Alumni: the forgotten university community
One day about four years ago I was sitting in my office in Dublin City University when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a rather pleasant young man who asked for me by name and then proceeded to introduce himself. He was a student in the institution where I did my doctoral research in England. He was quite chatty, and brought me up to date with what was happening in this venerable university. And then he asked me for money. Lots of it, preferably. I pointed out that I was now head of another university, and that this was going to be the recipient of any funds I wanted to give. Sure, sure, he agreed, but there was bound to be a little bit left over that I could give to his institution. Any amount at all. As long as it wasn’t zero.
It was in some ways an annoying conversation, but that wasn’t his fault. Throughout it I did feel slightly inclined to give him something, but was held back by the awareness that the only time anyone ever contacted me from that university was when they wanted money. I did occasionally get a glossy magazine, but that was more about celebrating the university’s great achievers and never made me feel personally engaged. Whenever someone actually contacted me, it was to ask for a donation.
And here is the dilemma. Universities on this side of the Atlantic are slowly waking up to the realisation that their communities of alumni could be important to them. It’s not just for sentimental reasons: alumni are ambassadors, marketing assistants, strategic advisers, and donors. They are an important resource, because once motivated they can be extraordinarily effective supporters. And once you have a real community of alumni, they should indeed be donors: but the sense of community must be there first.
Getting this relationship right must be based on changing the common perception that graduation is a separation ceremony. At graduation the former student should not become just a graduate with ever looser links, she or he should become a member of an even more closely knit group within the university: the group that can, from a fully emancipated perspective, consist of true friends, supporters and guides. They must be given a sense that their input and advice will matter as much as their money, and that their donations will ensure that new generations will be able to benefit even more from what they enjoyed.
My old university was not wrong to call me to ask for my financial support. But they should have shown some other interest in me first, and made me feel part of the institution. And preferably, they should have done that over 20 years ago. Actually, I did give something. But I could have given more, and properly engaged would do so. And that engagement of our alumni should be the goal for all of us today, as we develop our universities for this new age of change in higher education.