It is college graduation time and the alums are streaming back to their reunions where nostalgia and University stroking reign. Many of these reunions — especially the 25th, 30th and 35th — are elaborate festivities preceded by months of preparation between University officials and class leaders. A major objective is to amass the largest possible class financial gift to the alma mater.
University-alumni relations are dominated by fundraising and sports is as if after students graduate from courses that supposedly trained their minds, they are expected to spend their alumni years loyally writing checks and buying tickets. This narrowness is more than a waste of human resources; the whole process tends to deteriorate into a demeaning exercise in manipulation.
However, most alumni who respond to these appeals don’t seem to mind much. They relive their youth watch the college teams win once in a while and receive preferential treatment for their children by admission offices. Some powerful alumni, such as corporate executives, may make it to the Board of Trustees to make sure the campus doesn’t entertain any radical notions about changes in society. Other alumni like to have their calls returned when they want to complain about some uppity, testifying, professor or research project that upsets their economic interests.
But not all is sedated on the University-alumni front. Some older graduates are beginning to think independently. After responding almost automatically to general alumni giving, they are asking questions about relentless tuition increases beyond inflation, about the subordination of teaching students to researching in joint ventures with companies, about moonlighting professors jetting in and out of class as consultants and about excessively specialized courses which have overtaken undergraduates.
These alumni are on to something, but not in any consistent or organized manner. They and others do have much more to contribute to their college or University than checks or tickets. They have an understanding of what is going wrong in society and why — for they live and experience these problems in their work. They can advise students about what pitfalls and mistakes to avoid. They can lend wisdom to the unripened attitudes and anticipations of youth.
Isn’t it time for alumni to consider qualitative gifts of their time and experience to the students who will succeed them? More and more people in their fifties and sixties are thinking about doing something more lasting and significant for society before their formal retirement. These two interests can become different sides of the same banner of civic arousal.
Here is a proposal. Class alumni can establish a non-profit civic institution under their control to offer opportunities for students to acquire citizen skills while working to solve serious societal problems. This new kind of association would have a full time staff and be located near the University. It would connect students with alumni who are working on areas as diverse as health, housing, global peace, environmental, bureaucratic educational, energy and hunger issues. The staff would help students learn by doing, beyond charitable service directly into the arena of structural solutions to entrenched abuses.
These activities could be extra-curricular–in nature or they-could occur during summer or mid-winter breaks or be part of a thesis or seminar project.
The other part of the banner would be to facilitate those members of the class who want to launch civic projects themselves or move their careers to full time citizen action. I have met many of these people who want to move from the marketplace of their careers (medicine, law, engineering, business) into a fundamental reform mode to take on the abuses they know so well.
Alumni classes have a solidarity, familiarity and a network of communications over the years that are priceless assets. There is a known quantity and a basis of trust which are extended to classmates whom you knew when you were youngsters. Yet these alumni classes are dormant institutions when one considers what they can accomplish if their horizons are extended far above what is routinely expected of them by alumni relations offices.
Graduates who have been out for 20 years or more and want to consider creating such associations may write to Phoenix, P. O. 19367, Washington, DC 20036.