My Dentist Eric

My dentist in Las Vegas was Eric Lac. Eric is a UCLA undergrad who went to Boston for his dental degree. He is an avid Bruin fan, and because I have bad teeth, we visited frequently. Most of our conversations involved football, but one day it turned to my fund-raising responsibilities as Dean.

Eric noted that he had never given money to UCLA, but that he contributed significant sums to his graduate institution. I expressed surprise. Most alum’s strongest affinity is with their undergraduate institution. Eric replied that UCLA had never even asked him for money, but that his graduate institution had gone to great lengths to build strong relationships with their alums. He said the program had always told students that they would guarantee the value of their degree after graduation and that they kept that promise. Eric had several concerns when setting up his practice in Vegas, so he called his alma mater and got his questions answered by faculty within 48 hours. He went on to comment: “That was really impressive. The school was there when I needed them and I was grateful for that.”

That conversation stuck with me. One lesson involved UCLA’s failure to contact Eric. But, it was his graduate institution’s commitment to the continuing value of Eric’s degree that got me thinking the most.

As Dean, I have seen first-hand the value of developing strong relationships with alumni. A motivated alumni base is a dean’s biggest asset. Alumni can help raise money, mentor students, educate the community about the importance of higher education and the value of their degree, as well as hire graduates. That is why I have worked closely with alumni associations and try very hard not to miss their board meetings or events.

But alumni associations are having a crisis of purpose: the struggle has been to develop a compelling value proposition that strengthens relationships and motivates participation. Most alumni associations try to leverage affinity around college athletics to build awareness, solicit memberships and encourage active participation. In short, they plan “fun” events largely around game day where alums can network with other alums. They also give you a magazine that touts the university’s accomplishments and lets you know what other alumni are doing.

But people didn’t go to college to follow sports teams. And even if they did, they can plan or attend fun events on game day without joining the alumni association. Alums also think, perhaps incorrectly, that LinkedIN is now the most effective way to network for professional gain (they are wrong, but that is a different blog post). They can also find out all they could possibility want to know about what is going on at their alma matter through a quick google search.

The point is that the alumni association offers nothing of unique value and so participation in the organization is seen as a “gift” by alumni to their alma matter. In fact, many universities have stopped charging an annual membership fee because alums confuse it with a donation …something the university would prefer to ask for separately.

But what if instead of focusing on fun and affinity, the alumni association met my dentist Eric’s need and became a vehicle for guaranteeing the continued value of a graduate’s degree? This would be a very different kind of alumni association, with a very different type of staff and set of activities. What do you think alums? Is this a better alumni association, one you see value in? What would you like to see it do? Feedback please?

7 thoughts on “My Dentist Eric

  1. “If only I knew then, what I know now!” Alumni possess the most powerful of all superpowers. Stronger than climbing walls like a spider or an adamantium skeleton, alumni posses wisdom; knowledge that has been tempered (and sometimes bludgeoned) by experience. They have succeeded, they have failed, they have experienced life. But superpowers are only cool if you get to use them. My feeling is that an alumni association should figure out how to get students and alumni mixing in as many environments as possible. Alumni can teach our students about professionalism, their careers, and whether or not they’ll ever use that “present value of money” thing. So whether it’s a social mixer, student organizations, one on one mentoring, or class projects; opportunities for students and alumni to connect can give alumni the opportunity to show off their superpower and truly feel connected to their university.

      • Confessions of a Mavel Universe nerd… LOL!! Paying it forward is part of it. But for those who may not be so esoteric in their approach, it’s a level of connectivity that enables them to actually influence the performance of their College. Students who have begun to establish a professional network through social (networking, student orgs) or academic (internships, case projects) interactions with the outside world (alumni, businesses) are twice as likely as their classmates to have a job offer at graduation. Higher graduate employment reflects positively on the College, which reflects positively on the College’s students and alumni. Alumni, if you are interested in the perceived value of your degree then let’s work together to figure out how to get you interacting with (and ultimately influencing) students so you can share what you’ve learned since you graduated. You’re paying it forward, but you are also making an investment in yourself.

  2. I am a member of the most recent group of alumni members having graduated this Summer 2012. I would love a guarantee that my degree is going to be worth something more than just my diploma. I know that the Alumni Association works very hard organizing the networking events and post-graduation communication efforts, which are very effective. I would like to see events tailored more toward community involvement and philanthropy. I recognize an affinity that people have around participating and providing resources to others. I feel that UCF is a signal of strength in the local community and we should attempt to incorporate ourselves further. This form of interconnectedness will spur networks to expand and innovative collaboration to occur. I also like this quote from Dean Jarley above, “A motivated alumni base is a dean’s biggest asset. Alumni can help raise money, mentor students, educate the community about the importance of higher education and the value of their degree, as well as hire graduates.”

  3. To answer your question directly: fun and affinity are not mutually exclusive to a robust alumni network which can help improve the brand. When I look at UCF, I look at the school as platform rather than a definitive group. There should remain a fun and affinity alumni network like the one set up today, and each college should run their own independent alumni effort which focuses on adding value.
    Rather than trying to change an external organization (the UCF Alumni Association), you, as the dean of the school could take the issue head on and start improving the alumni brand from the college itself. My guess is that you will find that the current UCF alumni association is fairly organized and could provide a backbone for UCF business events etc.

    • Hi William:

      Thank you for the thoughtful comments. It was not my intent to suggest that alumni associations should eliminate fun. Rather, my point is that the essence of the university experience is to provide students with skill sets that will serve them well in their professional (and personal) lives. The value lies in the degree. Eric’s story underscores a key opportunity in developing affinity and one that could be a core function of the alumni association.

      You are also correct in pointing out that some of what is necessary to protect the value of the degree can be done by each college since that is where specific disciplinary expertise lies. But other elements say lobbying for state funding (or to resist cuts) is something that is best done centrally.

  4. I think it would also be beneficial to help the current students understand what the Alumni Association actually does- both at the larger (central) level, and at the smaller (college) level. Most students don’t seem to know what the benefits are of becoming a member, or seem to think all the association does is solicit donations. (That’s the general feedback I’ve gotten when I suggest they look into becoming a member.) Some re-education seems in order. Better marketing to undergrads- perhaps seniors?- would be a plus. Also, how many current CBA alumni are actual members of the alumni association? It’s hard to promote an organization if it’s current members aren’t particularly active. (Which I don’t know if the CBA alumni are or are not- I’m just saying…) Having a group of active, encouraging, enthusiastic alums will make attracting new members easier.

    Just thinking out loud 🙂

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