Horatio Alger, a 19th century American author, wrote tales of young men who rose from humble beginnings to find success as adults through a combination of hard work, determination, courage and honesty.
Jamie Phillips could be a personification of one of Alger’s tales. A philosophy professor in his 21st year at Clarion University, Phillips rose from a modest background in west central Missouri to become the first faculty member to ever hold a seat on the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s (PASSHE) Board of Governors.
“Nobody in my family went to college. In fact, my mom only finished 10th grade and my biological father only finished sixth. Going to college was not on anybody’s radar. It wasn’t on mine. I didn’t know anything about anything,” Phillips said.
With limited options, Phillips enlisted in the United States Air Force where he worked in military intelligence for four years. Said Phillips, “The thing about the military is you get to see the world. It changed me. College became possible for lots of different reasons.”
One of those reasons was the GI Bill, which enabled him to matriculate at the University of Missouri following an honorable discharge. Originally a history major, Phillips began taking philosophy courses at that institution and fell under the mentorship of Andrew Melnick, an Oxford-educated British philosopher, who encouraged him to pursue a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate.
“I realized philosophy is deeper than history. Philosophy is a way to understand everything that you experience. Not only does it have the methodology that helps you get to the truth, it’s the only thing that really asks the deeper questions. That’s why I like philosophy. That’s what makes it exciting for me,” he said.
Specializing in epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and the philosophy of science, Phillips found success at the graduate level. “Along the way I just started becoming successful. I was the first person in our program to present at a major conference as a graduate student. I had a paper accepted (for publication) that I wrote in class. It was kind of a cool thing,” Phillips noted.
After completing his doctoral dissertation in August of 1999 Phillips and his wife, then pregnant with their first pair of twins (he is the father of two sets of twins), pulled up stakes in Missouri and moved to Clarion, where a faculty position awaited.
“I’m just a normal human being. I’m a country boy. This (Clarion) is a lot like where I come from. As soon as I saw this area I just loved it. It’s just gorgeous, reminds me of the Ozarks. And everybody is like people I grew up with. We have the same kind of basic sensibilities.”
Shortly after arriving at Clarion, Phillips became involved in university governance, serving on faculty senate and various presidential committees. He also found himself active in the faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), rising to the local chapter’s presidency in 2007 and serving in that capacity until 2013.
Though APSCUF negotiates contracts and has a say in the working conditions of PASSHE faculty, it had very limited participation when it came to making decisions that directly impacted Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities. The appointment of new PASSHE chancellor Daniel Greenstein in 2018 set off a system redesign predicated on making fundamental changes, one of which is the inclusion of faculty in a process of shared governance and decision-making. A variety of factors, including his advocacy of shared governance, subsequently saw Phillips elected to represent PASSHE’s more than 4,000 faculty members on the Board of Governors. Phillips attended his first meeting October 16 and will hold his interim position for the next year.
According to PASSHE’s website, “The board establishes broad educational, fiscal, and personnel policies, and oversees the efficient management of the state system.” To this end, the 20-member Board of Governors plans and coordinates the development and operation of all state-owned universities (which regionally includes Clarion, Slippery Rock, Edinboro, Indiana and Lock Haven).
Currently a non-voting member of the board, Phillips see his role as one of providing information and insight from the perspective of the faculty.
“At no point in time have faculty ever been able to provide recommendations to the Board of Governors. My role, as I see it, is to fulfill the role of being the faculty representative on the Board of Governors, to give them good advice about policy, make recommendations,” he said.
Despite taking on this additional role and assuming the added responsibilities that come with it, Phillips is, first and foremost, dedicated to Clarion University and its students, some of whom grew up in similar circumstances.
“I love the students because I see all of them being on a track. College for me was a drastic change in my life; it made everything else happen in terms of the ability to be successful. I feel like for these students this is a chance, a window of opportunity for them. They’re lucky because they’re in an area where there’s actually a university they can go to that can propel them into a better life,” Phillips said.
“Who knows what my life would have been like (without the military and going to college), but it would have been an ugly existence. It would have been more desperate and more difficult. So I absolutely relate to them, every single student. I feel like I have to pay forward all the gifts that were given to me, because I got lucky.”