I’m Keepin’ My Alumni on You

I have always thought that if I were lost in the wilderness, with, as Mr. Dylan put it, no direction home, and with no hope of getting back unassisted, it’s not a map or a GPS device that I’d wish for – I’d just need a direct connection to my college’s alumni office. They can find you anywhere.

It has been a long time since I graduated from the mega-university I attended – it was good to be in school back then: so much less to know, so much easier to impress people by having an undergraduate degree – and, in these intervening years (OK, let’s be honest – decades) I have resided at no less than eight different addresses, in three states. And yet, without my sending a change-of-address note to the alumni folks, I could be assured that a letter from them to me – not forwarded from the previous address, mind you, but to me at the new address – would almost beat the moving truck to my front door. The witness protection program surely has no protective firewall sufficient to elude these folks.

What I get from them, periodically and predictably, is the general university alumni magazine and, from time to time, the publication of the department from which I wrestled my Bachelor’s. Both come wrapped with mixed blessings: it is mortifying to be reminded of how long ago I was there, it is cold-sweat-inducing to see how assured and competent and already-accomplished (even famous) current students and recent alums are at doing what it is I had hoped to do; however, I am also aware that I seem to be doing no worse than others in my apparently underachieving class and, happily, much better than those whose names appear among the dead. Could be worse. I read these publications quickly, look for any recognizable anyones or anythings, then toss them into the recycling bin of history.

But it is those other things that I get from the alumni office that have got me to thinking. You know which ones: the requests for money, and all for different things – scholarships, general fund, building fund …. The alumni office can always find you, and, armed with that information, the development office will never let you go. 

But, why should I give the university anything? Didn’t we have a deal that both of us lived up to? I gave them money, they provided me with education. Thanks very much. Nice exchange. Might do business with you again sometime. What is it that makes them think that I have any greater gratitude that would cause me to want to donate more than I have already? This was business, not personal. Why would they expect me to want to keep slipping gratuities to them for a job that they were expected to do? Why would they expect me to like them any more than they liked me? The experience of college was, if I got lucky, supposed to change my life, or enhance it – it’s not as if they saved my life, and I am in their debt forever. I went to school. I no longer go to school. Case – and relationship – closed. 

Before you judge me as cold, heartless and unsentimental – in fact, I am warm, heart-filled and irredeemably mushy – let me add a piece of information that might explain my attitude (although it doesn’t explain the alumni-giving phenomenon): I did not live on campus as an undergraduate. I left home, checked in, sat and absorbed, chatted, and, at the end of the day, went home. It was like a day at the office. At times, a pretty gangbusters day at the office, but still…. I can see, I understand, that those who lived on campus might have a closer relationship with the place. And that’s the key: It’s all about place. It is easier to buy into the whole thing, to be fully and even perpetually seduced by it, if what you are linking to is the physical gestalt of the process. You give, when the alumni association asks, because the university was a place that you identify as one where you grew up and made friends and were on your own for perhaps the first time. (Although, I can’t remember sending extra money years later to landlords of places I lived as a developing adult, because I happened to have experienced similar things in their 1-bedroom apartment.)

What I am suggesting, then, is that the alumni strategists are banking on, even playing on, the school’s artistry in creating a fabrication, a stage set, and a play upon that stage that will make you want to pay to be an audience-participant again. I have always felt that those most involved in alumni activities must be the ones who have, at  some time, then or now, been unhappy with home life and found a rah-rah surrogate within the university confines. I, thankfully, have not had such sadness or need, and, ergo, no required substitute. Life has to be built on what you have now, merely referring to what you had then. To see those college years as the best years, to see the university setting as the memorable place, is a sort of pathetic misguidedness, a clinging, trying to grab a handful of mist.

But the stuff must work. Alumni give oodles of bucks to their alma maters. Interestingly, the biggest contributors do so with a sense of literal placeness: they want their names on buildings. The art of the creation of placeness results in the architecture of place, which can be molded into the purposeful molding of placeness, which in turn … and so on, ad and dollars infinitum.

If, indeed, I am correct in postulating that the alumni imperative is to create placeness in order to create endowments, then the greatest fear of higher education must not be Scrooge-y people like me but, rather, the corner that they are painting themselves in through Internet and distance learning. As the upkeep of physical plants, as well as the pay and benefits of professors and administrators, eat up too much of the profits and take a bite out of the savings, universities necessarily are expanding into the cheaper, less overhead-burdened and relatively more lucrative online world; there are even institutions of learning that exist solely in the ether. And the p.r. and marketing brain trusts can work themselves into a frenzy creating friendly websites and colorful and canny brochures designed to to convince perspective students that these placeless places are a “campus,” but they are not. And, so, if what is transpiring is more what I felt and feel – an education-for-dollars transaction – and if there is no placeness in the mix to trigger some sort of home-like feeling, then the alumni-giving machine is screwed. What feeling of gratitude does one have – and, especially, one that translates into future alumni-giving dollars – to an online learning experience? You might just as well send a few bucks to Apple, thanking them for the MacBook, or to Firefox for the nifty browser, or to Herman Miller for the ergonomic desk chair. (But, of course, you wouldn’t do that – what you might do is buy another one of those items … as I might go back to the school I attended, if they offered what I wanted, and were good or the best at it.) And how will all this impact the future of universities and, in this peak-oil world of ours the future of campuses? 

I am an alum. That fact comes up in conversation only when I discover that the person I am talking to also is an alum of the same school. It is a point of coincidence and information – it is not a point of communion. That we went to the same place, but in different years and for different pursuits, makes us nothing more than strangers with one shared line on our resumes. And no reason at all to contribute to the Founders Fund, no matter how tax-deductible it may be.

Truth be told, I like getting the alumni magazine. But I like getting the L.L. Bean catalog just as much. And, somehow, though I have never stepped foot into the actual Bean world, they have been able to create more of a placeness in their mailings than the alumni magazines have. These days, I feel closer to Bean than I do to my decades-ago location of learning. But I feel no need to pay them any more than my shopping cart holds.

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