The Alumni Question

As colleges grapple with issues of race and diversity, they face questions from alumni and donors -- not all of whom are pleased with new campus efforts.

December 9, 2015
Yale University
Yale's president discusses race protests with alumni.

As student groups throughout the nation demand more diversity on their campuses, administrators have to consider many constituencies, including students (those protesting and those not) and professors with a range of views.

Yet one of the loudest groups isn’t even on campus.


As protests ripple through college campuses, alumni are far from shy in sharing their viewpoints and frustrations with their alma maters. Around the country, alumni responses to race protests are flooding presidents’ email inboxes and college’s social media accounts. And the heightened attention from alumni -- who will sometimes threaten to cease philanthropic support if they’re unhappy with an institution's direction -- asks the question of whether the racial protests roiling college campuses throughout America also have the potential to negatively impact university fund-raising.

“It’s interesting to see how institutions react, and donors will eventually react to that reaction,” said David Strauss, a partner with the higher education consulting firm Art & Science.

A lot of the colleges with protest movements -- Yale, Harvard and Brown Universities, as well as many others -- have a strong history of philanthropy. And while opinions about student protesters’ demands and tactics are varied -- either because of one’s political and generational bent or because of their support for academic freedom and free speech -- they’re always strongly held.

For example, John Hinderaker, an alumnus of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, is watching closely as Dartmouth continues to respond to an incident in November when student protesters finished a night of race protests by flooding the library and chanting, “Black lives matter.” Some reports said students in the protest intimidated and insulted those students who were studying at the library. In the wake of the incident, some alumni were sympathetic to the protesters while others decried their methods.

“Would this kind of thing impact future contributions? It depends on how the administration of the college handles it,” said Hinderaker, a practicing lawyer and conservative blogger. Though he himself was a student protester while in college -- against the Vietnam War -- Hinderaker largely disagrees with the current set of protesters' demands and tactics. He has a history of giving to Dartmouth, though he is not a major donor. “To the extent that [a response] creates an impression of the administration being ridiculously left wing, that's something that would color my thinking.”

The college’s leader, Philip Hanlon, has since penned two emails about the incident, each in support of diversity but each more sternly worded than the last to disavow intimidation.

“Dartmouth is committed to the principles of free speech, public protest and inclusivity and we understand that these ideals may sometimes conflict with one another; however, the safety, well-being and support of all of our students remain our highest priorities,” Hanlon wrote in an email to alumni last month. Dartmouth officials declined to comment for this article.

Impact on Giving

Meanwhile, at Harvard a law student wrote a Boston Globe essay encouraging alumni not to give to the law school because, she said, it was not adequately addressing incidents of racism and inequity on campus. In November a series of black faculty portraits were defaced with black tape, and the student argued that administrators’ response to the incident was weak.

“I ask our alumni to use the power of the purse to bring change to the school. Do not let us go into the third century propagating the same hate that our institution has over the last 200 years. I ask that they withhold contributions until change is enacted,” wrote third-year student Bianca Tylek, who spoke at an alumni fund-raising event in support of the law school a few months before penning the editorial.

In a statement at the time, the Harvard Black Alumni Society said it “is our hope, desire and expectation that the university will address this incident appropriately and swiftly.” The Harvard Law School dean, Martha Minow, sent an email to alumni informing them of working groups aimed at discussing students' concerns and encouraged alumni input. And during an open forum, she agreed that racism is a “serious problem” at the law school.

Yet even this response angered some alumni who don’t believe racism is a problem at the school. Hinderaker, for example, said the dean’s response during the forum seemed insincere. “She doesn't say that to alumni. To alumni she puts out these sort of typical emails,” he said.

In generations past, if college leaders told students one thing and alumni another, it wasn't immediately evident to either group. Now most every message is shared on social media and through college websites, and leaders have a greater pressure to be perceived as consistent in their messaging.

The vastly different reactions of alumni can make it difficult for colleges to fully respond to alumni concerns over incidents and race protests on campus. College development offices nowadays woo an increasingly diverse set of donors, including millennials and minorities as well as a donor base that has traditionally been a strong source of fund-raising: the older, predominately white and perhaps more conservative set.

At Pomona College, minority students threatened to stage a sit-in at the president’s office unless President David Oxtoby agreed to address a list of their demands. Oxtoby agreed to meet with students and discuss their demands -- including meeting with at least one student group a week. When he emailed alumni to keep them informed about race protests and relations on campus, he received a range of responses in return.

“The majority of them were supportive and said, ‘This is great, what you’re doing,’ and then a certain number of them were critical, but not always from a point of view of understanding what’s going on. We just take it as an opportunity to engage our alumni,” he said.

Oxtoby says he’s not really concerned about how alumni perceptions of the protest will affect giving. There are already “so many excuses not to give,” he continued. “When someone says I’m not going to give because of such and such, it’s one more excuse. Frankly I’ve seen all of them, and most of those people weren’t giving anyway.”

And institutions may feel fewer shock waves, in terms of donations, than they might be anticipating.

