A Lawyer Takes an Uncommon Path to a University Presidency

James Madison U.

Jonathan Alger, one of the most recognizable figures in higher-education law, will become president of James Madison U. in July.
January 01, 2012

College presidents routinely confront tough questions dealing with the law. But the next president of Virginia's James Madison University, Jonathan R. Alger, won't have to look very far to gain access to seasoned legal thinking. In fact, all he'll have to do is look within.

Mr. Alger, who assumes the leadership of James Madison in July, has spent the past seven years as general counsel of Rutgers University, and previously was an assistant general counsel at the University of Michigan. In such positions he has served as his administration's legal point person in handling contract negotiations, student controversies, strategic planning, and financial matters, and dealt with governing boards and a host of outside constituencies.

"The skill set and the experiences that I can bring to the table are very helpful," he says. "The role of the general counsel touches every corner of the university," and involves not only being "a good advocate for the institution," but also "being able to hear and understand different points of view."

On the whole, Mr. Alger is one of the most recognizable figures in higher-education law. He serves as president and chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, and has been a staff lawyer for the American Association of University Professors and the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. He has written numerous law-journal articles on issues such as diversity, speech codes, intellectual property, and online education.

He is perhaps best known for his work at the University of Michigan helping to defend that institution's use of race-conscious admissions before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases, both decided in 2003. He played a lead role in coordinating the largest inpouring of friend-of-the-court briefs in the Supreme Court's history, with major corporations, former military leaders, civil-rights organizations, professional associations, and a long list of colleges and college groups weighing in on Michigan's behalf. The majority decision in the Grutter case cited the breadth of support for Michigan in holding that race-conscious admission policies serve a compelling government interest.

"For me, it is all about creating the strongest possible learning environment," he says. "Diversity and excellence go hand in hand."

Mr. Alger has no desire to continue playing the role of general counsel at James Madison. Instead, he plans to turn to his institution's other lawyers for legal advice, in recognition of the many other demands that will be made of him. A 2006 survey of more than 2,100 college and university presidents conducted by the American Council on Education found that less than 2 percent of the presidents listed dealing with legal and risk-management issues as among the three areas of their job that most occupied their time.

Although their ranks have roughly doubled over the past 20 years, college presidents with a legal background remain relatively rare. Among others are Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College, who had been general counsel at the University of Michigan; Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a past president of George Washington University, who had been a lawyer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; and Carl (Tobey) Oxholm III, president of Arcadia University, who had been Drexel University's general counsel.

The American Council on Education's 2006 survey of presidents found that just under 6 percent listed a law degree as the highest they had earned. Kathleen C. Santora, chief executive of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, has been encouraging higher-education associations that groom people for college presidencies to reach out to general counsels, out of a belief that they provide a largely untapped reservoir of leadership talent as higher education confronts an expected wave of presidential retirements.

Mr. Alger says he seized upon the James Madison job when contacted by search consultants because he sees the post as "a great fit for my own interests and passions." He liked the idea of moving back to Virginia, where he lived early in his career. Having earned his bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College and gone on to study law at Harvard and work for major research universities, he said he values James Madison's emphasis on the liberal arts in a comprehensive university setting. "As a lawyer who worked on constitutional issues," he says, "I really like the historical tie to the father of the Constitution."