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Meaningful outreach for UMass

In recent weeks, the University of Massachusetts’ Alumni Association’s self esteem issue has resurfaced, but it will take more than a good-faith facelift to fix it.

Articles published by the Boston Globe and this newspaper have highlighted the association’s poor performance in attracting alumni to association membership. Currently, fewer than three percent of alumni pay dues to the group. This begs a simple question repeated to 215,000 alumni: Why don’t you like me?

A healthy membership empowers the University’s causes in state government and improves its image through the simple retelling of its members’ supposed success stories. When an association so closely associated with the University cannot retain addressable alumni at rates comparable to its peer institutions, UMass’ image is damaged, and its causes go unheard at a time when the University faces financial crisis amid shrinking support from the statehouse. Perhaps worst of all, a mere three percent of 215,000 can be relied upon to say this is a shame.

Of the students questioned by this newspaper, many sympathized with the association’s troubles. They said the University often felt impersonal – that it lacked something like a big-name athletics program to bring students together.

Executive Director Anna Symington added that low membership could be attributed to the University’s awkward geographic location, a weak economy and the confusion alumni encounter when they cannot understand the difference between paying their dues to the association and making donations to the University’s fundraising groups.

The points seem logical, so to make membership more attractive, Symington detailed ambitious plans. She spoke of dropping a $40 yearly membership fee, making lifetime memberships more accessible and automatically incorporating all alumni into the association.

This confusion cannot be eased by automatic membership and altruistic donations, however. It only further erases lines of differentiation between the University’s fundraising operations and the association, which is independently run. The two work together, but they are not the same.

Instead, the association must also look at how current students interact with one another. It might notice that they make their large, seemingly impersonal environments shrink to the personal and comfortable. Rather than separating the University’s population into students and alumni, the association needs to tap into its nostalgia and recognize the population consists of much more. Identifying and learning about how students currently enjoy the University will allow it to target their predecessors more effectively.

 

A former Greeno Sub Shop sandwich maker might be more likely to donate or pay dues if the association worked with its current students more closely and if a portion of their donation went directly to programs with which they were formerly associated. Former SGA presidents would be more likely to say “yes” to a networking dinner with others who have similar experiences. The association cannot afford to mishandle this restructuring. It has a great potential to improve the conditions of former and current students if it can look beyond branding and into bonding. Forget passing out key chains, lanyards and 8:00 a.m. pancake breakfasts.

Instead, ask what keys hang on those chains – if they are to club offices, RSOs or other groups. Eliminating dues may make the association membership cheap, but from there, it’s your responsibility to make sure it doesn’t become worthless. 

Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of The Massachusetts Daily Collegian’s Editorial Board.

Comments
8 Responses to “Meaningful outreach for UMass”
  1. Ed says:

    There is one simple thing missing here: students who leave UMass with a bitter taste in their mouths are not going to join the alumni association under any circumstances.

    Look at the numbers: 5000 freshmen. 1000 arrests per year, probably 2500 student judicial cases per year. Look at the numbers: exactly how many students don’t at least have a friend who was arrested and/or brought up on judicial charges?

    The alumni association is doing good to have the membership numbers that it does have. Its problem isn’t its own faults but the prior student experience of alumni.

  2. Rob says:

    The previous post makes no sense. Part of the college experience is learning to accept responsibility for your own actions. If you violate the law or the student code of conduct, which you agree to by attending UMass, you should expect repercussions.

    I am an alum. I was arrested for underage possession of alcohol, faced judicial sanctions and lost my RA job. Did I deserve all of those consequences? Yes, I took a risk and it blew up in my face. It had zero affect on my “student experience.” If anything, it was a valuable learning experience. I give back to the school every year. I also attend Alumni Association events when they interest me. (The meet and greets with Coach Kellogg have been awesome!) To hold a grudge because I got arrested is asinine.

    The Alumni Association does have to do a better job engaging our alumni. I think taking notes on our what our successful peer institutions are doing is a start. Are dues really part of the problem though? In what ways has the AA tried to gain new members besides passive initiatives like the commercials at BBall and hockey games. I haven’t seen much effort.

  3. JR Boucher says:

    I’m unsure about the intent of the comments regarding arrests on campus.

    The college experience is one of life’s unsupervised test tracks where you are allowed to accelerate from zero to stupid in 2.5 seconds with frequency. Kudos to those who have learned and moved on to better things.

    This editorial raises some very good points and generates some thoughtful questions about the value and effectiveness of the alumni association relative to peer institutions, its mission and fulfilling its charter as a promoter of the university.

    All of the reasons provided by the Executive Director are excuses until there is quantifiable evidence. For example are people really not joining because a sports team is not in the playoffs? In this electronic world the campus is as far away as the keyboard on your desk. Is that an issue especially since they are promoting the success of the many local clubs across the country? The economy was not weak during the time that the membership slid down to the current level. In fact it was robust. The change was in the leadership of the Alumni Association.

    That leads us to the question of personal and professional accountability as commendably illustrated by Rob in his comment.

