Alumni associations should help tackle humanity’s big challenges

Graduate networks are the perfect launch vehicle for systemic voluntary efforts to improve society, say Michael Madison and Martin Skladany

November 18, 2021
Hands raised, superimposed on a map of the world
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The next time your alma mater were to call, what if, instead of asking you to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity for a day, the ask was bigger: “Could you volunteer on a year-long project to reform zoning laws to allow for more new housing?”

University alumni communities are, by their nature, populated with skilled professionals. But alumni associations do not leverage their expertise, organise volunteer projects that last more than a few days, or tackle the root causes of problems instead of just treating symptoms. This is a terrible missed opportunity, for both higher education institutions and the world at large.

We’re talking about occupying the crucial step between volunteerism and philanthropy: systemic efforts to improve society. University faculty already engage in such efforts to improve the world through their research. Colleges could readily organise initiatives for alumni to do the same – what we call expert activism.

Instead of asking graduates who are now scientists or doctors to swing a hammer, universities need to organise their knowledge and effort. On top of alumni days of service, colleges should initiate multi-year endeavours. Instead of concentrating on projects with a modest impact, they should also address the unprecedented challenges the world faces, from environmental destruction to pandemics.

Ample needs exist. For example, law and international relations alumni could help reduce inequalities in diplomatic relations. Many developing nations do not have enough in-house governmental lawyers to specialise on every policy: lawyers from alumni groups could form advising partnerships with such countries on international law issues. Alumni of journalism schools could help reporters on investigative projects. Alumni doctors could develop mechanisms for tracking research on rare diseases and help train new medical professionals abroad.

Some schools offer more substantive projects that are a step in this direction. The Yale Alumni Service Corps, for instance, sponsors 10-day programmes during which volunteers staff medical clinics, mentor entrepreneurs, teach children and build playgrounds, among other activities. A group of alumni from the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1973 are engaging the expert skills of alumni through their organisation, ClassACT. In the UK, the charity Future First is building alumni networks to mentor 15- to 18-year-olds.

More than 24 million people in the US hold a master’s or professional degree. Over 4.5 million have doctoral degrees. Bachelor’s degree holders are many of the most successful individuals in their fields. If just a fraction of them were engaged in expert activism, the effects could be profound.

Universities are uniquely positioned to make this happen. They are stable, long-term institutional anchors that have the historical staying power to see ambitious projects through. At the same time, they have a lot to gain. A mantra of fundraisers is that more engagement leads to more donations. If colleges organise programmes to solve pressing global problems, those who participate are likely to be thankful to their universities for their leadership and proud of the results.

Graduates have a lot to gain as well, including a chance to work with new people and – importantly – to have fun and feel appreciated for their talent, expertise and time.

Colleges might be hesitant to establish bold projects, fearing they might be too political or risky. But there are scores of non-divisive opportunities. For example, alumni groups could partner with Eterna, a group of volunteers who advance medical research by solving puzzles using RNA. Alumni associations could recruit new players and translate the game into different languages.

Some administrators might worry that the actions of individual alumni could lead to embarrassment. Yet, statistically, aren’t the odds lower than countless alumni receptions where alcohol is served and everyone is carrying a smartphone camera? Universities, as they should, encourage faculty, staff and students to interact on campus. Why get cold feet when students graduate and are generally more mature?

To develop opportunities for larger, more complex investments of alumni expertise, two things are required.

One, expert activism will require initiative, not just on campus but from within alumni communities. Mid-level college administrators do not have the incentive or time to go beyond their mandate. Alumni will have to encourage such ambition.

Two, alumni communities should proactively partner with established NGOs and other institutions. Alumni could offer their time and skills to experts already working on complex problems on the ground. To be clear, this does not mean parachuting in or taking over existing non-profits. It means organising to provide the assistance that is needed and wanted.

Alumni can take on these initiatives directly if universities don’t have the resources to do so, potentially linking up alumni chapters from the same university and using their contacts to identify partners who could use a supporting cast. Alumni groups could also build partnerships with counterparts from other schools to tackle problems. This touches on a grander point – expert activism does not have to be tied to universities. Universities are simply excellent institutions for igniting the phenomenon.

Universities have been successful at turning their alumni into campus philanthropists by linking their emotional attachments to the alma mater to the larger goals of the institution. They could just as easily turn those attachments towards forms of service to the broader world.

Michael Madison is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. From 2010 to 2012, he served as chair of the board of governors of the Association of Yale Alumni. Martin Skladany is a professor of law at Pennsylvania State University.

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