In memoriam: Colleagues and former students remember Dr. James Jay

During his time at MSU, Jay strengthened diversity efforts in various ways, including the creation of the Office of Diversity and Pluralism in CANR.

Dr. James E. Jay passed away on July 19, 2020. Jay served in many leadership roles at Michigan State University (MSU) and in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR). He retired from MSU in 2001, but his legacy continues today.

Dr. James Jay

Jay was a friend and colleague to Dr. Eunice Foster, professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. She said Jay’s diversity efforts encouraged many, as well as laid a more inclusive groundwork in CANR that keeps growing.

“Jay was a visionary who conceived of and created the Office of Diversity and Pluralism in CANR,” Foster said. “Dr. Jay was a giant in the arena of diversity and pluralism. He positively affected many lives and will be missed greatly.”

Jay was born and raised in Ben Hill County, (Fitzgerald) Georgia. He enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in 1953 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1957. Following graduation, Jay took a teaching position in Georgia for a few months before he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and was deployed to Germany for two years. After fulfilling his military duty, he was awarded an Honorable Discharge from the Armed Forces of the United States of America.

In 1968, Jay returned to Tuskegee University, where he met Joyce, his wife of 39 years. He completed his master’s degree in 1970, and then attended MSU, graduating with a Ph.D. in 1974.

Jay stayed at MSU and moved into roles of greater scope and responsibility, including professor, assistant dean, director of academic and student affairs, and assistant vice provost for the CANR. As the first and only assistant vice provost for diversity and pluralism, Jay was responsible for diversity efforts in CANR, the MSU Agricultural Experiment Station (now AgBioResearch), and the Michigan Cooperative Extension Service (now MSU Extension).

Jay worked with CANR units to recruit, nurture and mentor numerous diverse graduate students throughout the college. CANR, the Agricultural Experiment Station and Michigan Cooperative Extension Service helped fund Jay’s innovative work through various graduate assistantships. Foster recalls her department, then Crop and Soil Sciences, had 11 American graduate students of color between 1993-1999, who were funded through the CANR Office of Diversity and Pluralism.

Prior to his retirement, Jay developed a booklet detailing the results of the Minority Competitive Doctoral Fellowship (MCDF) and the Competitive Doctoral Enrichment Programs (CDEF). This booklet, “The Minority Competitive Doctoral Fellowship Program; Celebrating 20 Years of Achievement 1979-1999,” featured 21 of the Ph.D. recipients and the 16 MCDF/CDEF graduate students enrolled in CANR at the time. These alumni now work as faculty and high-level administrators in academia, industry and in governmental and non-governmental institutions throughout the U.S. and some internationally.

At various times during his career at MSU, Jay played a role in diversity efforts involving pre-college, undergraduate, and graduate students and in faculty and staff hiring. He and Dr. Don Wallace, then a graduate student, developed the Minority Apprenticeship Program (now the Multicultural Apprenticeship Program) in 1982 for high school students as a way to increase undergraduate diversity in CANR.

The apprenticeship program recruited diverse students to CANR leading to the formation of the Minorities in Agriculture and Natural Resources Association student organization, which subsequently led to the development of the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS). Today, MANRRS is a national organization with over 2,000 high school, undergraduate and graduate student and professional members throughout the U.S.

Dr. Dave Weatherspoon, professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, first met Jay in 1983 as a freshman. Weatherspoon, also associate dean for the MSU Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and dean of undergraduate studies, remembered conversations with Jay often went beyond coursework and moved into discussions about life – your past, present and the future you could attain.

“Dr. Jay knew his job was to help everyone regardless of how they looked, acted or sounded. He encouraged everyone, from those who were full of energy and excited, to those who were in a crux and almost giving up. Everyone was welcome,” Weatherspoon said. “Dr. Jay touched many lives, particularly those who were fortunate enough to end up in his office. MSU and especially the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources were better because of him.”

Other former students shared how Jay supported and encouraged them academically and personally. They said he was welcoming, personable and candid, often becoming a resource and mentor. Dr. Jane Ford was the first MCDF recipient in CANR. Jay promised Ford’s father that he wouldn’t let anything happen to her, and he took his promise seriously, she remembered.

“I was the only African-American graduate student in my department and things were not easy for many reasons. I will forever be indebted to him,” Ford said. She is professor emeritus of Alabama A&M University and the USDA Forest Service, and is a 1987 alum of the Department of Horticulture. “It was people like him who guided and helped me develop my personal philosophy in dealing with and mentoring students.”

In the later part of his career at MSU, Jay established a study abroad program in Southern Africa. Many former students fondly remembered the program and shared how the experience greatly changed their lives and expanded their perspectives.

As a graduate student, Dr. Nicole Webster was part of the inaugural South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho graduate study abroad program held in 1994, three weeks after the presidential election of Nelson Mandela.

“Dr. Jay's keen vision as an administrator and astute scholar enabled him to link the experience to students' academic growth in an extraordinary way. This three-week study abroad experience blossomed into a mentor/mentee relationship that served as a cornerstone of my current scholarship within higher education,” said Webster, now associate professor and agriculture and extension educator at Pennsylvania State University. “In essence, Dr. Jay's ability to be inclusive and generate a genuinely memorable experience significantly enhanced students' academic performance and professional journeys.”

Foster said Jay genuinely cared about students, and that is apparent throughout his career and ongoing legacy, including the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion within CANR.

“Jay wanted students to succeed academically and to become leaders in their disciplines,” she said. “His legacy continues its tremendous impact through former students and colleagues who knew, respected and loved him.”

Read more about Dr. James Jay (1934-2020).

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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