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From fundraising to admissions, alumni-turned-presidents pay dividends for their alma maters
**this story is from the September issue of CASE CURRENTS magazine
By Lydia Lum
As a Morehouse College student in the 1970s, John Silvanus Wilson Jr. was a critic of the Georgia institution. Surprised by campuswide inefficiencies and annoyed by long lines at registration, he wrote essays for the student newspaper challenging the administration and joined the student government so he could meet regularly with then-Morehouse President Hugh Gloster.
Earlier this year, that same firebrand whose commentaries were dubbed “Disturbed About Morehouse” became president of the historically black college. Wilson returned to his alma mater to help steer it through turbulent economic waters and to give back to the college where he enjoyed camaraderie and unconditional acceptance.
Wilson and his fellow alumni-in-chief often take their posts to preserve, improve, and expand the best aspects of their own undergraduate experiences for future generations. While memories of yesteryear shape only part of these presidents’ executive goals and actions, elements of their undergraduate days help them lead their institutions more effectively—in advancement and other areas.
Fuel for fundraising
Being an alumnus can be a “tip factor” for a president, particularly regarding development, says Judith Block McLaughlin, director of the higher education program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in Massachusetts.
“These presidents are living logos of their institutions, and that holds appeal,” says McLaughlin, who as chair of the annual Harvard Seminar for New Presidents has advised about 1,000 executives.
Phillip Howard, Morehouse’s vice president of institutional advancement, has worked for alumni presidents throughout his 12-year tenure. Because graduates can share relevant aspects of their student experiences when cultivating donors for specific purposes, alumni presidents exude an authenticity that connects effectively with donors.
Howard witnessed such authenticity when he joined former Morehouse President Robert Franklin Jr. on a fundraising visit to New York City. The pair met with the CEO of a corporation who had known Franklin’s predecessor, Walter Massey. Also a Morehouse alumnus, Massey had long ago explained to the CEO the college’s history and its tendency to hire graduates for important leadership positions. The executive, who started at the company in an entry-level position and had worked his way to the top, was struck by the similarities between their paths to leadership.
The connection led Franklin and the CEO to discuss financial support for Morehouse, which resulted in a $3 million gift—the second largest the college received in 2009.
President as poster child
Mexico’s CETYS University doesn’t hide the fact that its president, Fernando León García, is one of its graduates. León García’s identity as CETYS’ first alumnus president figures prominently in student recruiting materials and newsletters to parents. His personal tie to the institution slides into conversation when León García gives interviews or fields questions during presentations to CETYS faculty members or at local town hall meetings.
“It puts a face to a success story,” says Carlos H. García Alvarado, director of CETYS’ Ensenada campus and a former director of institutional advancement.
A 1978 graduate of CETYS’ Mexicali campus, León García relied on a scholarship and various jobs at the university to pay for college. He wasn’t a stranger to working hard; the middle of three children, he was only 5 years old when his father died and had juggled jobs alongside his high school studies to help with family expenses and save for college. But León García rarely shares such details of his undergraduate experience and childhood difficulties with staff or students.
“It’s important not to make this job too much about me,” says León García, who has dedicated 29 years of his professional life to CETYS. “The idea is to empower others, not myself. My priority has been to continue the work of previous presidents and the perpetuation of their ideals.”
Nevertheless, one facet of the job is very personal to him: raising money for scholarships and student experiences. Ninety percent of CETYS students today receive financial aid. As part of the current CETYS 2020 campaign, León García has asked alumni to support scholarships and the expansion of athletics and other student activities. About 600 alumni contributed gifts totaling $350,000 in 2012. Gifts from 55 other alumni who sat on CETYS’ governing board that year totaled more than $1 million.
To serve and protect
León García isn’t the only campus leader who is guarded about certain aspects of his undergraduate experience. Morehouse’s Wilson, however, glosses over some of his history for a different reason. He chuckles now when recalling a reporter’s questions about his “Disturbed About Morehouse” series. After taking a moment to consider his response, Wilson explained that his writings as a student focused on what were seemingly unbearable problems at Morehouse. He has since made sure the essays aren’t available online.
Wilson is much more open to discussing how Morehouse has been a part of his life since childhood. He grew up idolizing his church pastor, a Morehouse alumnus who had moved his parsonage into an all-white neighborhood in Pennsylvania. Convinced that Morehouse must have been a factory of sorts that produced larger-than-life men like his pastor, Wilson enrolled sight unseen.
He found lifelong friends in classmates such as filmmaker Spike Lee and basked in the supportive campus atmosphere. Wilson also noticed some of Morehouse’s bureaucratic shortcomings. As an undergraduate, he met President Emeritus Benjamin Mays, who had mentored Martin Luther King Jr., a 1948 Morehouse graduate. Mays’ presidency lasted 27 years, and he later was the chair of Atlanta’s board of education who oversaw the integration of the city’s public schools. Wilson explained his grievances, saying that he “loved Morehouse but didn’t always like it.”
Mays advised the young Wilson to help enact the changes he wished to see and to finish his studies so that he could someday come back to serve Morehouse. “That was a defining moment for me,” Wilson recalls.
Before returning to campus as president, Wilson took seriously Mays’ call to improve Morehouse. As the college’s Boston alumni chapter president, he helped raise $1 million for scholarships and community outreach. Now as president, Wilson aspires to operational excellence—and job one is improving the institution’s aging technology infrastructure. Although the process has just begun, students and staff have spent countless hours unraveling procedural and technical glitches in important areas such as financial aid. Some of Wilson’s other goals for his young presidency are to increase Morehouse’s $129 million endowment and bump up the alumni giving rate from 38 to 65 percent. The additional funds would, for instance, provide faculty research stipends.
