The annual Educause conference is the premier teaching and technology showcase for higher education, and this year's expo, held in Dallas in October, was no exception.
The annual Educause conference is the premier teaching and technology showcase for higher education, and this year's expo, held in Dallas in October, was no exception.
In 2001, administrators at Plymouth State University began pondering the notion of giving alumni access to their own web portal, just as undergraduates at the New Hampshire institution had since 2000. The idea was for the portal to provide alumni with a simple way to connect with the university and with each other.
Then, in 2003, a little thing called Facebook arrived on the college scene.
"We had gone through our entire design process, and then Facebook and MySpace explode," says Joe Long, director of alumni relations for Plymouth State. "It didn't change what we were building," says Long, referring to the popularity of social networking sites, "but it made us change our expectations for the product. It gave us a good chance to narrow who we wanted to be engaged with and how we would provide it for them. What is our competition out there? How has it changed?"
Good questions-and ones that are being asked by alumni affairs administrators everywhere. How can alumni offices stay on top of technology offerings without getting too trendy? How can administrators know what online tools next year's students (and therefore soon-to-be alumni) will want?
These questions are popping up fast with the rise of Web 2.0, the second burst of innovation and adoption in the online world. Knowing how to answer them will place administrators in greater positions of power.
"This is really the second big online wave for schools, the first being putting up online alumni directories," says Fred Waugh, director of marketing for Convio, the internet software and services company that serves institutions of higher education and nonprofits. It's time for IHEs "to revisit their strategy and decide what they need to be over the next five years," says Waugh.
Seamless web portals, targeted e-marketing, and partnerships with professional networking sites are just some of the options available to alumni relations offices looking to connect with graduates. Here's how a few institutions, as well as technology vendors knee-deep in product development, are utilizing today's online tools.
Facebook and MySpace, as well as other online networking communities such as LinkedIn, are the 800-pound gorillas in alumni relations offices these days. How to handle them-some people see them as competition, others as complementary sources of information-is a question still being answered.
"What we're seeing now as part of Web 2.0 is alumni out there creating their own communities," says Waugh. "Those things are really out of the control of the alumni relations group, and there's some fear and uncertainty about how to deal with them."
For Convio and its client schools, Facebook, MySpace, Classmates.com, and other sites are being treated as sources of opportunity, not obstacles. "Schools have to embrace those communities wherever they exist," notes Waugh. "How can we tap into the independent communities that are out there and get them to support us?"
Convio, for one, is working to introduce tools that will make it easier for schools to connect with social networking sites. Options under consideration include:
Giving institutions the ability to post banner ads on social networking sites.
Establishing relationships so that institutions can gather alumni data from networking sites.
Exploring sponsorship possibilities.
These types of strategies can help college and university leaders acknowledge and take advantage of popular online tools, as opposed to ignoring them out of fear or close-mindedness. If alumni want networking sites to be a part of their lives, why shouldn't alumni offices help make that happen?
One institution, the California Institute of Technology, is taking a particularly aggressive approach to online networking as a benefit for alumni. The Caltech Alumni Association works directly with the business networking site LinkedIn to boost connections and build awareness.
Andrew Shaindlin, executive director of the alumni association, thought to formalize a relationship between Caltech and LinkedIn, which has more than 7.5 million users, after seeing how much he used and trusted LinkedIn himself. Facebook and MySpace appeal to young alumni who have gone through college with e-mail, Instant Messenger, and social networking sites, but LinkedIn focuses more on professional networking (and therefore appeals to a broader audience, agewise).
Shaindlin says he launched the Caltech Alumni group in LinkedIn for two reasons. "We didn't want someone who was not officially a representative of the institution to create an alumni group that, even with good intentions, we might be responsible for," he says. "So in a way it was kind of preemptive to make sure that we had first dibs on the Caltech Alumni Association group within LinkedIn."
"But more than that," he adds, "I thought it was a good direction to move in anyway. The indicators that we saw were the growth of online networking in general, and the relevance of online business networking in particular, to our goals for the alumni organization."
