiers' experience and partly because of public statements made by Algiers in favor of freedom of expression.

“Everyone knows that we are in a time of crisis and transition in higher education,” Merrill said of the national landscape. “Universities need leaders with a clear vision of the pitfalls and dangers that await them. But we also need someone who has a clear sense of the university’s academic and civic mission. And I hope Alger is someone with that vision.

Several higher education leaders welcomed the choice of AU. Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said in a written statement that Alger “leads with compassion, transparency, integrity, authenticity, moral courage and humor.”

“At a time when leading a university is more complex than ever, Jon brings a wealth of experience to the presidency, as a leading expert on civil rights law and higher education; as a champion of academic freedom, shared governance and access to excellence in higher education; and as a community builder,” Pasquerella said.

Some AU student government leaders said they were still learning about Algiers, and many students were trying to learn more about his background. Edwin Santos, a senior from Woodbridge, Va., who serves as student body president, said he hopes the new president will center students' concerns.

“Our campus has a very long history of students making change,” said Julia Comino, a Mississippi student and fellow student government leader.

The AU has faced several significant challenges in recent years, including disruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic; a stick strike in 2022; and the tensions around Israel-Gaza War, which have spilled over into many schools across the country. The university is also close to successfully completing a $500 million capital campaign.

Alger was not available for an interview Monday, according to a university spokeswoman. In a written statement, he said AU's “outstanding academic profile and global impact reflect the unique and inspiring characteristics of its faculty, staff, students and alumni.”

“Encouraging students to dream big is at the heart of higher education,” he said, “and the opportunity to join America’s university is a dream come true for me and my family.” »

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