[Follow-Up] Does Willamette U. Want Engaged Alums? Answer: Maybe

Earlier this fall the issue of alumni engagement at Willamette University, my alma mater, was raised following this year’s alumni reunions. The design of the reunions and their attendance was, to put it mildly, underwhelming and mediocre.

That experience raised a question: Does Willamette want engaged alums? The original post on the reunion experience – [Letter to an Alma Mater] Dear Willamette University President M. Lee Pelton – can be found (along with the response from the Senior Director of Alumni Relations Denise Callahan) here.

The gist of that post was that based on experiences at other schools, Willamette was capable of doing a better job of engaging alumni, including how it staged and designed reunions.

Ms. Callahan’s note speaks for itself.

Upon Denise’s suggestion (“I welcome your thoughts on strategies to get your classmates more involved”) I wrote a follow-up post- Engaged Alumni at Willamette U: Why Would You Want Them? that can be found here.

The post – a copy of which was mailed to Callahan and President Pelton – suggested six things that Willamette should be doing to prepare students for the future charted out by President Pelton, and specifically identified three steps that school could take to develop the degree of alumni engagement needed to operationalize President Pelton’s vision as it related to alums.

In addition, I corresponded with the university newspaper The Collegian (a blog) and asked if the second post could be included as a guest editorial since it spoke to both alumni and current student issues.

Here’s the response to date:

  • No response from Senior Director of Alumni Affairs Callahan (dcallaha@willamette.edu ).
  • President President responded three days after the post and wrote: I have had a chance to read your blog. Thanks again for your helpful recommendations. Cheers, Lee”
  • The Collegian Editor Thomas Brounstein (tbrounst@willamette.edu ) wrote back:

Hey!  So, here’s where we’re at: the Collegian is a primarily student run newspaper that is geared towards Willamette students.  As such, the people who write are almost entirely students.  I can only think of two exceptions I’ve seen: recent alums (as in, the past year) or people currently taking a leave of absence to do something else.  Anything that isn’t from a Willamette student is very unlikely to get printed.  Not impossible, but the odds are low.  Beyond that, our submissions are generally around 500 words.  I didn’t do a word count on the post, but scanning through it I could tell it was significantly longer.  These two factors alone make us very hesitant to publish.

I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ll be able to help.  My main priority is to have the paper be created by students and orientated towards students, and sometimes it means letting a good piece like this go by.  I hope you can understand.”


The short answer on the question “Does Willamette University Want Engaged Alums?” appears to date to be a decided maybe.

And in the land of engagement (think marriage proposals), a “maybe” is as good as a “no”.

[Updated – this follow-up note from an alum reacting to this post today.]

Engaged Alums – I think not


Hi Mike,

You are summarizing my thoughts exactly in these posts. WU has not been responsive to other suggestions about reunions.

I helped plan our 15th and 20th reunions but had to step aside for the 25th because they weren’t receptive to options that I felt we needed to offer to get more participation.

I am very interested in seeing if this develops into a true discussion or if it remains a ‘we hear you but we’re not going to do anything about it’ deal.”

Updated 10/26/09

“Thanks for sending me this. I’d actually really welcome the opportunity to speak with you. I formed a group of proactive, excited young alums (4 of us altogether) over a year ago to explore opportunities to really engage alumni in the Portland area – where I live and work. We felt and still feel that Willamette has largely ignored its backyard alumni, except when they are fundraising.

We took some steps and devoted a lot of our personal time to some plans and approaches – and I’d be happy to share those results with you. Let me know if a telephone conversation might be convenient sometime!”

And More (10/26/09)

“Mike —

I truly believe that WU wants engaged alums.  They work hard to try to get alums engaged.  Perhaps their attempts fall short or outside of the arena where alums (particularly young alums) live.  The recent WU alum function in the Pearl District was a great success, with particularly young alums turning out in great numbers!

Have you communicated with Amy Varga Erickson, who was recently hired to head reunions? WU didn’t have a full-time reunion coordinator for a couple of years, so the hiring of Amy is a real step forward.

There’s “generation shifting” going on, so what worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work now.  The “Cheers” function that the Alumni Associaton sponsored at Reunion this past September seemed to be a huge success, and it was the first time that it has been done for Reunion Weekend.

I’d encourage you to keep communicating with Denise and Amy about your thoughts about putting life back into reunion weekend.  Stacey Lane has done a fabulous job at reaching out to, and for, WU alums in terms of career support.  So, let’s not pack all of the load for connection with alums onto just reunion weekend…

Please stay in touch with me on these issues!

And one more from 10/26

“Mike —

I truly believe that WU wants engaged alums.  They work hard to try to get alums engaged.  Perhaps their attempts fall short or outside of the arena where alums (particularly young alums) live.  The recent WU alum function in the Pearl District was a great success, with particularly young alums turning out in great numbers!