The Caltech alumni group is one of many on LinkedIn overseen by institutions of higher education. Here's how it has worked for Caltech: The alumni association pushed the launch by featuring it in the quarterly alumni publication, Caltech News; noting it on the association home page; and mentioning it in a bimonthly e-mail newsletter to alumni. The group was free for the alumni association (although since that time, LinkedIn has begun offering more advanced group options that cost either $5,000 or $25,000 a year).
Staffers from Caltech were given the ability to verify a user's status as a Caltech alum before the user could join the LinkedIn group. "If LinkedIn wanted, they could let anyone join the group, but we don't want that," says Shaindlin. "This is a privilege you earn by attending Caltech."
Once the group got off the ground, alumni association leaders decided to step up to premium level, which costs $5,000 a year and provides greater back-end administrative functions, according to Wen-Wen Lam, marketing manager for LinkedIn. Rather than have someone approve each user, now the alumni association can provide a link to alumni; if individuals register through the link, they are automatically confirmed as group members.
To boost membership, LinkedIn and the alumni association partnered to send a joint marketing e-mail to LinkedIn members who were Caltech grads but had not joined the group. Within a week, the strategy swelled the ranks of the group from 630 members to 1,000 (more than 5 percent of the alumni association's addressable base). The open rate for the marketing e-mail was 49 percent, with an estimated conversion rate of 81 percent.
Today, the Caltech Alumni LinkedIn group has approximately 1,300 members out of 20,000 total institutional alumni. The alumni association has found Caltech graduates who were on LinkedIn but, for whatever reason, did not have an e-mail address registered with the association.
"The value to alumni is creating a way to bridge the gap between that private, internal, authentic alumni community and all of the external connections that many alumni have based on career, etc.," says Shaindlin. "If you stick with the old model-this is a private club and no one else is allowed to interact with my people-you miss the opportunity that you get with LinkedIn, where you get the best of both worlds."
Shaindlin hopes to organize alumni administrators from various colleges to work together with sites such as LinkedIn. Doing so, he notes, could help drive the content and format of networking sites while giving higher ed a strengthened presence.
Networking websites undoubtedly have their upsides, but they can also be volatile (some people feel the popularity of the sites echoes the first internet boom of the 1990s, when dot-coms became popular but did not show profits). A higher ed institution's site, on the other hand, can be a reliable and consistent source for alumni.
That tenet underlies a key strategy for Plymouth State, a school of 6,500 students that implemented its alumni web portal in February 2005. "You hear how quickly something goes from hot to not," says Joe Long, director of alumni relations. "So you really want to look at capturing those long-term avenues, not necessarily spending money keeping up with the hottest item. There's always going to be something newer and better coming up. We want to make sure that we are a constant for (alumni)."
Plymouth State's portal is an extension of the one used for the university's undergraduates, providing a seamless experience for students as they graduate and go out into the professional world. The portal, called myPlymouth, is built on the Luminis Platform and Banner administrative system from SunGard Higher Education. Since data from Banner is integrated into the portal, the university is able to keep track of an individual even as his or her status changes from student to alum.
A web portal for alumni can help streamline the crucial turning point between college and the working world.
The Plymouth State portal also changes with users' enrollment status; alumni see such things as "Alumni News" and have the ability to print out unofficial transcripts. Graduates receive lifetime e-mail accounts through the portal (and so far, 25,000 alumni have signed up).
Administrators hope to smooth the student-to-alumni transition even further by creating a portal for students in their senior year, to be rolled out in fall 2007. Users will be presented with such senior-specific content as tips about graduation, careers, and activities.
These strategies do not require deep pockets. Since Plymouth State already had an undergraduate portal in place, adding the alumni portal and the senior portal to myPlymouth only cost the university in-house personnel hours for development. Plymouth State's Alumni Relations office pushes use of the portal through an online magazine and an e-mail newsletter. After each mention, a 20 to 25 percent surge of activity on the portal is common, Long says.
