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.

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7 Comments on “Alumni: the forgotten university community”

  1. Vincent Says:

    What I don’t quite get is how ALL universities miss by a country mile the wants/needs of their target audience on reading the yearly begging letter/Alumni Magazine.
    No one gives a hoot who encountered the current fat sacks of spuds any more than they gave one when they were drinking twice their weight a week in beer. What they want is a red top rendition of the goings on. A bit of nostalgia, as in what well is closed. But mostly they want to remember their youth IN A HAPPY WAY.

    • Al Says:

      Have to agree
      And as soon as I look at the glossy magazine that comes through the letterbox infrequently I know I am at the start of a chugging.
      It isnt really done right in this country, but it may be cultural as well as the half assed attempts that is at play.

  2. revd rob Says:

    Striking similarity to church based communities

  3. jfryar Says:

    Interesting topic … I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the ‘sense of community’ argument which raises the question as to whether such communities can act in an entirely altruistic way.

    Alumni associations probably only work if the individuals get something in return which means universities effectively have to make them feel like shareholders. I often wonder how this has affected US universities. Has the ‘strategic direction’ been shaped by significant endowments by private individuals? Have students ended up on courses, not because they were academically qualified but because daddy and mommy paid the required amount?

    I suppose what I’m suggesting is that alumni works for private institutions if people feel they can influence the system in some way. I’m not so sure it works if most of the funds come from the taxpayer.

  4. don Says:

    ANYONE who goes to Cambridge university as a student (u/grad or post grad) should be thankful for the rest of their lives for the privilege of having gone there. Although Cambridge was the first uni outside of the US to raise £1bn in donations (including, I guess, your (Ferdinand) contribution) it continues to need investment, endowments, contributions in order to ensure that its standards of teaching (the rare one-to-one tutorial/supervision system) and research are developed. You didn’t HAVE to give, but you did, and I applaud you. If there is a niggle (and there evidently is) that you could have given more, just give it now, and be thankful. Fund raising does not come naturally to all, and your enthusiastic correspondent didn’t get it quite right – put it down to (perhaps) youthful exuberance. Look at it this way: your contribution is towards teaching excellence, academic freedom (freedom, that is, from interfering interests {including Government}) and the continuation of traditions and facilities for future generations.


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