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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

Blood and Ownership

By Konrad Alt ’81, alumni board president

Among the dubious distinctions associated with being the president of the Reed alumni association, the opportunity to write this column may be most dubious. Every several weeks since last summer, I’ve wrestled with this column. At the outset, I decided that I would use it to focus on issues and opportunities that seem to me both timely and fundamentally connected to Reed’s values. So I have tried gently to push the college’s leadership to revisit and refine the vision for the college as it enters its second century of existence, to argue that the college should abandon the use of SAT scores in the admissions process, and to urge the college to commit itself to the goal of need-blind admissions—all opportunities, at least in my view, for the college to become truer to itself.

For my last column, I want to offer some thoughts about the future of the college’s relationship with its alumni.

Let me begin with two assertions.

First, this relationship is inescapable; closer to blood than water. It’s fashionable to speak of a college education as an investment, but we can sell our investments. The college and its alumni have no way to divest themselves of one another. We may or may not like each other as a whole, and we would change some of the parts if we could, but divorce is not an option: Reed benefits from our successes and suffers from our failures, just as we are beneficiaries of its successes and victims of its failings. We are bound together in a long-term relationship of mutual opportunity and risk.

Second, this relationship is incredibly intimate. Alumni are not the whole of the Reed community, but we are its greatest part—in many respects, the college’s heart and soul. We hold its memories. We perpetuate its values. We give it our time and money (in some cases, even our first-born children). We engage with many different elements of it in all kinds of ways, every one of which helps to build this institution we are bound to, and to keep it true to the traditions and values we teach to each other. And we build its reputation act by act, word by word, and thought by thought, as we employ our Reed educations in our daily work. Reed is fully as much our product as we are products of it.

That is, I assert, the reality of things. And yet, somehow, on both sides of the relationship, the experience of things often feels otherwise. In the thirty years or so that I’ve been part of the Reed community, the college has sometimes seemed to treat its alumni as a necessary evil, or like obnoxious children who should be seen and not heard. Many alumni, meanwhile, seem to view the college as a great idea whose current execution has been entrusted to administrators who aren’t quite with the program. And alumni disengagement isn’t just an emotional issue; although the college’s financial health is robust—thanks in part to increased alumni support—the percentage of alumni contributing lags far below similar institutions.

We can do better by each other. First, the alumni community can take greater ownership of the college’s long-term direction. Raging against our own machine is pointless; we need to do less heckling from the audience and spend more time on stage. I don’t mean that the alumni association should storm Eliot Hall and kick out the trustees (most of whom are alumni in any case); but alumni don’t just have to be on the receiving end of the college’s priorities. If we cultivate mechanisms for constructive and responsible alumni engagement in the college’s strategic decision-making, and put our own time and money behind those mechanisms, they can be our priorities, too. In the long run, we have everything to say about the future of this institution.

Second, the college, and particularly its faculty, can take greater ownership of its alumni by adopting a more inclusive view of itself. Reed is far more than the “community of scholars” often described by faculty and administrators. We are united in respect for scholarship and critical discourse, but our community comprises not only scholars but artists, small-business owners, parents, neighborhood activists, journalists, attorneys, computer programmers, marketers, and much more besides. We want and deserve the college to recognize and value all of our contributions to the world, not just our contributions to scholarship or the annual fund. The college has a great deal to gain both from celebrating our achievements and from finding more and better ways to engage with us in our areas of interest and expertise.

While these goals are easily stated, reaching them means changing both a lot of minds and a fair amount of institutional machinery. But we can do it. We have all the skills, resources and time we need. In one form or another, this relationship will endure; let’s make the most of it.

reed magazine logoSpring 2008