Anti-Racism and Your Alma Mater

Why not encourage millions of alumni to go back to college for professional development on how to address systemic racism in our country?, Joe Walsh asks.

June 9, 2021
 
 
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“My alma mater? All they do is ask me for money.” It’s a refrain that my friends who work in alumni affairs offices hear regularly.

This year, my alumni office’s outreach focused people’s attention on addressing systemic racism. This has led me to wonder: Is anti-racism the great work that alumni offices should be called upon to do in this century?

Fortunately, many alumni offices have started to think of themselves as crucial in re-skilling a workforce of graduates who never had world-class DEI faculty or a student culture that overtly emphasized inclusion. I’m not as worried about current students in 2021 getting the message that addressing racism requires urgent action. But what about the students from 1971?

About two-thirds of Americans -- 216 million or so -- are older than 25. Just over a third of them, or around 71 million American adults, have at least one college degree. On top of that, an estimated 36 million additional adults have at least started a degree program.

Despite any best intentions, our country can’t count solely on book groups, social media platforms, or consultants to drag would-be allies into an anti-racist awakening. I’m also starting to suspect that, as things now stand, neither academe nor private industry will be heralded in history for spawning racial harmony in America. Who among us see anti-racism professional development as a top benefit for alums in their magazines or annual-fund appeals -- alongside season ticket privileges, access to special events, or membership in local chapters?

So what about sending those 71 million adults back to school? Is it time for a GI Bill for the college-educated-but-morally-wounded veterans of systemic racism in the country? A white accountability group for the masses?

It’s a fine place to start, and alumni offices of their alma maters are well positioned to champion this work. Why? Because:

  • They sit on a lot of contact information for their alumni and are really good at emailing them.
  • They are, for the most part, neither profit-driven nor political.
  • They are arms of the nation’s most trusted educational content providers.

But why on earth would millions of privileged, college-educated, largely white Americans lift a finger to connect on Zoom or IRL for professional development around anti-racism issues with their fellow alums? Let’s face it: they’ll need incentives beyond the moral call of duty. Here are some possible carrots:

  • The programs could be free. The colleges themselves (or U.S. Department of Education grants) will underwrite annual anti-racist programs -- in concert with peer institutions, if necessary.
  • The programs could spotlight and celebrate the good work that many alumni are already doing, creating organic PR for many working professionals or nonprofits they lead.
  • The programs could provide job benefits: the certificate granted for completion of the course will be a useful badge for career-advancement purposes.
  • The college could offer special access to its president, who will attend the (virtual or real-time) program.
  • The alma mater could offer preference in season-ticket ordering or seating for [fill in the college team] for those alumni who earn a certificate in the anti-racism program.
  • The programs could have sentimental appeal: come back and stay in your dorm room again while you’re enrolled. Bring your kids this time.

A Macro-Level Compounding Impact

I’m inspired by what I’ve seen from higher education institutions large and small, both elite and ordinary, since the murder of George Floyd in May:

  • A Google search reveals 190 colleges in the United States have published statements on racism; hosted workshops, webinars, or roundtables; or bundled university resources on anti-racism on their websites for alumni to access and use.
  • Offices of minority education and diversity officers have launched “racial equity funds” to award grants to faculty and students who want to carve out time to address this work;
  • Where leadership has neglected a duty to connect alumni to this work, petitions from alumni (and even lawsuits) have made some headway in budging reluctant presidents into action.

Like everything else that happened in 2020, some of this movement was unthinkable a year ago. And it’s only a start. Colleges and universities have not yet taken a wholesale, macro-level approach to cultivating anti-racist work among college-educated Americans.

What’s in it for the institutions? Putting the moral positioning aside, it might make good business sense. With about 90 percent of college graduates living in urban counties and a disappearing middle-class, there’s plenty of improvement to be done in town/gown relationships. A high-visibility curriculum for a major institution’s alumni base in its home city won’t only yield nice press clips; it might also make everyone, including the college itself, better neighbors.

Other less tangible benefits could accrue to those institutions who take on the challenge. US News and World Report currently takes alumni giving into account in its formula for rankings. What if it weighted alumni professional development in anti-racism in that formula, too?

Granted, many alumni offices today aren’t poised to implement and execute such a programmatic pivot. They’re burdened by slim budgets, the traditional demands for a return on investment from institutional leaders, pet programs of provosts and boards, or a deeply ingrained reputation for soliciting donations every chance they get.

Cautionary tales are emerging, too. Big bets on anti-racism efforts of any kind may seem daunting for leaders wary of making headline news in front of wealthy donors.

But there’s never been a better time to undertake such work: virtual learning pilots can be piecemeal, even volunteer-led, and offer better intel on the appetite or interests among an alumni body for such work. Many universities are already well-poised, with certification programs on inclusion (e.g., University of California, Irvine) and short-courses (e.g., Northwestern University) already running and open to alums.

What would success look like? Marketers are often happy with a 2 percent conversion rate -- in other words, 2 percent of warm leads taking advantage of a free benefit or program, on a good day.

For 71 million or more Americans targeted by an alma mater (or two), that might mean at least 1.42 million Americans would be better educated on anti-racism work in the coming year. Begin compounding that number, year over year, with poster child alums making the case to their peers about the importance, relevance and usefulness of doing this work. That might very well start looking like progress.

Think about it. Can we conceive of a time when our graduates might casually say to their neighbors: “My alma mater? All they do is teach me”?

Bio

Joe Walsh is a higher education professional in Boston.

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