ince its founding in 1892 by Stanford's first graduates, the Stanford Alumni Association has been an independent organization, governed by its own board. The association's bylaws declare that it was formed to "promote the interests of Stanford University and to establish and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship between the university and its alumni."
We all can agree on the worthiness of those purposes. Less clear is how they have been pursued. As independence was raised from a fact to a value, and as financing new services and programs became ever more central, the Association's raison d'être--"to promote the interests of Stanford University"--sometimes seemed eclipsed. And perhaps because it had a strong surrogate doing the job, the university itself sometimes neglected its own duty to "establish and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship between the university and its alumni."
As a result, the primary relationship of many alumni has been with SAA, not Stanford. To some, paying Alumni Association dues or taking part in SAA programs fulfilled their obligation to Stanford. At times, Stanford Magazine kept a cool distance from the university, seemingly to avoid being accused of "promoting the interests of Stanford University." Too often, the university gave little thought to alumni relations.
As a newcomer, I was struck by all of this, and how it seemed outside both the norm and the desirable. Fortunately, people from all three parts of the equation--university, SAA, and alumni--shared those concerns and have worked hard to strengthen ties between alumni and the university in manifold ways.
Among these has been the 1993 introduction of Reunion Homecoming Weekend. This five-year experiment, a partnership between the Alumni Association and the Office of Development, sought to replicate some of the most successful aspects of the Centennial Finale Weekend. Alumni are offered multiple ways to reconnect with Stanford, from Classes Without Quizzes, to panel discussions on current issues, to a Cardinal football game, to class reunions. In its first year, the new program increased attendance 70 percent over the previous year's reunion. And the class-based nature of the weekend has become a model for alumni relations and development. We most assuredly can remove the "experiment" label from this effort.
While attracting graduates back to the Farm is by far the best way of maintaining the university--alumni relationship, not all are able to make the trip, even every five years. So, we have expended great effort in taking the Farm to alumni. In my five years as president, I have visited alumni in cities all around the Bay Area and the Monterey Peninsula, at Sierra Camp and in Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Orange County, San Diego, Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis, the District of Columbia, New York, Boston, Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, and Singapore. More trips are on my calendar, and, of course, many other deans, faculty members, and senior staff also have traveled to interact with alumni in their home regions, on Travel Study programs, and elsewhere.
While face-to-face contact around the country is the second-best way to maintain a good relationship, even that cannot begin to cover all the far-flung Stanford alumni. Thus, other methods, such as electronic communications and publications, are important in keeping alumni informed and involved. Both the university and SAA have developed extensive sites on the World Wide Web, putting at the fingertips of wired alumni around the world everything from academic departments to news in Stanford Report to a photo tour of campus. A grant from my office helped SAA to launch the Stanford On-Line Alumni Resource (SOLAR), complete with an alumni locator function, career networking contacts, and information about upcoming programs and lectures.
In the publications realm, the university and the Alumni Association have completed more than a year of a joint-venture magazine. Approved by the Alumni Association Board and the university in May 1995, after thorough examination and collaboration, that project grew out of two aspects of the same concern--that Stanford was missing opportunities to communicate the most important things about the university to alumni.
The first of those two aspects was my feeling that Stanford Magazine, while an attractive publication, did not use its scarce four issues per year--especially its covers--to get across optimally Stanford's core priorities and issues. Too often, I felt, covers and text were spent on peripheral issues, such as World Cup soccer, rather than on teaching, learning, and research.
The second aspect was the general agreement that the university's Stanford Observer was tired in look and content. Recycling articles from Stanford Report, its stories too seldom provided the off-campus audience with sufficient background, context, and signals about relative importance. And its format--tabloid layout on quickly yellowing newsprint--suggested to recipients that its contents were disposable, neither urgent nor lasting. Douglas Foster, then-News Service director and a former editor of Mother Jones magazine, proposed and developed a prototype replacement that resembled The New York Times Sunday magazine in format and approach.
That, however, led to the question, "Is any purpose served by having two different publications for alumni?" A working group involving leaders of the Alumni Association, University Communications, and the faculty came to the unanimous conclusion that the answer was no. Instead, the two publications joined forces to produce a single magazine six times a year, rather than two incomplete publications four times a year each. One critic called the joint venture "a clear attempt to extend central control over the university's external communications." Though neither the intent nor the result, that could be considered sin perhaps only by Cotton Mather.
While it has not avoided all the shortcomings of its predecessors (among them, allowing deadlines to keep David Packard off the cover upon his death), the new magazine has shown continual improvement over its nine issues. The two partners have displayed the consultation and cooperation necessary to make the venture a success and, in fact, are working on further refinements, including a more seamless integration of the sections.
Further forays across the Santa Teresa Street border between Bowman Alumni House and the central campus have followed. The Board of Trustees and the Association worked hard to design a new method for the selection of alumni trustees. The Board of Trustees, noting the greater ethnic diversity of Stanford students in recent decades, also raised the question of whether the relationship between Stanford and its growing population of minority alumni might need new or different attention.
The Trustee Task Force on Minority Alumni Relations, chaired by Trustee Charles Ogletree and including representation from trustees, alumni, and staff, spent two years exploring the issue. Research included assembling the first demographic profile of the university's minority alumni; compiling an inventory of existing minority organizations and initiatives; and conducting a nationwide survey of minority alumni regarding their attitudes toward Stanford. Professor Ogletree, Alumni Relations Director Carolyn Manning, then-Associate Vice President for Development Stephen Peeps, and other task force members met with more than three hundred minority alumni in open caucuses in ten cities--which proved to be not only a means to richer qualitative data but also an end in itself. As one Los Angeles participant said, "The meeting tonight was the most connected I've felt in the 10 years since I graduated."
The results of that work were in many ways reassuring. Minority alumni were very similar to all alumni in that they were overwhelmingly satisfied with their undergraduate experience at Stanford, took pride in their Stanford degrees, and felt they got a better value at Stanford than they would have elsewhere. But the Task Force also found the need to do better--in improving access to participation by alumni; in addressing the student experience, which obviously has a major effect on the alumni relationship; in improving two-way communication; and in developing structures for follow-up. The highest recommendation of the Task Force was creation of a university office to involve alumni volunteers in productive ways with the university.
This and other recommendations prompted and resonated with ideas about alumni relations as a whole. Should there not be a better way to use alumni volunteers and talents? Should not the university take a more direct role in the relationship with alumni? Should we not rethink from first principles how alumni relations should be conducted at Stanford?
Warren Lyons, chairman of the SAA Board, and I agreed that we should. And with so much groundwork already laid, we decided on an unconventional approach for a university. Rather than convene another large committee, we asked Trustee Roger Clay, SAA President Bill Stone, and Stephen Peeps to meet intensively and draw up a blueprint: Unconstrained by current structures, funding, or tradition, how should Stanford go about alumni relations?
Their first draft has led to continuing discussions by the Board of Trustees and the SAA Board. And while it is still too early to predict the outcome, clearly Stanford's alumni relations will be the better for that effort, and for all the work that preceded it.