Alumni Networks: Allies for Institutional Reputation

This article is based on a presentation developed for Building Universities’ Reputation 2017, a conference hosted by the Universidad de Navarra in March 2017. Unfortunately, due to travel difficulties, I was unable to participate as a speaker. I am sorry that I was unable to attend, and hope that this article provides conference delegates and others with useful information.

Competition is heightened among universities today, as rankings increasingly influence public perception of educational quality. These rankings – sometimes referred to as “league tables,” in a nod to European football standings – have detractors and advocates. But regardless of one’s opinion about them, the rankings clearly have public visibility.

Universities work to improve the various factors that influence rankings, including student achievement, research output, facilities and recognition for teaching. But all universities have a particular army of supporters who often remain underutilized in the effort to promote the institution: their alumni.

Before we look at how alumni can help universities, here are three key points to understand about alumni communities and reputation:

1)   Alumni form the largest group of stakeholders at your institution

You may have thousands of students, hundreds of professors and researchers, and just as many staff members… but the number of alumni will always be much larger. There are numerous institutions whose alumni number in the hundreds of thousands.

2)   Alumni form the only permanent community at your institution

Students are students for only a few years. Professors and administrators will retire or take new positions elsewhere. But alumni status is lifelong.

3)   Alumni are both insiders and outsiders

In Institutions for Future Generations (p. 382) the authors explain that as insiders, alumni have a personal interest in their university’s success. And as outsiders to the daily life of the institution, alumni bring the external perspective of semi-detached observers.

Considered together, these three points form the foundation for engaging alumni to enhance your institution’s reputation.

The Benefits for Alumni

As citizens, we trade in “social capital” in our lives, especially for professional purposes. Connection to a respected and known institution can enhance graduates’ professional stature and their employability, and can offer professional prestige among family, friends, co-workers and employers.

This is the concept of “degree equity”: the idea that your diploma can increase in value long after you leave university. Its value will rise as your university’s reputation and stature increase. Alumni are usually judged according to their alma mater’s current reputation – so if you attended many years ago, before the institution was well-known or highly-ranked, others will still regard you in accord with its current reputation.

In addition to social capital, it helps to understand “social identity theory.” In part, this says that one’s personal identity is formed somewhat by the groups to which they belong. A university’s alumni often share a sense of identity or community. If so, the university benefits when those alumni spread the word about the strength of their connection to their alma mater. Over time, this can contribute to an increase in institutional recognition; and with increased recognition comes the opportunity for improved reputation.

Some universities’ names are well-known around the world (these institutions top the league tables, of course). But the quality of an alumni network does not depend on the academic quality of the institution itself. There are smaller, less famous universities whose alumni are active, supportive and helpful in increasing reputation. Any university can harness alumni as allies to improve its public reputation.

The Role of Alumni

There are many ways in which alumni can contribute directly to areas that influence reputation. They can…

·     …act as academic talent scouts to attract top students for enrollment.

·     …help with employability and career support for students and fellow graduates. This means providing internships, externships, or speaking in classrooms and on panel discussions at career events for students and alumni.

·     …serve as “brand ambassadors” for the university. This can include visibly displaying their affiliation, talking about the institution and sharing its social media content with their own networks. Many institutions have formalized these volunteer roles for alumni to spread the good word about alma mater. Among European examples are Radboud University in the Netherlands (click on an ambassador’s photo for full information), the University of London, and Cass Business School.

More specifically, alumni active in online communities can serve as social media (or digital) ambassadors, as described in detail by the University of Reading. This can serve organizations of all types, not just universities. Schools often provide ambassador roles to volunteers, and Chevening, the UK government’s international leadership program, has ambassadors who blog about their experience in more detail than you’d find in a Facebook posting or a Tweet.

These means of promoting the institution illustrate how times have changed. In the past, universities mostly controlled which information the public received about them. Now technology allows all of us to publish anything, at any time, to any audience, so communities of all types can self-organize. The university can still publish its own information, but it is just one of many sources of information. So, instead of dominating what people think and know about it, the institution instead has only limited influence over people’s perceptions and opinions. And this includes correcting incorrect views or “fixing” damaging news stories.

The Fine Print About Alumni

I believe that the student experience is the single most influential factor affecting a graduate’s relationship to alma mater. Alumni who had a poor student experience can harm your reputation, just as those who support the university can improve its reputation. Having a good alumni website, nice events, or a strong social media presence cannot “fix” negative alumni attitudes created by lackluster student experiences. This is why more than ever, alumni professionals, academics, communications professionals and student affairs leaders must work closely together. They need to support the student during their brief tenure as students, and accompany the student during the gradual transition from student to alumnus.

There are limits to the benefit a good reputation can provide. Recent research confirms that alumni financial support for high-reputation institutions declines with negative news coverage. In other words, a good reputation cannot provide permanent or total protection to your brand. In fact, a good reputation may create a more negative impression when bad news surfaces, because alumni expect better from an institution that is highly ranked and well-known.

Professionals interested in alumni support of institutional reputation must also explore the meaning and role of an organization’s brand. Brand works alongside reputation to contribute to long-term university success. However, university brand and alumni relations are usually managed from different departments inside the university. Success requires active collaboration by all involved. This means sharing information and partnering to plan and execute public-facing projects, as well as sharing strategic goals and jointly measuring their outcomes.

Photo credit: Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne (by John Towner via Unsplash)

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