“I have a deep love for this place and have always had high expectations for Morehouse,” Wilson says. “There are aspects of life here that need more investment and development.”
Like Wilson, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore, wants to improve his students’ experience. But his wide focus goes beyond campus and Singapore’s borders. Tan avidly encourages NUS’ 27,000 undergraduates to broaden their perspectives by studying abroad before they graduate.
He speaks from the heart and personal experience. The seventh of nine children in a single-income family, Tan had never ventured farther than neighboring Malaysia before attending NUS. Thanks to scholarships and faculty donations, he supplemented his medical education with two months of study at a London hospital and a two-week program at Japan’s Dokkyo and Juntendo universities.
Beyond the intellectual benefits, Tan says traveling showed him his personal strengths and weaknesses and helped him learn when and how to trust strangers. Those are reasons why he’s so adamant that current students take advantage of studying abroad.
“These are opportunities for self-reflection that may be clearer than what they learn in class,” Tan says.
During Tan’s presidency, NUS has promoted student exchange programs and internships through its international relations office, which organizes campus events such as German Day and Middle East Night to fuel interest in specific regions. Academic departments host question-and-answer sessions for students curious about studies in particular subjects. To defray costs the university awards scholarships to Singaporean undergraduates based on financial need and to foreign students based on academic merit.
NUS officials say that so many alumni approve of and appreciate Tan’s efforts to increase cross-cultural awareness and knowledge among students that the international relations office is considering asking alumni abroad to serve as hosts for NUS students.
Blessings and curses
Although alumni presidents clearly have natural advantages, Harvard’s McLaughlin points out some drawbacks. She compares such vulnerabilities to the struggles of a president who previously served at another institution. If he or she enjoyed success the first time around, the president may instinctively rely on the same strategies to achieve similar outcomes at the new institution without fully considering the differences between the campuses.
Similarly, alumni presidents may rely too much on past experiences as a student when making decisions as the chief executive. Take Holden Thorp, the former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who departed in June. The 1986 UNC alumnus was selected to lead his alma mater by a unanimous vote of the university’s board of trustees in 2008, but an athletics scandal that spilled into academics proved too much for Thorp to overcome. Reporters and op-ed writers speculated that Thorp’s connection to the university, coupled with no previous management of athletics, produced a large blind spot for UNC sports.
McLaughlin recommends that alumni presidents take their time to reach decisions rather than relying on instinct, emotion, or a belief they understand the institution better than others because they are alumni.
“It’s wise to stay flexible and be open to new learning,” McLaughlin says.
Alumni presidents also contend with a situation other chief executives don’t need to handle: how they’ll be perceived by their fellow graduates when making big institutional decisions.
“The alumni might assume you’re going to hold the institution to its sacred past,” McLaughlin says. “A president might be criticized if he or she changes the curriculum or decides to knock down a building. It is seen as betrayal. Alumni tend to ask, ‘How could you, of all people, do this to us and to the school?'”
Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella found herself in such a predicament with about 30 alumnae last year. She disclosed in an e-newsletter that a committee of administrators and students was considering consolidating five aging dining halls into one to save money.
The alumnae objected, insisting that valuable learning had occurred every night in the dining halls when they, as students, discussed politics, history, and many other topics in small groups. Those groups typically dined together for an entire semester or longer. They argued that a single cafeteria-style dining facility at the women’s institution in Massachusetts might feel unwelcoming and drive students away. Tradition, the anxious alumnae said, would be squashed.
As a 1980 Mount Holyoke alumna, Pasquerella could relate to their sentiments. When addressing the alumnae’s concerns, she sprinkled the college’s rationale with memories of some of her own dinnertime debates. She explained that the tradition of deep discussions during supper had actually petered out before her presidency.
“Students are now choosing dining halls based on that night’s meal choices [and] don’t sit for long anymore,” Pasquerella says. “But I remember our talks when I was an undergraduate, analyzing the pros and cons of nuclear power with other women. This kind of give and take was important to my intellectual development.
“I’m glad I could respect the opposition, yet break it down,” Pasquerella continues. “I want to connect with the past, yet still move forward.”
Such sentiments fueled Pasquerella’s decision to freeze Mount Holyoke’s tuition for two straight years to alleviate students’ loan burdens. Pasquerella’s sensitivity to students’ financial struggles has roots in her undergraduate years at Mount Holyoke. When her Pell Grant and other financial aid failed to cover her expenses, Pasquerella lined up a job grading papers. Her commitment to keeping tuition reasonable is evident in Mount Holyoke’s current strategic plan, which specifies cutting operating costs by reducing administration and other functions.
The ultimate alumni engagement
The exact number of alumni who preside over their alma maters hasn’t been tracked in recent years by organizations that support and study college presidents. Nor is there any mandate among institutions to hire alumni presidents—although on some campuses it may seem like tradition. At Morehouse, Wilson is the seventh consecutive alumnus president since 1967.
Perhaps that’s why Wilson is unfazed when students and alumni complain publicly about Morehouse’s current problems. In fact, he sympathetically summarizes their views when meeting with faculty or news reporters. The vocal activist that emerged during his undergraduate years has since matured.
For instance, Wilson is occasionally asked to reflect on the tenure of Morehouse’s former President Gloster. He balances his complaints from long ago with praise, pointing out how Morehouse added a dozen buildings during Gloster’s time.
Much like Gloster and his other predecessors, Wilson models and promotes the college’s values to students, advancement vice president Howard says. Wilson has become a servant and leader for the institution, showing students the importance of supporting their alma mater during their college years and long afterward.
“It’s as if John started his job as an undergraduate and has returned here for the next chapter,” Howard says. “Our alumni presidents take long-term views of the institution and students in ways no one else can.”