Alumnus interruptus

How University, Inc. is controlling the message to its graduates — and funding base
By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  November 16, 2006

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Harvard is accustomed to turning other universities green with envy. So it comes as no surprise that its alumni publication, Harvard magazine, which is largely financially self-sufficient and editorially independent of the university, has become a model to which other universities aspire. But rather than take pride in the bi-monthly’s stellar 108-year-old reputation, university administrators effectively declared war on Harvard magazine earlier this year when they brought out an in-house competitor. The new rag, The Yard — which Harvard sends four times a year to alumni, big donors, and parents of students — strikes a decidedly more self-flattering tone than its independent counterpart.

Why the change, and why now? In a word, the answer is: fundraising. As the Wall Street Journal reported in June, “fund-raisers determined that Harvard magazine was no longer serving their best interests.”

In an era when corporations and politicians pay public-relations consultants big bucks to control the “message,” one would hope that universities, devoted to the “free marketplace of ideas,” would resist the trend. Yet in recent years, Harvard, like almost all universities, has been eager to limit how much the public in general, and alumni in particular, learn about what’s really happening on campus. This is especially true as many universities continue to sacrifice traditional academic values — free speech, academic freedom, and fair disciplinary proceedings — in favor of censorship and closed administrative proceedings that function as kangaroo courts, in a misguided attempt to avoid controversies that might gain public attention.

The reality is that alumni fund a major portion of private universities’ budgets, and even public institutions are increasingly dependent on former students to supplement stagnant or decreasing state education budgets. Many states, including Massachusetts, began scaling back higher-education funds in the mid 1990s. In 2001, an economic recession caused even more drastic budget cuts. The University of Massachusetts system, for example, lost 5.1 percent of its annual budget that year, prompting a 24 percent spike in tuition at the flagship campus at Amherst and a halt to all library acquisitions. Public higher-education budgets have been relatively stagnant ever since.

Growing increasingly anxious, officials at public universities turned toward upbeat alumni mags to buoy fundraising efforts. Over the past 15 years, schools that had never previously published alumni mags began cranking out thousands of the things, including UMass, which, in spite of its dwindling coffers, launched magazines for its larger campuses in 1996.

Interestingly, despite all the work done by colleges to generate self-congratulatory publicity to court alumni donors, many schools saw the percentage of graduates giving in recent years decrease. In fact, the alumni-participation rate across US institutions of higher education has decreased every year since 2001 and now stands at a lackluster 12.4 percent, according to the Council for Aid to Education. At Harvard, 24 percent of grads donated money in fiscal year 2006 — a steady decline from 27 percent in FY 2001.

These downward numbers could reflect any number of realities: the squeeze on alums who are trying to put their own children and grandchildren through school, say, or cultural trends away from institutional loyalties of any kind. One thing is certain, though: “Rah rah” alumni magazines are apparently not rekindling morale or boosting alumni giving. If anything, it could be that the blather disseminated by university PR offices is provoking cynicism and backlash.

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