[Letter to an Alma Mater] Dear Willamette University President M. Lee Pelton

Dear Dr. Pelton ,

It was great to meet you last week and your twelve-year tenure as Willamette’s president has been a time of great accomplishment and progress. The school has prospered academically, the quality and diversity of students has increased, and the physical plant in gorgeous. Fundraising, something that can be challenging, has been terrific. You and the university community should be proud.

Still, as a glass half-full kind of guy, there were things that concerned me from my class reunion this past weekend that I thought I’d share with you. As someone who has 30+ years helping individuals, teams and organizations to up their game, I might know a thing or two about how to improve something like a reunion.

Here are five thoughts:

  • Rethink the basic approach and implementation to what was titled “Reunion Weekend 2009 .” Willamette has a brand, and I think Seth Godin’s definition “Prediction of what to expect] times [emotional power of that expectation]” is good as any. Unfortunately the expectation of what to expect from this reunion was “few alums attending a university sponsored event, absent a thematic background, which missed opportunities for development by not showcasing a better face for the school.” In short, a little brand tarnishing, and likely not the impression you’d prefer people receive.


  • Improve your publicity: many of my Facebook friends from Willamette had no idea that there was any event occurring. Had my classmate Ed Whipple, who heads up Student Affairs at Bowling Green State,  not mentioned something I would have missed it as well. And while I don’t think people don’t always vote with their feet, I didn’t come across Brad King or Melvin Henderson-Rubio of the Board of Trustee who are from my class, nor did I see Ed Luttrell from the Alumni Board, who is also from my class. Maybe the publicity, but then again maybe the design of the event and the level of connection and engagement it produced (see below re: programmatic theme).


  • Involve former faculty: part of a connection with a school is a chance to connect with former faculty. I realize that some are now deceased or out of the area but those that are local would have been a treat. Sue Leeson, who later left the Willamette faculty to become a justice on the Oregon Supreme Court, for example, comes to mind as someone I would have loved to see.
  • Improve your scheduling: As someone who worked on the faculty and staff at the University of Southern California, it’s a natural to build a weekend around a college football game. Reunion Weekend, for example, could have been Homecoming Weekend, as many schools do. I like soccer too, but having that as the marquee group event with 40 fans is probably not many people’s idea of a crowd attraction.
  • Improve your Reunion Weekend programmatic theme and design: the sense that I came away was more potluck surprise then one which had several layers of thought and interconnection. The events were OK, but only one level deep, which is not an effective structure to more deeply engaging (see brand above) alums to their school. Connections were thin. Both of us have likely spent similar time reunion events given your time at Harvard, Dartmouth, and Colgate: the ones I’ve seen at Brown or USC are markedly better honed (engagement, reacquaintance, and development) than the weekend I just experienced. This is, by the way, not about money: it’s about design and thoughtfulness.

It was a pleasure to reconnect with the few people (perhaps 20 tops from my class of 300) like Catherine “Kitty” Edwards Percich. Like you, Kitty is doing important work, helping shape the minds and ambitions of kids by teaching 4th graders, a profession she’s been practicing for several decades.

I still remember my fourth grade teacher from Charles F. Tigard Grade School, Janet Leininger. Not unlike Sue Leeson, some of her best help was giving me a short swift proverbial kick in the pants to challenge me to improve my performance.

Ms. Leininger’s best line after I turned in an adequate but uninspired piece of work: “Mike, you can do better.”

And as I think about this recent Willamette Reunion weekend, Dr. Pelton, you can do better too.

Holler if I can be of help.

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One thought on “[Letter to an Alma Mater] Dear Willamette University President M. Lee Pelton

  1. Dear Mike,
    As the Senior Director of Alumni Relations here at Willamette University, I want to thank you for your thoughts about Reunion Weekend. First and foremost, I’m glad you were able to attend although I am sorry the weekend didn’t meet your expectations. As I enter the beginning of my second year in this position, I too acknowledge the challenges regarding the depth of programming and participation by our alumni leadership and class representatives. It is most certainly a challenge we face and one we continue to try and address with the resources at hand.

    I feel we have a number of opportunities to improve Reunion Weekend, including finding a way to have it around a football game every year (we continue to work with athletics to try and secure the schedule early enough to allow us to reserve the conference space we need – this year we were not successful) and getting the word out to our alumni base. This year we began communicating the event about ten months in advance, using snail mail, e-mail, the web, personal contact from the reunion committee members and social media (we utilize Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter). I am discouraged to hear that many of your classmates didn’t receive the information. This is a reminder of the importance of updated contact information and the necessity of our efforts to obtain it. I hope we can continue to improve this as well as our network of alumni who share with one another.

    In terms of how you can help, I welcome your thoughts on strategies to get your classmates more involved. And of course, we’d love to have you take part in the planning committee for your next reunion!

    Thank you again for your thoughts and please feel free to contact me directly in the future if I can be of assistance or you have additional feedback to share.

    Denise Callahan ’95, MBA ’00

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