The benefits of the portal are already clear. "It has increased our level of volunteers," notes Long. With the alumni portal in place, the number of online gifts has also increased fourfold since the university launched online giving in late 2004. The portal helps Plymouth State capture that crucial turning point between college and the working world. "This is our way of making sure that alumni think of themselves as alumni at 21," says Kenneth Kochien, director of management information systems and instructional technology. "They probably want to graduate and get on with their lives, and so this is our one chance beyond a post-graduation letter or e-mail to say, 'Think of yourselves as alumni. There are benefits for you to be engaged.' "
Alumni portals are not new. But rather than separate sites where alumni can go to update their listings in an online directory, alumni relations officers now seek more online services for their constituents and the ability to host it all within the institution's official .edu site, notes Karli Grant, a product manager at Datatel, which offers the ActiveAlumni solution.
While alumni may want to be engaged, they are also inundated by cell phone messages and e-mails from countless sources. Administrators should tread carefully in how, and how often, they use online tools to connect with graduates. Targeted e-mails-such as to members of the Class of 2000 who support athletic programs-help prevent e-mail inboxes from overflowing with news and donation requests.
RSS feeds, podcasts, and rich media presentations can also provide high-impact means of attracting attention in an overstimulated world. For example, the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles has used Sonic Foundry's Mediasite to offer online access to alumni-only events. The business school invited former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden to campus, then made his speech available to alumni via a rich media presentation on Mediasite.
RSS is another promising area. When alumni relations first went electronic, many schools put their class notes online. Now, says Waugh of Convio, many alumni want class notes supplied to them through webfeeds. "Ultimately," says Waugh, "they'll be able to go in and say 'I want you to push notes to me for this year, or this major for this year.'"
That's the type of user preference that administrators will want to follow into the future. Doing so may not be easy, but will pay back in strengthened alumni involvement and even giving levels. "You have to realize that it's very early days here," Waugh observes, "so everybody's trying to figure out how this works."
Look up the word "growth" in the dictionary, and you will be hard-pressed to find a much better definition than what's happened at Roger Williams University.
Since 2001, the school-which enrolls nearly 5,000 students in 36 majors and five professional schools-has seen a 100 percent increase in applications, a 50 percent increase in enrollment, a 50 percent improvement in the graduation rate, and $58 million in new endowment funds.
All without steroids.
RWU, which hugs a stretch of water along Rhode Island's squiggly coastline, was created as a junior college in 1956. While it started out using space in various public buildings in Providence, it moved to Bristol in the 1960s as Roger Williams College, a four-year institution, and then became a full-fledged university in 1992. The university developed several programs with respectable reputations, including those in architecture, business, law, construction management, and marine science.
Yet it grappled with a perception problem. People didn't know of the school, and if they did they didn't always think much of it. In the late 1990s, the university showed an applicant acceptance rate of more than 90 percent. The graduation rate was 34 percent. Some folks referred to RWU as "Rich White Underachiever."
"I have watched Roger Williams over the years evolve from a community college with a very tenuous foothold on the educational community to become a full-fledged college, and then a university," says Chas. Freeman Jr., former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who now sits on RWU's Board of Overseers.
Freeman is one of many people who believe that under Roy Nirschel, the president of RWU since 2001, the university has been like a teenager growing into adulthood. Its strong points and potential have come into clearer focus. Its mission has become more fine-tuned and purposeful.
"What's happened under Nirschel is that this frankly third-rate educational establishment has moved very rapidly up the ranks," says Freeman, who also served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. "He's got a gift for innovation, for finding the niches that others have overlooked."
Call it a gift, a drive, or learned behavior-whatever the mechanics of Roy Nirschel's inner workings, this president is making things happen and moving up in the world of higher education. Many leaders can learn from his moves.
Nirschel crouched atop Mount Kilimanjaro, face raw from the wind and cold, mouth covered by material protecting skin from frigid air. He had climbed workplace ladders and faced challenges before, but this was among his most hard-won triumphs.
He posed for a picture adjacent to a sign etched with yellow lettering marking the top of the African continent. As the camera snapped, Nirschel held "Little Roger," a small cutout of the mascot of Roger Williams University. The moment embodied what Nirschel wanted for RWU, its faculty, its staff, and its students: to reach new heights with a wide view of the world.
