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Sorting Out Alumni Affairs

October 28, 2009

Baylor University rescinded its offer Tuesday to absorb the independent – and sometimes critical -- Baylor Alumni Association after six weeks of back and forth through press releases and newspaper editorials, and instead pledged to further develop its own alumni relations efforts

David E. Garland, Baylor’s interim president, and Dary Stone, chair of its Board of Regents, announced the decision in a letter addressed to David Lacy, the association’s president, and sent by e-mail to all Baylor faculty and staff late Tuesday afternoon. “[I]n the best interest of Baylor,” Garland and Stone wrote, they had decided to “formally withdraw our proposal,” first delivered to Lacy on September 9, and create “a focused and enhanced alumni relations program [that] will usher in a new era of alumni services and engagement at Baylor.”

In last month's proposal, the university had asked the alumni association’s Board of Directors to give up its 501(c)(3) tax exempt independent status and join Baylor’s Division of University Development. By housing all Baylor alumni relations operations in one place, the university argued, it would be better able to serve its 140,000 living alumni. “We should speak with a united voice in support of Baylor’s mission, opportunities and accomplishments,” the proposal said. “Baylor needs a vibrant, non-political, supportive alumni organization communicating with its alumni around the world.”

The alumni association publishes its own editorially independent magazine, Baylor Line, which was especially critical of Robert B. Sloan Jr., who was the university's president for a decade until he agreed to resign in early 2005. Sloan started a university-controlled magazine and an in-house alumni relations operation in 2002. The alumni association's independent stances on some issues seemed to nettle Baylor administrators over the years, and the alumni group's leaders viewed the university's merger proposal as an effort to clamp down on dissent -- and ultimately shutter the independent group. The university said it was simply a step toward a more efficient and cohesive structure for alumni relations.

The alumni association had not delivered an official response to the proposal but was in the process of formulating one, said Jeff Kilgore, the group’s vice president and CEO. “We’ve been working nonstop for weeks gathering feedback and opinions from the membership we represent,” he said, “and we established a study committee to figure whether the proposal made sense and was what we wanted.”

The association solicited alumni opinions in mid-September and, Kilgore said, had received hundreds. As of Tuesday, 88 percent were in favor of the group’s continued independence, seven percent supported the university’s proposal and another five percent voiced mixed opinions. “There was a clear message coming from alumni that they didn’t want this merger to happen,” he said. “Obviously that voice has been heard by the administration and the Board of Regents with this decision.”

Dozens of opinions have been posted on the group’s Web site and letters to the editor and columns have been published in the Austin American Statesman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Waco Herald-Tribune, as well as in the Baylor Lariat, the university’s student newspaper.

The association’s leadership, Garland and Stone said in their Tuesday letter, had “effectively and de facto declined” the proposal by holding off on an official response even as Lacy, Kilgore and other leaders made their opinions known, and by launching a new five-year plan at its October 23 annual meeting that included as one of its goals maintaining independence.

“We had high hopes our offer would be appealing to the organization,” Stone said in an interview Tuesday. But, he said, Lacy, Kilgore and others supporting independence had staged “a rhetorical deluge” which, when coupled with “hearing not one positive comment coming from the association’s leadership or one formal comment coming from them … made it pretty clear the concept of the proposal was not something they wanted.”

Kilgore conceded that the association’s manner of responding to the proposal could be perceived as a rejection of it. But, he said, it was “just not the case” that his group’s leaders felt they were shutting the door on dialogue and negotiations with the university by holding off on an official response but otherwise making their opinions public.

Tuesday’s letter also leaves a door open should the association decide approach the university “to explore the possibility of becoming part of a robust in-house alumni relations program within the university.”

Kilgore said his group will soldier on as an independent entity and said its role “has not changed a bit” with Garland and Stone’s withdrawal of the merger proposal. “We stand here to support our alma mater,” he said. “We communicate openly and transparently to serve our alumni base …. Hopefully we’ll be able to achieve peace and unity in the Baylor community in the years ahead.”

 

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