10/16/2012 06:04 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Where the Alumni Can Help Most

It has been interesting to watch the squandered opportunities to use alumni at American colleges and universities. While every institution can point to wonderful programs that benefit enormously from alumni input, the fact is that most alumni are pigeonholed either as "keepers of the flame," admission and graduate counselors, or development prospects.

Colleges and universities relate to alumni but fail to integrate them seamlessly into the business of education. Higher education leadership seldom links the work of alumni to a dynamic vision of where the institution is headed. Senior leadership and their boards fear backlash from alumni should hot button issues like Greek life, athletics, academic programming changes, and demographic population shifts change the delicate balance among constituencies that sustain the ethos and culture of an institution. There is always one more comprehensive campaign to begin or complete. Their solution is often to coddle alumni as the only practical solution to what to do with them. The problem is exacerbated by board of trustees, who are taken disproportionately from alumni ranks, and see the institution as "theirs" with the superpowers implied apparently from the privilege of having graduated from it. Indeed, among major groups like faculty, students and parents, alumni historically may be the least receptive to change at precisely the moment that a tipping point is occurring in American higher education. Oddly enough, it is when change is occurring that alumni can be of most help to their alma mater.

We can remember fondly the not too distant, misty past when sports and alcohol preoccupied collective thinking among many alumni. Yet alumni live in the broader world, have the best interests of the institution at heart, and are connected to the currents that are changing American society. In an earlier Huffington Post blog, I argued for a restatement of Penn State as an iconic academic powerhouse. That same argument still holds true but it is not something that the faculty can do by themselves. In a second example, we certainly understand that change at public Ivies like the University of Virginia should be careful, prudent and methodical. But in all of the criticism leveled at the Board of Visitors there is a kernel of truth in what some of the Board members said. The University must not simply relate but be a thought leader in a new generation in which higher education will be defined by the intersection of pedagogy, content, and technology. The difficulty seems to be that some board members crossed the line from impatient to imprudent. The solution to how to keep student learning relational and not transactional must ultimately come from within the University community. In the end, however, it will be the alumni who vote "thumbs up or down" through the financial support that they provide.

It's a good place to begin when thinking about how to redefine the role of alumni. First, alumni need to reclaim their role as thought partners. They must to get out of the business of Homecoming planning. Alumni must think less about how an institution's best traditions can be kept sacrosanct. They must apply the same "best practice" search for excellence that governs their own professional lives to the institution that they cherish. They need to worry about how freshman move as students "from cradle through career." They should focus alumni efforts on those objective metrics that relate to where alumni can be the most help today. Long-term senior faculty does a very good job of keeping the flame alive to preserve institutional traditions. It may be best way to keep the flame going is for alumni to make sure that the fuel is cutting edge and sustainable.

There are scores of colleges that recognize the untapped potential of their alumni base already. They understand that the key to alumni involvement is to link alumni to critical planks in the institution's strategic plan. Part of the solution will rest with the reformation of the board of trustees, however, provided after reorganization with a clear charge to oversee policy, exercise financial stewardship, and support the president. It may be less important for trustees to be involved in asset management, career placement, and real estate beyond setting policy parameters and reviewing dashboard metrics. The depth of bench strength is far greater when other alumni and parents are called upon to provide specialized expertise. Ultimately, it may work out for the best as trustees focus more on where the institution is headed and less on how the college is run each day. The challenge for the alumni will be to enjoy Homecoming, support the sports teams, and offer student internships while challenging the college community to change, adapt, and imagine a better future. Alumni must have a broader policy perspective and demand more of their alma mater. The institution must be prepared and eager to respond.