"Should former students be involved in running a university?"
That's the question posed by a headline in the Guardian (UK) today.
At first, I didn't understand the question, because it seemed so obvious to me that the answer is "Yes." Sure, guidance and input from non-institutional representatives is critical to a university's governance. But there are many benefits to having alumni voices heard around the table when strategy and direction are on the agenda.
The article (which one commenter calls "under-researched") focuses extensively on one oddly specific example: Canada's Dalhousie University in the 19th century. It's not a bad example: alumni became "an integral part of university finance" when Dal hit hard budgetary times, about 50 years after the school's 1818 founding. Furthermore, says author Tamson Pietsch, alumni later received tangible benefits from their affiliation, such as library and gym access and of course, invitations to university-hosted reunions. And before 1900, Dalhousie alumni were represented on the university's governing board.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century. Around the globe, but especially in North America, it has long been standard to include graduates in governance. Not only boards of trustees, but visiting committees and a diverse assortment of Deans' councils, advisory panels, assemblies, groups of overseers, and alumni convocations, all provide alumni input.
[Why would alumni be less concerned than complete outsiders
with their alma mater's 'genuine interests'?]
Why this is beneficial? The following reasons come to mind instantly:
- Alumni are the largest institutional constituency in almost every case. As such their potential influence outside the institution is disproportionate to the influence of current "insiders" such as faculty, students, and staff.
- Alumni are the only permanent stakeholders in the success of the institution; one cannot shed alumni status.
- Alumni benefit from the institution's ongoing success and reputation; the value of your diploma increases when your alma mater's prominence rises through its achievements in research and teaching, and its graduates' accomplishments. This is "degree equity."
- Alumni are most likely to argue for rigorous admission standards, disciplined financial management, and high academic quality.
- Alumni have almost always been the first and most effective fundraisers for universities, and have pursued all these goals as volunteers.
In fact, alumni associations and university fundraising offices preceded by more than a century the creation of the corresponding modern professions.
Pietsch quotes London Metropolitan University's vice chancellor Gillies as saying that alumni are
exactly the kind of people universities should seek to fill their boards, because they have the "greatest lifelong stake in the institution's reputation and its protection".
[Alumni argue for rigorous admission standards,
disciplined financial management,and high academic quality]
There are contrary arguments. In the first reader comment about this topic on the Guardian's site, an anonymous naysayer describes alumni involvement as "difficult to achieve." The commenter's views are off-base, and therefore entertaining to quote here. Alumni, s/he says, will be
more concerned with their own standing than any real desire to help. Alumni governance would not be able to avoid this issue and the danger of passing decision making powers to those with agendas outside of the institution's genuine interests would be too great. Alumni participation in HE governance is misleading. It sounds good, but is nothing more than another example of the 'big society' trying to get something for nothing, at the expense of already hard pressed graduates. Instead universities should be looking closely at their own finances and questioning why they exist in the first place
It's hard to know where to begin critiquing this diatribe, but my immediate thought was, "Why would alumni be less concerned than complete outsiders with their alma mater's 'genuine interests'?" In fact, I left a longer version of that comment on the site.
It's not all kittens and unicorns, of course. There are instances of alumni undermining their alma mater's image (usually unintentionally). Baylor and Dartmouth a few years ago, for example. But they come to mind so readily because they are prominent exceptions to the many cases where alumni input has kept institutions stable and secure over time. A 2010 report [login required] called into question the conventional wisdom behind alumni representation, but provided the somewhat paradoxical suggestion that "the best preparation for trustees is having served on another college board."
What do you think?
Should alumni contribute to institutional governance? Are the risks too great? Or is the situation different at each institution?
Please share your views in the comments.
Photo of a skylight reflecting concrete on the Dalhousie campus, by Walter A. Aue via Creative Commons