Why it’s a good idea to build academic alumni communities

Early career scholars, seasoned academics and institutions themselves all benefit from the creation of alumni affinity groups, writes Gretchen Dobson

October 9, 2020
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It goes without saying that Covid has necessitated massive changes in higher education, and we know that the already Herculean task of managing an academic career will likely become an even greater challenge for new and existing academics.

THE has already covered the relative lack of movement and conferences − and the impact that decreased mobility will have on networking and, thus, research, academic output and discovery. This lack of networking will almost certainly necessitate creative models for maintaining, or building, new relationships.

In the past 20 years, as a global engagement specialist, I’ve witnessed the impact of personal and professional global alumni networks on their members, as well as on their home institutions, as they support institutional priorities at home and abroad. I can share many stories of alumni and international families hosting official events and academic delegations, all resulting in a stronger recruitment pipeline, academic partnerships, new memorandums of understanding and a few more key donor relationships to steward and support.

In turn, alumni and families felt their influence and opinion counted both locally and globally. The feelings expressed between travelling faculty speakers meeting their former students at an international event ranged from reminiscence to joy and discovery.

But international alumni chapters and clubs are just one way to organise constituents abroad. Another is the creation of affinity groups: alumni set up around professional affiliations such as law and business, personal interests or college associations.  

Then there is the option of an affinity group that connects alumni who are active members of academe around the world. In my opinion, there has never been a better time to form an “alumni in academia” affinity group to support the teaching and learning/research agenda as well as the academic community.

And alumni have much to gain, too. To start, alumni within related research areas can mentor each other. Additionally, early career scholars and graduate students can develop support systems that can last their entire careers. A new academic alumni affinity group can also reach out to international graduate students and postdocs who went home during Covid and are not able to return to their host campus. The same groups can even help more seasoned academics with career transitions.

There’s also plenty in it for institutions. Connecting alumni academics and administrators can lead to new partnerships and lay a new and strategic global donor pipeline. Partnerships might result in new research grant bids and trans-disciplinary research, which could link alumni in academe with faculty members of the home institution. With help from the Study Abroad office, it is possible to research academics and their location to see if they can help build virtual and hybrid partnerships for today’s reimagined study abroad programmes.

So, this is all well and good, you’re probably thinking, but how do I build this type of group?

Well, affinity groups are sometimes self-initiated by alumni but in the case of a new alumni in academia community, I recommend institutions take formal ownership of getting this group off the ground. Institutional leadership and alumni offices can jump-start this global cohort by asking academics at their own institution (who are also alumni) to be founding members − early adopters who can lend their name and support to the project. These academics may have retained ties with their fellow graduate school colleagues and can spread initial interest globally.

However, be warned that this type of alumni affinity group requires proper management and staff oversight. I would consider splitting the role of group administrator between an alumni relations officer and an academic affairs officer with strong interpersonal relationships across departments and divisions. 

In today’s environment, higher education is going to need to remain creative and opportunistic about where, how and with whom it builds transnational partnerships, and that starts with developing or updating international databases: recognise that some domestic-based alumni in academe were former international students and still have strong international ties back in their home country; track country of origin; and don’t forget to track updated contact information of former international scholars and visiting faculty. An alumni in academia affinity group may even promote a census and interest survey to learn where academic alumni are based around the world and how alumni want to be both involved and supported. After all, with more data, institutions are in a much stronger position to evaluate their options.

In the end, given restricted mobility among people, professions and research collaborations, new networks of alumni academics may open up new opportunities. Now is the time to leverage the almost universal shift to virtual networking and provide a new method of support and resilience.

The creation of affinity groups for academics may well look different across campuses and echo institutional academic strengths, as indicated in a piece by Lisa Unangst, who also sees this as a possible area for collaboration among career services units (which may not be resourced to provide advice on academic careers) and alumni affairs units.

Finally, at a time when leaders are called upon to connect with others, distribute leadership and communicate clearly, I believe that building academic affinity groups helps provosts, vice-chancellors and deans do precisely that. 

Gretchen Dobson is a global engagement strategist, author and academic with 27 years’ experience across five continents. She consults on best practices in EdTech and other creative strategies that enable institutions to manage relationships with their global stakeholders and brand ambassadors.

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