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Alumni are active partners in change
October 26, 1998

Philip Austin
President Philip E. Austin

By the time this issue of the Advance is published, the University will have completed its 1998 Homecoming weekend. In the days leading up to the event I thought once again, as I often have in the past two years, about how important UConn's 121,000 alumni can be to an institution that is eager at one and the same time to build on a great academic tradition and to implement dramatic change.

This is a good time to celebrate the role our alumni have long played in the life of this institution. It is also a good time to think about how we can make that role even more significant.

Of course, every college in America depends to some extent on the allegiance of its graduates. For small private schools, alumni support can spell the difference between life and death, a fact well known to administrators and alumni alike.

But until recent years that was not the assumption at most major public universities, where state appropriations, tuition revenues, and contracts and grants covered so significant a share of the budget that financial support from other sources was perceived (wrongly, for the most part) as non-essential, and where the political support of alumni was taken for granted.

Fortunately, the University of Connecticut never made that mistake. The long-standing partnership between this University and its graduates has always represented one of our primary institutional assets. The alumni enthusiasm we see today at Homecoming, building dedications and athletic events is nothing more than the current manifestation of the spirit that helped move the University to the front ranks of New England schools in the 1950s and '60s, and that helped make UConn 2000 a reality in the 1990s.

Uconn's alumni are as loyal as any in the country, and they are devoted not just to the university they remember, but to the university they believe the University of Connecticut is in the process of becoming. But strong as it is, I want to make our partnership with our alumni even stronger, and our efforts in that direction are an important part of the University's overall transformation.

Our goal is nothing less than to establish with every one of our graduates a relationship that is close, supportive, and lasting. We establish the roots of that relationship on the day students arrive on campus as freshmen, and we nurture it over the course of their years here as students.

Nothing is more important to long-term alumni support than maintaining a close and supportive student community at Storrs and the regional campuses, and we are making great strides toward that objective.

But we are also working in more immediate ways to include alumni in University life, looking for more effective ways to work with those who are already active and finding ways to communicate with people who may have lost touch. Last week, for example, we sent special invitations to the Babbidge Library rededication to more than 1,500 alumni living near the Storrs campus, and were delighted to welcome many of them to that impressive ceremony.

This is a collaborative effort, and the Alumni Association is an active and eager partner. In recent months I have had the opportunity to become much more engaged in the work of the association through meetings with the association's board and the Alumni Council. Together we are mapping strategies to develop a better database of alumni and to respond more meaningfully to alumni preferences for services and information about the University.

Moving beyond the traditional fundraising and social roles, in the past several years the Association has expanded its reach and enhanced its contribution immeasurably. We now have eight alumni chapters in Connecticut and alumni societies supporting the Schools of Business Administration, Education, and Engineering, and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Councils have been established for each of our three cultural centers and affinity groups for the band, cheerleaders and fraternities and sororities. Thirty-four new clubs have been created outside of Connecticut to help us reach our 46,000 alumni there, and in the past two years I have attended highly successful meetings in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Florida arranged by local Alumni Association chapters.

We are working on ways in which alumni in Connecticut and across the country can help us recruit students, reach out to businesses, serve as advocates for University programs in public forums, and - perhaps most important of all - contribute their guidance as we bring the University to an even higher level of excellence. More than 120,000 alumni do not constitute just another constituency. They are the key external group in support of this institution.

Our graduates are a diverse population and their relationship with the University will not fit any one pattern. For some, the connection forged in Storrs or at the regional campuses will continue virtually without interruption after graduation. Others may pull away for a while, pursue other interests and then come back, possibly when their own children start thinking about college. We understand that. We also understand that we have a responsibility, working with the Alumni Association and others, to keep the avenues of communication open.

The "home" to which thousands returned at Homecoming weekend is in the midst of dramatic change. Our sense of connection to our former students remains a vital and immutable fact of UConn life.