Donor relationships are often built over decades or more of engagement and interaction with a university -- creating bonds between donor and college that are not easily broken, says Ivan Adames, executive director of alumni relations and development at Northwestern University.

“At the end of the day you might have a disagreement, but it doesn't diminish that pride that you have in that relationship,” he said. Northwestern has experienced some student demonstrations over race. And though it has received varying responses from alumni, giving has not been impacted. “There would have to be a significant lapse in institutional integrity for it to really be disruptive.”

Strauss recalled an institution his firm worked with about a decade ago that was cracking down on its fraternities after a series of troubling incidents. Alumni were contacting administrators expressing frustration with the crackdown, and the university was worried giving would suffer because of alumni concerns. But a survey of 900 alumni found that less than 1 percent of respondents actually said they’d decrease their giving.

“They were hearing from all the squeaky wheels,” recalls Strauss, who added that a relatively small proportion of alumni at any institution are substantial donors. It’s the big donors that universities should keep in touch with during times of turmoil on campus.

“We used to talk about the 80-20 rule, that 80 percent of the money comes from 20 percent of the donors. For many of these institutions it’s now the 95-5 rule. The concentration has become just amazing,” Strauss said.

Hard Conversations

At Yale University, minority students have issued a set of demands and staged a series of protests after Erika Christakis, an associate master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, sent out an email that many students believe was racially insensitive. In her email Christakis questioned whether Yale should advise students on what types of Halloween costumes to avoid, asking, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

Some students and alumni found the email thought provoking, but many thought it was offensive and called for her resignation. One video of a student angrily confronting Christakis’s husband went viral. More than 700 people -- many of them alumni -- signed a letter in support of the Christakis. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 alumni signed a letter in support of the protesters. Christakis has since resigned from her teaching position at Yale, but remains an associate master of the residential college.

Yale was flooded with reactions from alumni, through email and social media, many of whom wanted to know how the university was going to react to student demands. 

Yale President Peter Salovey addressed the protests on campus, and the controversy over free speech, directly with alumni at an event earlier this month. He said discussions over diversity, race and academic freedom, while difficult, are not “something we should be running from or spinning” and he encouraged alumni to be part of a larger community conversation.

Meanwhile, Christakis’s resignation prompted concerns from many alumni who were already worried about the state of free speech on Yale's campus. “As one of many alumni who defended you for [your] defense of free speech, [please] reconsider leaving or risk emboldening censors!” one alumnus, Glenn Hurowitz, wrote to Christakis on Twitter.

Erin Hennessy, vice president of TVP Communications, a public relations agency focused on higher education, said that as institutions communicate with alumni about protests on campus, they need to underscore that the expectations of the modern-day student are different from what many alumni “wanted or needed” when they were on campus.

“These are institutions that change and live and grow every day, so the student body we served today may not be the same we served 20 years ago,” she said.

At Hamilton College a group of black students using the moniker The Movement have a list of at least 39 demands aimed at bettering race relations and increasing diversity on campus.

A few of the demands have rankled some alumni, including a demand that white faculty be discouraged from leading departments about “societies colonized, massacred and enslaved.” Explained one alumnus on a Facebook post: “I’m inclined not to even give the movement [sic] the time of day. If you're going to make this many ridiculous demands with this many inaccuracies you don't really deserve a discussion.” As alumni contact the college -- many with concerns over the approach students have taken and the way demands have been communicated to administrators -- officials remind them that, even among students, there’s a diverse set of views, including a contingent that disagrees with most of the protesters’ demands.

“We remind alumni that students don't always express their sentiments perfectly, but the fundamental issues are real at Hamilton and throughout society,” explained Mike Debraggio, Hamilton’s assistant vice president of communications, in an email. “Colleges, of course, should be places where differing views and perspectives are shared and debated, and sometimes those discussions are difficult.”

During an alumni event in New York on Dec. 5, Hamilton President Joan Hinde Stewart drove this point home: “These are interesting times in higher education. Campus conversations across the country are reaching a level of intensity we haven’t seen in a long time. Is this surprising? Not really,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing for questions previously overlooked to be raised in a civil way.”

Hennessy says that colleges will have the best results in communicating with alumni if they send out regular updates and try to educate them about new initiatives on campus. Yale, for example, is responding to each email inquiry from alumni directly.

“The institutions that [have] threaded this needle are ones that have stayed in touch so that alumni are hearing regularly from their institution,” she continued.

Added Adames, “It’s one thing for them to submit their comments and not have anything in response, as opposed to saying, ‘We hear you -- this is what our response has been.’ All of us just want to be heard.”

Yet even with constant communication, it’s impossible to appease everyone.

“With some of these more difficult issues, you’re going to have alumni say, ‘Well, that’s not my college or university anymore,’ and that’s unfortunate,” Hennessy said. “But on the flip side, a lot of alumni may be re-engaged in the institution” because they are sympathetic to protesters’ demands. Whatever the case, institutions can’t stop having hard conversations for fear of upsetting alumni, she said.

“This is the current atmosphere and these are important conversations, and putting aside these conversations because we might upset one of these constituencies, even if they are very important constituencies, isn't the best solution for this day and age.”


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