    The Alumni Association is accepting funding from the university that might be better deployed if they are not going to use it effectively and efficiently. Toward that end I ask this question, “How could student fees be lowered if the assets provided to the AA were used for other purposes?

  4. Oracle at Delphi says:

    There is nothing for the alumni to rally round: no major, national athletics, no natioanlly acclaimed academic programs and no national leadership

  5. Ed says:

    The college experience is one of life’s unsupervised test tracks where you are allowed to accelerate from zero to stupid in 2.5 seconds with frequency. Kudos to those who have learned and moved on to better things.

    And it used to be – and still is at many other colleges and universities – that some adult yelled at you the next morning and told you to shape up your act and if you were bright enough to do that, that was the end of it.

    UMass never needed a jail before. Now it is building one.

    I am not approving of youthful indescretions but one of the things that builds a loyal alumni base is a university that helps students build character, not a BOP record…

  6. JR Boucher says:

    I would agree to varying degrees with the most recent posts by both Ed and the Oracle.

    On the other hand the University has a recently gained a significant amount of revenue based on intellectual property. In other words some of that research and the creativity that comes of it is paying off. Periodically we see some of the instructors and alumni recognized on the national stage for unique and impressive accomplishments.

    What usually is presented in the media are the issues that make the school look foolish such as the latest episode with a 1970’s revolutionary.

    So how does this come into play with the Alumni Association? Simple it is a lack of leadership that could rally the alumni around the accomplishments of the school and its 230,000 grads. That is the job of the AA.

    The Alumni Association as currently constitutes lacks vision, purpose and most of all leadership. On the other hand it is over stocked with managers from the Executive Director and the officers down through the board of directors.

    The difference between a manager and a leader is as clear as the difference between what we have and what we need as a university from our alumni association.

    Leadership is management raised by a factor of 10.

    1. Managers coordinate leaders inspire
    2. Managers plan leaders envision
    3. Managers react leaders participate
    4. Managers ask why? Leaders ask why not?
    5. Managers move an organization forward, leaders move an organization upward.

    What we lack in the Alumni Association is the kind of leadership that understands and masters the power of organizational synergy in order to make a contribution greater than one.

    A good leader does this by:
    • Setting standards that challenge others to raise their performance.
    • Infusing in coworkers a contagious professional pride.
    • Setting standards by performance and by example. Those standards fuel results greater than the simple sum of the participants.
    • Harnessing the irrepressible force of teamwork. Communication, motivation, and education (not the degree they hold but the learning they are doing on the job) must be three critical skills of a leader’s day.

    Leaders are defined not by the person doing the job – but by the job they are doing.

    Somebody has to set the standards. If the people in office (paid and volunteer) at the AA can’t it is time for the University Advancement officials to step in and take the appropriate action.

    Then and only then will we have a robust and active Alumni Association that rallies around and promotes the University in the news, with politicians, to the students and alumni.

  7. Ken says:

    Keep beating that dead horse.

    Among we alums, the earned reputaion of current UMass social sciences, humanities, and education studies has led to the steep decline in alum donations/support. UMass has so isolated itself from the real world that it either cannot hear, or chooses to not hear, the universal laughter at such insane programs as degrees in “Social Justice,” “Victims’ Studies,” “Feminist Anthropology,” and the rest of the insane “programs” being offered at UMass. When someone first sent me the link to UMass’ Doctoral Program in Social Justice, I thought he was joking. UMass has moved so forcefully to the Far Left that few alums can identify any longer with the school. Asking alums for support now is like getting a letter from Mars, in Martian, asking for donations to support the invasion of Earth.

    Attending UMass nowadays should not be an exercise in gaining citizenship in Cloud Cookoo Land.

    Ken
    ’68, ’75G
    asa66@charter.net

  8. JR Boucher says:

    I don’t disagree with Ken regarding degree programs that do nothing but take the money of the student and deliver little to no value. The goal of many students is a good career upon graduation. A graduate with a degree in social justice is going to find the job market thin at best.

    The argument that the leadership of the AA is accountable for the poor membership numbers is a “dead horse” is refuted by other considerations;
    • The recent honors and performance improvements pointed out by Chancellor Holub and the President Wilson in their rebuttals to the recent Boston Globe articles show a University with more to offer than the few poor course choices mentioned by Ken.
    • Being highlighted in the top 200 universities in the world and 4th in Massachusetts recently is an accolade of which we should all be proud.
    • Giving is up when measured by the number of alumni who are writing checks. That support is a strong show of support.

    There is more but the point is that there is a lot for us to point at with pride when discussing our university.

    On the other hand while there is strong support of the financial appeals of the school the numbers of the AA are getting smaller. Alumni are supporting the university – they just aren’t doing it as members of the AA.

    That is a leadership issue.

    The latest estimates regarding AA membership is below two percent.

    With that as the backdrop the question might be, “Why is the university funding this organization at over seven figures per year with the assets of people, time and money that could be better spent on high value initiatives?”

    Instead we are watching large sums of money given to the clown parade at Memorial Hall.

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