James Madison University agreed late Friday to provide live online video of its board of visitors meeting next week, responding to pressure from advocates who objected to the board’s plan to meet in person without video after sending students home because of a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff.
A letter written Friday and signed by 16 nonprofit and political leaders asked the board to put its Sept. 18 meeting online and to allow for public comment.
James Toscano, a co-author of the letter and the president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, said the timing of the meeting gave the appearance that JMU’s board of visitors was being less than forthright.
“Our worry is that at a time when JMU should be more transparent, perhaps it’s holding back,” Toscano said.
Late Friday, JMU spokeswoman Caitlyn Read responded that the university would broadcast the public portion of the meeting but that it would not take comments.
The university and board have received numerous comments and suggestions in recent months, and they have been reviewed, Read said. Those who still wish to comment can do so electronically before the meeting. Details on how to comment and watch will be shared next week, she said.
"We applaud JMU for taking the step to broadcast the meeting, even if they are only leaving days to inform students and the public of these new plans," Toscano said in response. "But this change does'nt go far enough. Students deserve to be heard, and university leaders can't continue to stick their heads in the sand."
JMU’s board has met three times in a virtual format since the pandemic began, Toscano said. Other universities have smoothly transitioned their board meetings to an online format while still allowing for student participation.
James Madison’s leadership has endured criticism for its handling of opening and quickly closing campus. Less than two weeks after the semester began, the school shuttered in-person classes, which will remain online through at least the end of September. An editorial in the school’s student newspaper, The Breeze, questioned the university’s loyalty to its own students.
“At this point, many in the JMU community think that the university cares more about its revenue than its students,” the editorial read.
Toscano called the school’s move to online classes a “bait and switch” in which the cost of tuition remained the same and in which the school declined to refund fees for services students cannot access.
The second co-author of the letter was Megan Rhyne, executive director of Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Not allowing students to participate in a board of visitors meeting at a time when JMU is making such influential decisions, Rhyne said, disregarded students interests and concerns.
Among the signers of the letter were Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, and state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, whose districts encompass Harrisonburg.