The Kilimanjaro crest was just 11 months ago and Nirschel has now been president of Roger Williams for nearly six years. (As for Little Roger, he's made trips to such high-profile destinations as the White House since his Kilimanjaro climb.)
In his time at RWU, Nirschel has managed to change the essence of the school, the way it is perceived by others, and its outlook on the world. He has overseen so many initiatives that the university seems just back from a much-needed vacation-focused, energized, invigorated.
A number of qualities make Nirschel an up-and-comer in higher education. Here are insights into just a few.
Nirschel has a way with people. Just follow him around campus and this quality surfaces quickly. Students sometimes look bewildered when they receive a smile and a "hello" from the president (it's like he knows them or something).
Nirschel credits this trait in part to having grown up in a working class family-Dad was a firefighter, Mom was a homemaker-in Stamford, Conn. He feels comfortable around all kinds of individuals and appreciates the value of their work.
Nirschel also has a strong internal compass. Unlike some leaders who boast the same trait but can't seem to deal with discord, he believes in collaboration. When he first joined RWU, he launched a strategic planning process and formed committees to examine seven key areas of concern on campus. The committees included more than 125 individuals and were purposefully cross-pollinated, so as to remove members from their comfort zones. Someone from Admissions, for example, was assigned to look at graduation rates.
"It took many people here a little bit by surprise," says Anthony Hollingsworth, chair of the department of Foreign Languages and an associate professor of classical and Germanic languages. "He came in here bringing with him almost a business plan or a corporate feel, and he really compelled faculty to start working more with staff and administration." Hollingsworth adds, "There had definitely been a desire to break down silos, and I think that was happening, but he put a lot of impetus into it and at the same time expected results."
While still a newbie on the job, Nirschel navigated his way through what could have been a horrendous process: negotiating a contract with the university's faculty union.
"Roy's presidency began right in the middle of some very contentious faculty contract negotiations. To make matters worse, the outgoing administration had suspended faculty pay," says Kathy Micken, associate professor of Marketing at RWU. "A new president could have made himself scarce, choosing to be ensconced in the office surrounded by other administrators. Instead, Roy made a point of walking around campus, including the campus center where he was sure to encounter both faculty and students-and was sure to hear what faculty were thinking. If he did not hear, he made it a point to ask."
Nirschel helped shepherd a new faculty contract to approval by a 4-to-1 margin. While it had some controversial aspects, the contract also cleared the way for faculty gains. "It is a contract that expects results," says Hollingsworth. "It rewards people for doing good work and for publishing, and it sends a very clear message that we want our faculty to be not only pedagogically active but also in scholarship. ... If people do good research and good teaching, they can receive merit. We see that there is more pay in it, and there is more pay when people get promoted."
The relationship between faculty members and Nirschel is still strengthening. "His 'management by walking around' style continues," says Micken. "He has judiciously joined in faculty e-mail discussions, issues presidential missives on hot topics, and seeks the advice and counsel of faculty both formally and informally. As one faculty colleague e-mailed to the rest of us recently, when a topic of importance needs a good hearing, 'coffee with President Nirschel is a very attractive alternative. And the coffee in the Administration Building is very good.' "
Roger Williams University boasts myriad indicators of transformation under Nirschel. Its endowment hovers around $95 million (compared to $37 million five years ago) and the school is running an approximately $10 million surplus. The business school recently received accreditation from the International Association for Management Education (AACSB), putting it in an elite group.
Yet the university's clarification of core values and mission may well be the school's greatest recent advance. This is a process that Nirschel believes in deeply. Namely, the university's institutional values are: a love of learning as an intrinsic value; preparation for a career and future study; development of undergraduate research opportunities; service to the community; adoption of a global perspective; and nurturing of a caring and respectful community.
