From Boomers to Slackers:

One Generation of Alumni Looks Ahead to the Next

by Theresa Desmond

Keeping track of alumni must have been much simpler when the University's Alumni Association formed in 1886: only two bachelor's degrees were conferred that year. Although there were also ten "Normal" graduates (who had completed a two-year course of study) in that first commencement ceremony, the initial Association records system presumably did not require a high level of maintenance.

Today there are more than 180,000 living alumni of the U, and maintaining their records is only one of the challenges the Alumni Association faces as it continues the task laid out in 1886: "to promote a general interest in the cause of education and to perpetuate the friendships formed between the graduates of the University." Besides the sheer number and growing diversity of the University's alumni, there are scholarship programs, student recruiting efforts, chapters, publications, memberships, license plates, athletic-related events, legislative advocacy programs, community service, Homecoming, Founders' Day, and a host of other initiatives to manage. Each year, more than 5,000 new graduates are added, leading the Alumni Association to continually examine its mission: "to serve alumni and encourage them to maintain a lifelong relationship with the University and to make meaningful contributions to the U and its students."

Executive Director John Ashton BS'66 JD'69 notes that "there has been a marked shift away from socially-oriented activities, such as Homecoming, to more substantive activities, such as legislative advocacy. Alumni are busier, have existing social outlets, and are looking for ways to provide meaningful service." He adds, "We also have to ensure that students have a more rewarding undergraduate experience. Students seem to be less engaged on campus than they were 10 years ago."

Representing tens of thousands of U alumni, the board of the Alumni Association hopes to involve all graduates in initiatives to keep their 150-year-old alma mater a competitive institution, according to Randy Dryer BS'73 JD'76, the current board president. To that end, the board is focusing on a few specific areas:

  • increasing community service in partnership with the Bennion Center;
  • keeping alumni involved in student recruiting, orientation, athletics, and scholarship programs;
  • helping undergraduates, especially through the Sesquicentennial Scholarship program;
  • remaining politically active in issues that can aid the University and its alumni;
  • expanding and renovating the Alumni House to better meet campus and community needs.

Part of the 114-year evolution in the way the Alumni Association "serves alumni" is a change in the alumni-to-be: the students. What can the Alumni Association expect of its future constituents? Slava Lubomudrov, associate dean of undergraduate studies, feels that while every student is unique, some broader changes in the U's student body are discernible. For one thing, the new residence halls will have a significant impact on students' experiences at the U. "More students-in-state, transfers, international, all kinds-will live on campus, and some academic instruction will move into the halls, as well, so there will be more partnerships between academics and residence life," says Lubomudrov.

In addition, he points to three factors that may affect the composition of the student body. One, nationally the proportion of male students is dropping, while the proportion of female students is increasing. "More males are finding well-paying jobs right out of high school," notes Lubomudrov, "so institutions may need to expand the opportunities for students who join them later." Two, elementary and secondary schools in Salt Lake City are becoming more diverse, which should lead to greater diversity at the U. And three, with the state's emphasis on encouraging high school students to earn college credit through advanced placement and concurrent enrollment classes, and with the growing number of new transfer students admitted to the U, students may spend less time at the University.

When these students do graduate, Lubomudrov believes they will meet with employers looking for more general skills-the ability to write and speak effectively, problem solve, work with a team, and adapt to changing people and situations. Those skills will need to be transferable, as well, because of what he refers to as "the growing obsolescence of the single career."

Cameron Soelberg, president of the Student Alumni Association, agrees. "I think students today see college less as a social opportunity than as a stepping stone to something else. They see the value of an advanced degree and of keeping up with new technologies even after they graduate." Soelberg believes that a university and its alumni association can facilitate the changes between jobs and careers. "There are lots of resources to help students find their first job, but not so many to help them switch careers or move up in their current jobs," he says.

Besides the changing student body, the Alumni Association faces challenges mirrored by national trends. A responsive association not only has to react to sometimes fickle demands that grow out of changing social and political climates, but must also maintain a measured sense of the composition of its own alumni. Who are "our" alumni? Are they susceptible to the economic and social changes that lead to such trendy habits as "nesting" and "slacking"?

Keith Brant, executive director of UCLA's Alumni Association, and Don Fellows, director of development at the University of San Diego, respond similarly when asked about changes that will affect alumni organizations: the use of technology (especially Web sites and e-mail) in communicating with and serving alumni; pressure from their institutions to be more entrepreneurial and self-supporting; and the need to respond to all alumni more effectively by marketing to specific, segmented groups. Ashton agrees. "We can't generalize anymore. Older alumni may want regular communication from us, while younger alumni are asking about career placement assistance." Challenges include finding ways to meld tradition and innovation, to respond to new demands and opportunities while retaining the benefits of existing programs and activities, such as long-held traditions like Founders' Day. As Brant notes, "Institutions, especially large, public institutions, are putting pressure on associations to measure their value. That may be through hits to a site, numbers of volunteers, or even readership response to a magazine." It's part of what Ashton refers to as "an overall call for accountability in higher education." U.S. News & World Report, for example, considers the "alumni giving rate"-the percentage of alumni who donate to an institution-as one of its benchmarks in rating national universities.

Still, Brant, Fellows, and Ashton all say that such benchmarking measures, along with funding and technological concerns, must be balanced with the need to maintain personal, one-on-one contact with alumni. "While technology will no doubt provide many new and productive options," Fellows points out, "increased dependence on technology will in fact make even more critical the need to focus on developing strong interpersonal relationships-'interpersonal' being the key word." Memories of college days are not built on clicks to a Web site but on time spent with friends, in classes, and at unique campus hangouts and events.

At the U, maintaining such personal relationships is at the core of the plan to refurbish the Alumni House, which, since its opening in 1980, has become the central meeting place on campus-a personal, not virtual, meeting place. According to Talitha Day, director of development for the Alumni Association, "The goal is to complete an expansion of the house, including more and smaller meeting rooms and more office space, by the Fall of 2000." Private funding, which was secured to build the original building, will be solicited for the expansion. Day is heading up the "Generations of Alumni" campaign for $850,000. Another goal, to raise $150,000 in scholarship money for the sesquicentennial year (2000), should be well under way "by the time you read this," adds Day.

Poring over architectural blueprints for newly wired meeting rooms and establishing e-mail databases may seem a long way from last millennium's 12-person soiree. But Ashton's vision is not so far removed from the Alumni Association's original idea to promote interest in education and keep alumni connected. "We want to engage both students and alumni in a variety of ways so they will stay attached and involved. We need to help instill in them enough respect for the U that they become positive spokespersons for the institution." To do that, the onus is on the Association to build and reinforce lasting connections, for Boomers, slackers, Xers, or whoever comes next.

-Theresa Desmond is managing editor of Continuum.


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Copyright 2000 by The University of Utah Alumni Association