President shares thoughts on Alumni Association’s future
By Jason Winders
March 07, 2013
Count Robert Collins among the founders of Founder’s Day.
One of Canada’s oldest universities, Western was founded on March 7, 1878 when the UWO Act was proclaimed. To commemorate this day, members of the Alumni Association developed a grassroots initiative to promote Founder’s Day in 2009. Collins (BA '77) was at the forefront of that push.
On the one day of the year he asks alumni to set aside time to share the Western story with others, Collins set aside time to share his thoughts on the state of the alumni association with Western News editor Jason Winders.
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Western News: What are these creatures we call ‘Western alumni’? And how do you even begin to connect with more than a quarter million of them?
Robert Collins: Somehow, when you come to Western, you start to imbue the ‘Western DNA’ – that combination of the learning experience, the social experience, even the residence experience. Most students I chat with are finding themselves at Western, and that ‘finding themselves’ is what they hold on to. So, from an alumni association perspective, our job is to build on that warm feeling, that pride they have in graduating from this institution.
Right now we are busy looking at the demographics, not only where they are, but what their interests are and trying to match that with programming in those areas.
Where are your best opportunities for that connection?
At the moment, we have been concentrating on branches and chapters, young alumni programming and then the full range of programming. But there is an opportunity to work more closely with the different faculties, who also have alumni outreach activities, and understand what each other are doing more clearly. Also, we need to support those faculties which may not have developed the same supports.
One idea: Our alumni board of directors is made up of ‘generic’ alumni, some who may have affiliations with different faculties. But we’re not deliberately trying to bring in someone who has been active on the volunteer development side of those faculties. We might try to build stronger linkages to the faculties over the next few years.
Would you go so far as to have dedicated seats on the association board for certain faculties?
We might try to think about having one person from a professional faculty and one from a non-professional faculty, just so we get that lens. That would be something to help the association. If we are going to be ‘the voice’ of the alumni, we need that lens. We have our roles on the Senate and Board of Governors. But perhaps hearing from alumni more broadly, we need to figure out vehicles to bring those voices in, and build a more cohesive, integrated voice for the association.
But is it the alumni’s voice or the board’s voice? I would guess it’s tough to be ‘the voice’?
Yes, how do you do it? Take social media, for instance, we can now poll opinions in new ways that aren’t intrusive for alumni.
And we’re assuming here people want to be engaged once they leave. How do you keep that pride going once students walk out that door?
Self interest is one. Do we have the services relevant to them? Career services is one. While universities are not geared to a specific career, we know there is an increasing desire to have a defined career path after they have left the institution, and there is an expectation Western can support that.
Second, when people move into new communities, do we have a way of helping them? If you’re working with TD and they move you to Atlanta, how do we connect you with the chapter there that will be part of your life? I see Western as having the spirit of what Harvard has. If you get a call from alumni of Harvard, the expectation is you will return the call – and be helpful. I see us trying to encourage that.
But how do you do that?
You start to tell that story – the benefits of alumni connecting with alumni. Can we build that message into Orientation Week and explain our expectations of them as members of the Western community?
Start from Day One. I guess we don’t explain this is a lifelong commitment from the beginning, only on the way out.
Right. Coming to Western brings opportunity and responsibility. So you do that.
That brings me to the Legacy Committee. That’s looking at the imprinting of alumni on campus. So we have Alumni Hall – which is missing its sign, by the way. We have Alumni House. We have all sorts of things – buildings, scholarships and programs – funded by alumni. At the moment, if you go to a plaque, it doesn’t clearly resonate. It doesn’t say ‘Western alumni.’ The signage on buildings, the stories told in buildings can all help current students see and feel the responsibility of supporting their university.
Is it silly to say we need a whole lot more statues on campus?
Sure. For instance, does something like the D.B. Weldon Library say enough? Whether it is a statue or a story, we can humanize so much of this so much more. And it doesn’t need to be expensive to be done well.
This challenge is big enough if our alumni base stays in Ontario, but doesn’t the challenge magnify when you take it global?
Things like Founder’s Day provide an opportunity to connect, at least once a year, wherever you are. We can connect long enough to tell them a story, and have them do something active.
You know, I read the Western News every week, and it’s fascinating what’s going on here. Having alumni know that ‘Did you know?’ information is really helpful. Alumni can be attending events, or getting involved with chapters. We have students going out to study in many countries; having alumni in those areas, in those countries where we have students, invite them over and help.
Do we do a good job of letting alumni know when students are in their area?
No. I don’t think it’s part of the thought process. Yet. But this is where you ask alumni, specifically, and say we have two students in your area, in your country; can they call and you meet with them? But then we also have to give those students something to say about Western. What’s the support we provide for that relationship and how do we recognize the person for doing it? There are some mechanics that need to be in place.
And in London, for our international students, I know several faculty who at Easter or Christmas have international students over. It’s an enriching experience.
How do you integrate those global alumni into the association mix?
Technology is such that it shouldn’t be a problem. As interest builds, I think we are open for it, but we need to find the alumni who want to do that. What kind of person do you want and what kind of interest do they have? It’s really trying to match the passion, skill and insight to the role.
For broader international alumni involvement, I see the idea of Western Serves as a way of encouraging people to get involved across the country and world. That would go a way toward our brand. It’s all very well to have activity, but it must connect, or else you could get it anywhere else. It has to have a Western look, fell and touch to it.
And don’t forget to show them, especially those who have been away for a while, how the campus is evolving. People like to see that. I’ve been to the U.K. chapter, and I got asked questions like ‘Is this still here?’ or ‘Is that still there?’ or ‘Is the Ceeps a faculty yet?’ (Laughs)
And don’t forget about the people?
Yes. When I chat with alumni, it’s not just the faculty who made the impression, it’s the staff.
To help this effort, where can the university improve?
I look at the warts at Western. Take the telephone system. The idea of customer service is awful. There are different areas around the place that don’t ever respond to their phone messages. I hear that. And there is nobody driving that because the central support services cannot tell, say, a faculty what to do. It’s the kind of stuff someone like TD would never allow to happen.
And when you hear this feedback from alumni, you share it with Western?
The alumni have to sometimes share things that are uncomfortable, that need to be said, need to be heard. And you do that out of care, not just nitpicking. So that’s part of that voice. The voice doesn’t need to be just a cheerleader, not just a check-writer, but also a voice toward some sense of continuous improvement.
And that’s the association’s overall goal – continuous improvement?
I think we, as an alumni association, have woken up. We have been doing some wonderful things, but we need to accelerate, fine-tune and be a little bit more in tune with the changing demographics and build on that great student experience in ways that are meaningful to mature – and more recent – alumni. If we can keep that thread going, people want that shared experience, shared bond, going forward.
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