The next time your alma mater called you, and if, instead of asking you to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity for a day, the question was more important: “Could you participate in a year-long project?” to reform zoning laws to allow more new housing?
Former university student communities are, by nature, populated by qualified professionals. But alumni associations don’t leverage their expertise, organize volunteer projects that last longer than a few days, or tackle the root causes of problems instead of just treating symptoms. This is a terrible missed opportunity, both for higher education institutions and for the world at large.
We are talking about occupying the crucial step between volunteering and philanthropy: systemic efforts to improve society. University professors are already engaging in such efforts to improve the world through their research. Colleges could easily organize initiatives for alumni to do the same – what we call expert activism.
Instead of asking graduates who are scientists or doctors today to strike a hammer, universities need to organize their knowledge and effort. In addition to alumni days of service, quorums should launch multi-year efforts. Instead of focusing on small-impact projects, they should also tackle the unprecedented challenges facing the world, from environmental destruction to pandemics.
Many needs exist. For example, alumni of law and international relations could help reduce inequalities in diplomatic relations. Many developing countries do not have enough in-house government lawyers to specialize in each policy: lawyers from alumni groups could form advisory partnerships with these countries on issues of international law. Former students of journalism schools could help journalists with investigative projects. Former doctors could develop mechanisms for monitoring rare disease research and help train new health professionals abroad.
Some schools offer more substantial projects that go in this direction. The Yale Alumni Service Corps, for example, sponsors 10-day programs in which volunteers work in medical clinics, mentor contractors, teach children, and build playgrounds, among other activities. A group of alumni from the Harvard-Radcliffe class of 1973 mobilizes the skills of alumni through their organization, ClassACT. In the UK, the Future First charity is creating alumni networks to support young people aged 15 to 18.
More than 24 million people in the United States have a master’s or professional degree. Over 4.5 million have doctorates. Those with a bachelor’s degree are among the top performers in their field. If only a fraction of them were engaged in expert activism, the effects could be profound.
Universities are particularly well placed to do this. These are stable and long-term institutional anchors which have the historical durability to carry out ambitious projects. At the same time, they have a lot to gain. A mantra of fundraisers is that more engagement leads to more donations. If colleges run programs to solve pressing global issues, those who participate will likely be grateful to their universities for their leadership and proud of the results.
Graduates also have a lot to gain, including the opportunity to work with new people and, most importantly, to have fun and feel appreciated for their talent, expertise and time.
Colleges may be reluctant to implement bold plans, fearing they may be too political or risky. But there are dozens of opportunities that don’t divide. For example, alumni groups might partner with Eterna, a group of volunteers who advance medical research by solving puzzles using RNA. Alumni associations could recruit new players and translate the game into different languages.
Some administrators might fear that the actions of individual former students could lead to embarrassment. Yet, statistically, aren’t the odds less than those of countless alumni parties where alcohol is served and everyone carries a smartphone camera? Universities, as they should, encourage faculty, staff, and students to interact on campus. Why get cold feet when students graduate and are generally more mature?
To develop larger and more complex investment opportunities in alumni expertise, two things are needed.
First, expert activism will require initiatives, not only on campus but within alumni communities. Mid-level college administrators do not have the motivation or the time to go beyond their mandate. The elders will have to encourage such ambition.
Second, alumni communities should proactively partner with established NGOs and other institutions. Alumni could volunteer their time and skills to experts already working on complex issues in the field. To be clear, this doesn’t mean parachuting or taking over existing nonprofits. It means organizing to provide the help you need and want.
Alumni can take these initiatives directly if universities do not have the resources to do so, potentially connecting alumni sections of the same university and using their contacts to identify partners who could use a casting. Support. Alumni groups could also partner with counterparts in other schools to solve problems. This touches on a more important point – expert activism does not have to be linked to universities. Universities are simply excellent institutions for triggering the phenomenon.
Universities have succeeded in turning their alumni into campus philanthropists by tying their emotional attachments to the alma mater to the larger goals of the institution. They might as well transform these attachments into forms of service to the world at large.
Michael Madison is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. From 2010 to 2012, he was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Association of Yale Alumni. Martin Skladany is professor of law at Pennsylvania State University.