Q&A: Rick Levin

The care and feeding of alumni

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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Y: Before I started work at the alumni magazine, I would occasionally see something in it about the Association of Yale Alumni and think, That's some bureaucratic thing that I never signed up for. I had no concept that all alumni belong, or that AYA runs the reunions.

L: And you weren't alone. But the AYA is intended to serve all our graduates and to connect them to the university. It has historically supported reunions, educational programs, and local and regional Yale clubs. Under its new strategic plan, we will substantially increase our investment to provide many new programs and services.

Y: AYA started in 1971. At that time, alumni who were upset about the outspoken voices at Yale against the Vietnam War formed an alumni pressure group. Yale responded by creating a new body for all alumni.

L: The period of tumult in universities, including Yale, in the late 1960s and ’70s led to a movement among alumni who wanted their voices to be heard in the governance of the university in a broader, more representative way than was available in the normal governance mechanism of the Yale Corporation. That led to Fred Rose [’44] chairing a commission of alumni that set up the charter of the AYA as a formal entity. It was intended to provide some services, but it was also a vehicle for alumni self-organization and expression of points of view. There is still an annual meeting of AYA delegates. Should there ever come another time of widespread alumni discontent, the channels are still open.

Y: What prompted Yale to expand the AYA now?

L: To be completely candid, we observed that we were not doing as much as some of our peers.

Y: The AYA's new strategic plan [at www.aya.yale.edu] lists seven institutions on the forefront of alumni relations. It says that among those seven, the ones that are not in the Ivy League were spending two to five times as much as Yale.

L: In terms of per capita spending on alumni, we line up with most of our Ivy League peers. But there were a couple of others—most notably Stanford—that were defining the frontier of good practice in this area, and we thought we ought to learn some lessons.

Y: What do you see as the most important changes?

L: We want to provide better support for local clubs by focusing initially on the seven largest cities. And we need to provide technology infrastructure for all alumni groups, whether clubs or classes or professional schools.

But the most exciting elements of the AYA's strategic plan are new ways to engage alumni. One of [AYA executive director] Mark Dollhopf's ideas was to organize service projects that would appeal to alumni. We're piloting the idea this spring with an Alumni Service Day in Connecticut, where alumni will do a day of service in different organizations, meeting fellow Yale graduates they have not encountered before. The AYA recently ran its first international service trip to the Dominican Republic. [See Notebook.] Nearly 100 Yale alums and 20 current students got a powerful sense of rejuvenation and reconnection with Yale in the service of society. These are great illustrations of a "new" AYA.

Y: The shared interest groups are another example.

L: The paradigm for this was the Yale Alumni Chorus, which Mark Dollhopf [’77] organized before becoming the executive director of the AYA. At first, the university took notice but didn't really give Mark any help. But over time, he showed us the importance of this new kind of alumni community which traveled all over the world to sing. The new strategic plan calls for supporting and nurturing alumni who wish to participate in shared interest groups—say, former Yale debaters, or those currently engaged as real estate professionals, a hundred of whom gathered together on campus last week. Sporting associations also bring alumni together around a shared interest. Instead of the university keeping these groups at arm's length, why not embrace them, as a way to give them a broader connection to Yale? And, similarly, we want to support, much more substantially, shared identity groups such as African American graduates and Hispanic alumni.

Y: The AYA will have to staff up. What are you doing with its budget?

L: The university is making a major financial investment. Part was implemented this past year and part will be implemented next year. We have increased the university's support by more than 50 percent. And the staff will increase by ten.

Y: Many alumni assume that AYA exists to raise money. Others are impressed because it doesn't exist to raise money. How do you characterize its purpose?

L: We have found it essential to the success of the AYA to keep it quite separate from fund-raising. There is so much value in developing goodwill among the alumni, completely independent of fund-raising. Of course, the goodwill may lead alumni to be more generous, but there are lots of other ways to contribute to Yale through service. Also, alumni goodwill matters to us. We're an organization that depends on our reputation. Cultivating a well-informed, highly motivated group of alumni who feel well served by their university is invaluable. It helps us to recruit students. It even spills over to faculty recruitment. If the AYA is doing its job right, the response from alumni who engage with the university is going to be positive, and it's going to help us in many, many ways. 

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