Report of the Alumni Relations Committee

For the Year 2005-2006

Presented to the University Senate

May 5, 2006


At the beginning of the academic year, the Alumni Relations Committee decided to focus its efforts in an examination of the various ways in which alumni interact with Columbia’s rich intellectual resources through alumni learning resources such as auditing courses, using the libraries, attending faculty lectures at local clubs, accessing online resources and participating in the alumni travel study program.  After all, even during periods when the University’s quality of life suffered, its intellectual richness was unsurpassed.  It thus stands to reason that alumni learning resources can be a powerful channel though which Columbia can continue to strengthen its relationship with its alumni.


In the course of its examination, the Committee held extensive discussions with the following:


  • Frank Wolf, Dean of the School of Continuing Education
  • James G. Neal, University Librarian and Vice President for Information Services and Robert I. Smith, Director of Development for the University Libraries
  • Danette Stephens, President of Travel Study Services, the firm which administers the University’s alumni travel study program
  • José Gonzalez, Associate Director, University Alumni Relations, whose office handles faculty speaking engagements
  • Jerome Kisslinger, Executive Director of Communications and Jesse Gale, Assistant Director, University Development and Alumni Relations, who are responsible for various online learning initiatives (Learning@Columbia) for alumni


Everyone with whom the committee met was exceptionally helpful and forthcoming in their remarks.  It is also clear that there is a great deal of activity underway – virtually everyone with whom we spoke is either launching a new initiative, reorganizing an existing offering or responsible for growing a nascent venture. Because of that, it seems particularly propitious to offer some general findings that might inform these efforts:


Foster greater and ongoing alumni input into program design. While many of the initiatives we spoke with made mention of the importance of receiving input from alumni, few seemed to be doing so systematically.  (The Libraries are taking commendable steps in this regard.)  Facilitated presentations, surveys and discussions with selected alumni though the Columbia Alumni Association, the school alumni associations and the Columbia Clubs could provide invaluable ongoing insight regarding both needs and possible solutions.  (Last year, this Committee developed with the Vice President for Alumni Relations an alumni needs survey that could easily be included in this effort.)  To be most effective, efforts to improve alumni learning resources should work backward from alumni use cases (investigating career options/career change, desire to explore an interest and meet similarly inclined people, interest in current events, etc.) rather than forward from available resources.


Establish greater collaboration and strategic planning between the various offices responsible for these initiatives.  While it is clear that there is communication between, say, the University Libraries and the Learning@Columbia online initiative managed by UDAR, there seems to be an opportunity for more synergy building and brainstorming between all involved, given the common goals and objectives.  Given his effective championing of holistic approaches to content development, Jerome Kisslinger seems an obvious choice to act as point of contact and catalyst of that conversation.


Develop greater cohesion and clearer communication in the branding of services.  Like many things at Columbia, the range of learning resources we surveyed are highly decentralized.  The “Learn” section of the Columbia Alumni Web site ( takes a good first step in bringing these services together.  But they should be packaged as part of an integrated whole that emphasizes the complete Columbia alumni learning experience.  (This could be reinforced by illustrating real or fictional case studies illustrating how alumni used learning resources to pursue an interest, make a career change or answer a question.)  In addition, while a great deal of resources are gathered together online, they are somewhat intimidating for a first-time user.  There needs to be a more welcoming and user-oriented environment to facilitate greater alumni use.


Harness databases to identify opportunities and communicate possibilities:  As the above example regarding identifying potential faculty lecturers indicates, the skillful harnessing of databases can be a powerful tool.  Each initiative should develop a plan for data mining and for maintaining data to allow for tracking alumni interest and for targeted outreach.   Similarly, there is a clear need for a centralized calendar database of events and resources that provides a single point of reference for alumni; even a visit to the various sites hosted by the different schools provides only a limited view of events open to alumni. 


Reenergize programs by rethinking them.  The travel study program and the faculty lecture program, while well managed and successful by traditional benchmarks such as number of attendees, seem to cry out for new approaches.  The faculty lecture program, for example, seems to rely too heavily on a small stable of lecturers.  The Committee suggests that professors who consistently teach courses with triple-digit enrollments be targeted as potential additions to the program.  Similarly, the alumni travel study program might benefit from breaking out of the traditional mold of five-day trips to exotic locales to consider events like a weekend of events for alumni in various cities (e.g., Art and Architecture in Chicago, Theater and Dance in New York), as well as events targeted toward young alumni and families.


Examine the role that could be played by the School of Continuing Education (SCE):  Currently, alumni enjoy no special standing (such as discounts) for either SCE courses or auditing of University courses (which is administered by SCE).  In addition, the current registration system, which requires the making available all student privileges (e.g., access to the gym and library circulation privileges), results is a substantial auditing fee of $1500 per course.  We encourage the School as well as the appropriate University Information technology resources to explore less expensive and all-encompassing alternatives.   The Committee recommends that the Vice President for Alumni Relations and the Dean of the School of Continuing Education consider how SCE could be a more attractive resource for alumni and what would be required in terms of resources.


For new alumni, anchor alumni learning resources to the student experience – and the transition from student to alumnus.  Learning resources are a natural link between being a student and being an alumnus, and should be part of the “package of benefits” that students see themselves as receiving as they move on to become alumni.  In addition, there is a continuing need to develop integrated programs for young alumni that bring together mentoring and professional networking and development opportunities.


Stay nimble.  More than most alumni efforts, those involving learning resources are driven by technology and the evolving way in which technology is changing how people interact with each other.  As a result, those involved will have to devote at least some attention to monitoring of new trends, practices and expectations.  The Committee urges those involved to look to the University’s own alumni and faculty for the subject-matter expertise in technology, social networks and other areas that can provide these insights.


Respectfully submitted,


Sen. Bradley W. Bloch, Chair (Alum.)

Mr. Eric Furda, University Vice President for Alumni Relations

Mr. José Gonzalez, Administration Advisor

Prof. Robert McCaughey (Ten., Bar)

Sen. Varun Munjal (Stu. CC)

Sen. Daniel Savin (Res. Off.)

Ms. Jen Schnidman, Student Advisor

Mr. Walter Sweet, Alumnus Advisor

Sen. Paul Thompson (Alum.)