Have you communicated with Amy Varga Erickson, who was recently hired to head reunions?  WU didn’t have a full-time reunion coordinator for a couple of years, so the hiring of Amy is a real step forward.

There’s “generation shifting” going on, so what worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work now.  The “Cheers” function that the Alumni Associaton sponsored at Reunion this past September seemed to be a huge success, and it was the first time that it has been done for Reunion Weekend.

I’d encourage you to keep communicating with Denise and Amy about your thoughts about putting life back into reunion weekend.  Stacey Lane has done a fabulous job at reaching out to, and for, WU alums in terms of career support.  So, let’s not pack all of the load for connection with alums onto just reunion weekend…

Please stay in touch with me on these issues!”



2 thoughts on “[Follow-Up] Does Willamette U. Want Engaged Alums? Answer: Maybe

  1. Michael,

    I find the posts very interesting. I have 30 years of limited but consistent involvement with the Alumni Department at Willamette and in that time I have found them to be engaged and responsive to criticism and suggestions. I am presently on the Alumni Board and having worked with Denise in the Development Office as well, I can say she has always been a true professional and fine representative of the education that Willamette provides.

    It seems to me a little quick to jump to the assumption about engagement since it would appear that this post is just a week old. Your extensive list of thoughts and suggestions would be best circulated and digested amongst the Staff, the Alumni Board and others to give it the consideration it deserves. Since you are in the business of helping Organizations I am sure you know that what you have put forth is not just a list of simple or easily implemented ideas. I am also of the opinion that a lengthy back and forth over your thoughts is probably not the best use of time. In fact your second post is predicated on the idea that all of what you said in your first post is a valid criticism. For instance, the lack of presence by 280 of your Class Mates is a function of the poor efforts by Willamette rather than the responsibility of the Alumni to respond to the notices sent or keep the University posted on contact information. It could be both and or more one than the other but I can assure you both Denise and the Alumni Board take it seriously. In fact we held a Board Meeting on that Saturday specifically for Board Members to engage with other Alumni during the Reunion Weekend. Also, in actuality many of your thoughts are what would be the normal internal process of research, analysis and inspection to achieve the mission and goals of the Alumni Department. And without intent to offend I am sure you can understand that there are many other thoughts and ideas on the table in the ongoing effort to improve the Universities engagement of its Alumni. By the way my own absence (after having paid for all of the different functions) was due to a last minute personal issue which could not be avoided.

    While at the Atkinson Graduate School at Willamette I studied and intended to practice in the field of Organizational Development. While I used all of that education in my field of business I am certainly not current on all of the changes since 1976. Having said that, I was always understood that constructive discussion is best accomplished in as neutral a context as possible and as I look back on my words I do note a defensive posture. For this I am sorry yet convinced that it is still the appropriate response.

    In closing, I am very certain of the commitment to engagement of the Universities Alumni, so as to your proposal (and I do know something about proposals having been married 3 times) the answer is Yes.

    I look forward to your continued and constructive participation and engagement.

    Your Old Team Mate
    Ed Luttrell
    ’74 BS ’76 MBA

  2. Dear J. Mike,
    Now that I’m back in the office after being away on vacation (and away from e-mail), I’m happy to add another voice to the conversation.

    I appreciate the suggestions you have posted and indeed some of them, such as the building of the Alumni Career Network and the stronger regional programming (we had over 600 alumni take part in alumni events in less than three weeks, encompassing six cities…) are well underway. As can be expected, we still have work to do. I am most excited about the fact that for the first time in a while we are fully staffed and that is coupled with an incredibly committed group of volunteers on our Alumni Board of Directors and within our Career Network. I feel very positive about the direction we are heading and the work we are doing to better engage our alumni – regardless of how one chooses to define it. We are hearing from our alumni with accolades and additional suggestions more and more and have worked hard to create a number of avenues for that feedback.

    Since my arrival in May 2008, I have worked hard with the rest of my team to shape our strategy for the future based on research, data and alumni feedback. I appreciate the thoughts you have added to the discussion. I will use the suggestions you have provided, in addition to those received from other alumni, information gathered from our Board’s strategic efforts, best practices from aspirant institutions, data from our three recent surveys (reunion, alumni engagement and *Scene* readership) and much, much more to grow our engagement with alumni. As I’m sure you’re aware, this takes time, outreach and a thoughtful approach supported by data. And, of course, resources.

    Although I feel this style of ‘conversation’ misses a number of opportunities for clarification and fact sharing, I always welcome the opportunity to share with our alumni seeking more information as they develop their opinions. I do indeed appreciate your interest and time. I hope you continue to hear from those you’ve asked to be a part of the conversation and I hope you take Amy Erekson Varga up on her offer of a personal visit to specifically discuss your suggestions around reunion.

    Best,
    Denise

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