The Alumni Association in the Mirror

The Alumni Association in the Mirror

By David Smith

Every now and then you need to take a good look at yourself in the mirror. For the UT Alumni Association, that will happen this year with a yearlong review of its structure, operations, and programs.

The 173-year-old association represents more than 300,000 former students from all campuses in the statewide system, and the alumni roster is growing fast. It took the association 131 years to reach 100,000 members in 1967, but only another 24 years to reach 200,000. In 2007, just 16 years later, membership topped 300,000.

“Our plans are not only to talk to people who have been involved but to talk to a lot of people who have never been involved,” says Lofton Stuart, executive director of the UT Alumni Association. “We’ll find out why they haven’t been involved and what it would take to get them interested.”

Former association president Debbie Diddle, a strong proponent of the study, says the push began 3 years ago when the university system’s strategic plan was presented.

“We want to make sure we take a look at how we do things and whether we are doing everything that needs to be done,” she says. Diddle will co-chair the study group with Henry Nemcik, UT vice-president for development and alumni affairs.

Nemcik says the UT Alumni Association exists to serve all alumni and the study will help do that more effectively.

“One of my goals is to ensure that the alumni association is relevant in the lives of our alumni,” Nemcik says. “From recent graduates to retired graduates, alumni associations should offer engagement opportunities and continue to be meaningful throughout the life of our alumni.”

Stuart says four areas will be of special interest: the alumni board, programs, communications, and funding. The structure and size of the board need to be reviewed, and programs must be studied to determine which to keep and what new programs the association might offer.

Funding needs to be studied because the UT Alumni Association is one of the few large associations in the country still funded with state dollars, “just like the History Department,” Stuart says.

In the communications area, Stuart wants to know how alumni want to hear from their association. A key point will be to clear up the roles of the campuses and the system. “It’s becoming very confusing as to what’s a campus or a system function,” Diddle says. “You get so many mailings; you don’t know what’s what.”

Stuart says the environment in which the association operates has changed drastically since he started working for UT Alumni Affairs 34 years ago. Increasingly, other activities and events compete for members’ attention.

“We’ve never stopped long enough to really evaluate that and see what the needs are,” he says.

A consulting firm will assist with the study, developing objective surveys and questionnaires to eliminate bias. Focus groups and one-on-one interviews will be conducted throughout the state and the nation. Researchers will go to campuses to gather information.

“Whoever we ask to be a part of this is going to be essential to our getting the big picture—essential to our making sure we don’t assume something we think people think but haven’t told us,” Stuart says.

“We’re very intent on trying to obtain basic and correct information from the people we talk to so that the final report can reflect that.”