Rutgers To Reorganize Alumni Association For The Better

From time to time, I write about Rutgers, the state university I know best. Rutgers is a very good school; U.S. News ranks my alma mater as one of the nation's top 20 state universities - and quirky enough to be interesting to an education writer.

Rutgers is the state university of New Jersey; those four words follow the name in all school marketing, so people know for sure. Purdue, the College of William and Mary and most recently, the flagship campuses of the State University of New York are the only national public institutions that do not include the name of their state.

Rutgers University's flagship campus in New Brunswick has been an exercise in organized disorganization for 35 years. The organized disorganization has preserved and protected the identities of four federated colleges, the first of which traces its roots to colonial times.

Before 1972, Rutgers College, the oldest school, was all-male. Livingston, a liberal arts college founded to address issues of social change in the late sixties, was the only co-educational institution. Students in agriculture, engineering and pharmacy affiliated with Rutgers, Douglass or Livingston for their housing.

Things got only more confusing after 1972: the ag school became Cook College, another liberal arts school while Rutgers College became co-ed, and competed directly with Livingston for students — and resources. Today the Livingston campus provides housing for Rutgers College students, as well as their own and Douglass College is less a college than a residence life option for women.

No other flagship state university is organized the same as Rutgers. If had enrolled at the University of Maryland, for instance, I'd start as a University of Maryland student with an undeclared major and then apply to attend the school of business, journalism, education and the like. Even after I declared my major, I'd still be a University of Maryland student who'd become a University of Maryland alumnus, a Terrapin for life.

Not so at Rutgers; I'm a Rutgers College graduate, so I'm invited to join an association that includes the largest subset of Rutgers alumni — but not every one of them. I also get solicitations to the business school's alumni association because I have a Rutger' MBA — and they invite undergraduate business students to join. I'm also solicited by the graduate public policy school, because I took their undergraduate courses for my bachelor's degree. There's no university-wide association that all Rutgers alumni can be a part of — and that's damn silly.

Instead of one large association, I get hit up by three small ones that have overlapping memberships. I threw in the towel - joined none of them — and gave the same money to the Touchdown Club, the group that supports the football team. Why? Because the activities are fun and most of them are free. I love college football. I'm a season ticket holder, the activities are all informal, and I get discounts to buy licensed football apparel. I get a lot for my money — a lot more than I'd get from the alumni associations.

Rutgers got the message; the university administration wants to consolidate 19 separate alumni associations on three campuses into one. They will allow any of the legacy groups to soldier on, but there will be better-coordinated services for alumni within one association. This is necessary at a time when alumni desire services from the university, such as personalized Web content, continuing education and career services - that are not and never could be, managed by alumni relations.

What would I like to see from a single Rutgers alumni association?

• Membership for Rutgers' parents; they want their children to succeed and they are in a better position to support the university while their son or daughter is starting life after college. There are also more "helicopter parents" than there have ever been in college communities. Development officers could use that to the university's advantage.

• A Founder's Week; there should be a huge celebration of the university's history and accomplishments each year with events for students, alumni, their families and of course, parents. I didn't know that November 10 was Rutgers' Founder's Day, until this year, twenty five years after I received my bachelor's degree. That's a good time to plan a Founder's Week; it's after midterms and before Thanksgiving. It's also the best week to host a Homecoming football game.

• Low cost family events; alumni who graduated between 1980 and 2000 are not only in careers, they are likely raising families. It's very difficult to attract them to campus events where their children cannot participate. Besides, a university should expose children of alumni to their campus at an early age; admission to Rutgers is a worthwhile goal.

• Customized Web content; I want to know about events and subjects of interest to me. Rutgers is a treasure trove of news, but my interests are very specific.

• An alumni career services office in New York City, to complement the campus career centers.

• A master discount card, as the students have, to shop at campus stores online and offline, as well as with participating merchants. Combine that with a hotel discount that students can also use, as well as discounts on Rutgers' sports tickets for the teams that have no waiting list.

• Online networks for alumni to contribute their time to admissions and career development.

• The Rutgers print magazine delivered to my door each month, with a calendar of events — with alumni and family discounts.

Rutgers has over 360,000 living alumni, and they have considerable buying power. It's time for Rutgers to put that buying power to work. Alumni might not need another credit card, or insurance policy, but they are willing to support family-oriented events and quality services they can actually use.

So, for the new association, whatever it may be called, I suggest that they be guided by these words: School spirit and family values.

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