01-Dec-2009 Ramblings

Do you support your alma mater?

NOTE: This was written originally as an opinion column for a UMass alumni newsletter.

For time immemorial or so it seems, UMass Amherst (nee UMass) has struggled with its alumni outreach. I think a lot of that has to do with a long-standing patriarchical view the campus and its inhabitants have toward Beacon Hill. We want Boston to pay for everything. And for a while, that formula had worked.

All manner of things have ruined that worldview: Prop 2.5, the birth and expansion of the UMass system, state entitlement programs, varied philosophies of campus leaders, John Calipari. There are others, but these give you an idea.

Until recently, UMass did very little to foster in its undergraduates any sense of contribution. Sure, UMass rightfully boasts participation in the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity and a host of other equally-worthy activities. What it was never good at was dispelling the notion that you come to school, you graduate, you create a life and that’s that. There was never a sense of place, a sense that your contributions as a student carry the university forward for the next class.

Disclosure: I hold a degree from UMass. I worked there for 10 years. Today, I continue to teach a course at UMass. I work with the Minuteman Marching Band with its alumni and fundraising activities. I’m a (paid) life member of the Alumni Association and  I sit on one of its advisory committees. I bleed maroon.

For years I encouraged (and begged) fellow UMass band alumni to pony-up the $40 annual membership fee for the Alumni Association. And why not? It supports an organization that does a lot for the band. A measly forty bucks. C’mon!

Confusion surrounds the Association. What does it do? Who does it serve? And then there’s the Annual Fund… those cheery undergrads who call your house just as you sit down to supper. Who keeps calling me from 413-545-1451? I have no money!

For generations, UMass did little as we now think in terms of fundraising. It wasn’t a priority. It seriously wasn’t. Not to insult any of my former colleagues… I don’t want to impugn the fine work each of you continues to do to advance the Amherst cause. But there was no priority for the collective We: alumni, students, faculty, staff, parents, townies and all those alumni legislators in Boston and in D.C. It was never a priority. I won’t lay blame. The culture never existed (well it did briefly during the final years of a certain basketball coach’s tenure). Why should we expect it to exist now?

Recent chancellors left a very important legacy behind: Pay it forward. It’s important to rally the campus community in a very crucial way. They got us to come to terms with the fact that there is not a magical piggy bank in Boston that UMass can reach into when it needs cash. They taught us we do need to fend for ourselves, that the excellent scholarly and creative activity happening on campus can be monitized or leveraged into something bigger. They showed us that students can have an active voice in determining the future of their campus.

The Annual Fund, outside of calling us all at 6:00 every evening, did an important thing. It created the Senior Fund and wrapped it around a campus tradition dating back to the Civil War: The Class Tree. Look at almost any big tree on the central part of campus. It’ll be marked in granite with the year of the class that planted it.

More and more, students are investing themselves in UMass not for their degree or their professional future, but for the sake of the campus. They’re actively engaging faculty and each other. They’re actively reaching out into the community. They’re benefiting from capital investments long overdue and still not complete. They’re an active voice is creating the place they will spend four of the most formative years of their lives.

While we might lament that alumni aren’t taking a greater role in the campus, a new story is being told that conveys why UMass is worthy of investment. From star faculty creating new technologies and knowledge to students making a mark on the world, the campus is making its own mark. Alumni should take pride in owning a piece of that.

UMass has more than 215,000 alumni around the world and 35 alumni clubs around the country. But only about 6,000 belong to the alumni association. Members receive discounts to career workshops, receptions, and athletic events. Although membership is low, nearly 25,000 alumni attended association events this year, and nearly 90,000 receive its monthly electronic newsletter.

Interest is there. Do your part, either by joining the Association before the fee is dropped or by picking up that phone the next time the Annual Fund calls. Oh, and check out any number of activities on campus. You’ll be glad you did.

Oh, and by the way, on your caller ID, you’ll see (413) 545-1451 when they do call.

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