Alumni Should Be Activists for Institutional Change

They should use their voices on behalf of students working toward equity and against institutional injustices, argues Karina Santellano.

June 1, 2018

In April, a group of Duke University undergraduate students known as the People’s State of the University interrupted President Vincent Price during an alumni weekend event and delivered 12 demands for institutional change.

They called for a $15 per hour pay for all Duke employees, faculty of color hires, and a standardized set of consequences for acts of hate and bias, among other things. According to the students, some alumni in the audience booed and yelled at the protesters to get off the stage and told them to transfer, and one even told a student to go back to her country.

Alumni at this event expressed that it was not the time or the place to make those demands, and administrators reminded students that such protest, by disrupting the event, violated institutional policy, as “disruptive picketing, protesting or demonstration” on the university’s property or any other place “used for an authorized university purpose is prohibited.”

Yet the history of student protest at Duke and universities broadly shows that it is often these types of student protests and explicit demands that motivate institutional change for equity. Limiting support to only when calls for change are conveyed with appropriateness, whatever that may actually mean, is not constructive in dissolving rigid structures that seek to reproduce social inequality.

The alumni response at this event inspires the following questions: What is the role of alumni in institutional change? Is it possible to organize alumni in supporting students’ demands for more just systems of higher education? Given their own knowledge and experience at their alma mater and important stakeholder status to the university, alumni can become activists for institutional change.

Alumni must re-imagine their relationship with their university as something that is continuous rather than terminated upon graduation. Many students graduate in relief, looking forward to their next step in life away from their alma mater. That occurs cohort after cohort of students at many colleges and universities.

Once student activists leave the university as enrolled students, their participation and interest in student activism will most likely stop. Yet that does not have to be the case. Alumni can work alongside current students and professors to improve student, staff and faculty experiences. Even alumni who may not have been politically involved during their undergraduate time can participate in bringing forth positive change to their alma maters.

Education scholars refer to institutional change in higher education as intentional change that is pervasive, widespread, affecting many offices and units on campus, and appealing to values and beliefs of the university. Change can occur at a glacial pace and it may take years to see additional resources, updates to university policies and new faculty hires come to fruition. Conversely, change can occur quickly if it is part of administrators’ agenda and a priority to the university. Institutional change for equity requires alumni to engage in collective action with enrolled students. They can share institutional memory as a how-to-guide to navigate university bureaucracy and administration in appropriate ways.

Exchanging that knowledge can occur between people and through writing. For example, graduating seniors can mentor younger students, developing positive ways to hold university administrators accountable. Alumni and current students can schedule online video meetings and calls to determine specific actions for alumni to best support current students and their goals.

Minutes from meetings with administrators, evaluations on progress of short-term and long-term goals, and chronicling movement tactics can provide a longitudinal record of knowledge specific to one’s alma mater. Tools exist, and there is potential for collaboration across generations of alumni and students.

Activist alumni can help alleviate the load often placed on students and faculty members to make their university an equitable place. Student involvement has been a feature of campus-based movements since the 1960s. In many cases, student activism tends to be exhausting and time-consuming. It is often taken on by students of color, women, first-generation college students and members of the LGBTQ community, who must balance navigating the challenges of higher education and activist work simultaneously.

At some institutions, faculty members are at the forefront of this type of work. For example, 200 professors at the University of Southern California initiated a petition calling for the resignation of President C. L. Max Nikias after a series of scandals at the university garnered national attention. In this case, alumni also organized through an online petition. Efforts led to Nikias’s resignation. Institutional change work requires collective effort.

The alumni status is indeed a powerful one. Alumni are crucial stakeholders in how their alma mater operates. Universities rely upon alumni donations. In the 2015-16 fiscal year, the Duke annual fund received more than $37.5 million from “alumni, parents, students and friends.” Many other alumni participate in and organize regional alumni groups and events. Depending on opportunities for alumni participation, some may volunteer for undergraduate admission interviews like I have for the past three years in my hometown of San Diego.

Even if alumni are not actively participating financially or involved in university-affiliated groups, they continue to symbolically represent the university -- as I do to prospective Duke students and parents. Colleagues at workplaces, in graduate programs and friends associate one with their alma mater. Thus, alumni have a voice to advocate on behalf of current students working toward equity and see that university administrations take steps toward change that works against institutional injustices.

Although alumni may juggle new responsibilities -- jobs, graduate/professional school and family roles -- they should develop creative avenues to become activists for the betterment of their alma maters. They should work to stay up-to-date with current happenings at their alma mater via online college newspapers, visit with current students during alumni weekends, and establish avenues of communication with student leaders. Many university-affiliated alumni groups currently do this, but they tend to be apolitical or too concerned with university opinion. Alumni activists must hold such groups supportive of student demands for equity and social justice.

Interestingly, organizing is not new among conservative alumni. For instance, in the 1970s, Princeton University alumni formed the Concerned Alumni of Princeton group, which opposed the admission of women and racial/ethnic minorities to the university. Thus, alumni organizations can maintain inequities in institutions of higher education and broader society. That should be used as motivation for progressive alumni to become involved in combating conservative alumni’s efforts for exclusion and white supremacy.

For change to occur, students, faculty members and alumni must work together. Current students and faculty should be reinforced in their demands for internal improvements at their university. Whether that means supporting student demands after a protest like at Duke, assisting a faculty-led initiative after university scandals like at USC, or backing less public efforts, alumni can be key players in college activism. To dismantle inequities in higher education, alumni can become activists for institutional change.

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Photo of Karina SantellanoKarina Santellano is a doctoral student of sociology at the University of Southern California and received her undergraduate degree from Duke University. Her current research examines undocumented college students and their experiences with Dream Resource Centers at public colleges and universities in California. You can follow her on Twitter at @kasantellano.


Karina Santellano

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