Report of the Alumni Relations Committee

For the Year 2003-2004

Presented to the University Senate

April 30, 2004

 

 

This past fall, on action of the Senate Executive Committee, the Alumni Relations Committee was reactivated, having been inactive since the end of the 1999-2000 academic year.  The Committee held its first meeting on November 5 and met four subsequent times during the year.

 

The reactivation of the Committee must be seen in the context of the Administration’s emphasis on improving the state of alumni relations at Columbia, which has historically lagged significantly behind its peer institutions.  

 

The Committee began its work without a specific mandate, and at a time when the University Alumni Relations and Development Office (UDAR) was still putting key personnel and infrastructure in place, as well as grappling with the immediate challenge of the Columbia 250 celebration.  (The recent appointment of Eric Furda to the newly created position of Vice President of Alumni Relations is a significant development in this regard.)

 

The Committee decided to spend its first year in general fact-finding, in order to better understand the current state of alumni relations from the perspectives of various constituencies.  Numerous people met with the Committee to share their views and respond to questions, including:

 

·        Austin Quigley, Dean of Columbia College

·        Zvi Galil, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science

·        Charles O’Byrne, President of the Columbia College Alumni Association

·        K. Daniel Libby, President of the Columbia Engineering School Alumni Association

·        Anthony Roman, Associate Director of Alumni Relations

·        Cliff Wattley, President of the Columbia Club of Fairfield County

·        Robert Siroty, M.D., Vice President of the Columbia Club of Northern New Jersey

·        Eric Furda, Vice President of Alumni Relations


These conversations were loosely structured and wide ranging. The findings of the Committee include:

 

·        Generally, interaction and communication within universities occurs between faculty and students, and between the administration and alumni.  Interaction is far weaker between, say, alumni and faculty – despite the fact that alumni often have strong memories of favorite faculty members.   

 

·        There needs to be further exploration into strengthening ties between students, faculty and alumni.  Possibilities include enlisting retired faculty to speak at alumni events, establishing professional interest groups that bring together alumni practitioners and faculty academicians, and formalizing, possibly with database support, informal student requests of faculty mentors to connect them with alumni mentors. There is stronger interaction at Columbia between students and faculty than in earlier years, but this needs ongoing reinforcement from the top.

 

·        There is a clear need for developing an Alumni Center that would act as a physical focal point for alumni returning to campus.

 

·        Columbia’s alumni represent a highly underutilized resource of experience, professional expertise and energy.  Whether it is in mentoring students, lobbying for legislation favorable to Columbia’s interests, or acting as ambassadors of the University to their professions, with the proper structure and guidance the alumni could be a much more potent force than they are today. 

 

·        Receptivity of alumni to reconnecting with Columbia is a function of age, with those roughly 40 and over the most alienated, while those in the most recent classes show strong signs of involvement (measured by participation in Class Gift drives and attendance at young alumni events).   This correlates in part with the move of the College and Engineering School to fully residential status in the early 1980s.

 

·        Strong alumni relations begins with regarding students as future alumni starting with their acceptance to the University. Columbia needs to continue its investment in creating emotional bonds with its students, and provide them quality-of-life services that reinforce that bond.  Recent improvements in the Office of Student Services have been promising in this regard.  Columbia’s New York location, and its tradition of attracting impendent-minded students, does not mitigate the importance of these bonds.

·        The alumni themselves must take more responsibility for the alumni relations function, particularly outside the New York metropolitan region.  At the same time, alumni volunteers cannot be too overburdened with meetings and commitments.  Involving alumni in the strategic direction of the University will require greater and more focused communication between the administration and the alumni leadership.

 

·        The traditional focus on undergraduate alumni should not obscure the needs of Columbia’s graduate alumni, particularly given the role of Columbia’s graduate and professional schools in its overall reputation.

 

·        Current departmental performance reviews being conducted by Ira Katznelson include examining what role departments could play in student life.  This might provide some ideas regarding the role of departments in alumni relations.

 

·        Columbia has active school-based alumni associations and regional clubs that perform important “front line” functions, but there is little communication or coordination between them.  This in part reflects the tension in identity between the individual schools and the University as a whole.  Fostering structured communication among these various entities, and harnessing the skills and experience of the alumni leadership in a coordinated way, should be a priority. 

 

·        The University should explore ways of developing events, lectures and classes to help foster the return of alumni to campus, which in turn promotes overall alumni involvement.

 

The Committee intends the above findings as initial observations to assist all involved in the alumni relations function in strengthening alumni involvement with the University.  The committee will be meeting over the summer in order to set forth an overall agenda for next year’s work.

 

 

Respectfully submitted,

 

Linda Beck (Non-tenured, Barnard)

Bradley W. Bloch (Alumni), Chair

Richard Bulliet (Ten., A&S/SS)

Kevin J. Collins (Alumni)

Susan K. Feagin (EVP of University Development and Alumni Relations)

James Schmid (Student, Business)