Nirschel ensures that decisions made on campus, whether about budgets, programs, or faculty projects, relate directly to the above values. "You set the values, you define the mission," says Nirschel. "Those values may mean something different in the business school or the law school, but if you talk to the deans and say 'love of learning, research, service, global perspective, respectful and caring environment'-those are the core values-you buy into it and how it is operationalized in your school."
Funding ties into how those values are articulated, he adds. "I say to people all the time, a lack of resources is not the biggest problem. A lack of a mission-driven, well-defined plan is the problem. You give me a terrific plan that ties into our core values, that adds value to students' experience, we'll give you the money. If you give me an idea that doesn't really resonate with the mission of the university, the odds of getting funding are in the zero to zero category."
A fall 2002 survey of faculty and staff, which asked what people outside of RWU said to them about the institution, indicated that RWU wasn't even on many folks' radar screens. "If it was, high-profile programs such as architecture or marine biology were all people knew about, except for perhaps the beautiful waterfront campus," says Micken, who was involved with the survey.
"If we asked the same question today," she says, "my guess is that the responses would be much different."
That's largely because Nirschel believes in making one's strengths known. One of the president's most notable accomplishments has been engineering a shift in public perception of Roger Williams.
When Nirschel first joined RWU's administration, he involved campus and community constituencies in creating a branding campaign, complete with a slogan, "Learning to Bridge the World." The university purchased billboard space for ads, not necessarily in Rhode Island but beyond. In the campaign's second year, a freshman approached Nirschel on campus. The new student remarked on the university's visibility, noting that he had seen a billboard down in Florida. "The one near Orlando, near Sea World?" Nirschel asked. "Yeah, great billboard," the student said.
"If you give me an idea that doesn't really resonate with the mission of the university, the odds of getting funding are in the zero to zero category."
But there wasn't a billboard in Florida. "People were saying they saw us in places where we weren't," Nirschel says. "Some people say billboards are tacky, advertising's tacky. I don't agree. We don't do billboards now, but people saw us everywhere. People would see a billboard in Westchester County (N.Y.), and a week later they would open U.S. News & World Report and think we were everywhere."
An ad campaign and public relations push mean little, however, without good stories to tell. Since taking on his role, Nirschel has set about helping RWU build its brag book.
This past spring alone, the university gathered a thick stack of news clips. RWU broke ground on a new marine science center, the Luther Blount Shellfish Hatchery and Oyster Restoration Center. First Lady Laura Bush spoke at graduation. And three young women who had witnessed horrors growing up in Afghanistan graduated from Roger Williams, thanks to the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a scholarship program founded by Paula Nirschel, the president's wife. (The initiative provides Afghan women with four-year scholarships to RWU and other U.S. colleges and universities, bringing the students together at events and supporting them as they return to their home country to create lasting change.)
"We've got great projects going on," says President Nirschel, "and we're telling people the story."
International relations and a global perspective lie high on Nirschel's list of priorities. His work is "projecting us far beyond the campus and region, so that we'll improve qualitatively by being connected both locally and globally, which matches the 'Learning to Bridge the World' identity that he's created," says Stephen White, dean of RWU's School of Architecture, Art, and Historic Preservation.
Exhibit A of that global mindset: The Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy, created in 2003. Working with Nirschel, White and RWU Overseer and MIT Professor Frank Davidson (who helped develop the English Channel Tunnel) created the center to produce broad proposals to meet challenges around the world.
Rather than just ponder issues like a think tank, the center acts as a "do tank," as Nirschel likes to say. It teams researchers, policy experts, and academics from various disciplines to create real proposals. For example, the center has overseen development of a strategy for the infrastructure of an independent Palestinian state. High-ranking United Nations officials, engineers, architects, and international relations experts, among others, have joined in planning Palestinian ports, an offshore island, and linkages between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The center has secured $250,000 for feasibility studies.
"The president has been centrally involved in that," says White. "We work out the agenda for the work together. He really sees it as one of the key elements of the globalization of the university."
Study abroad and admissions of international students have also blossomed under Nirschel's guidance. In 2005, 39 percent of juniors at RWU participated in study-abroad programs. Five years ago, students had five sites to choose from. Now there are 39, including RWU campuses in Florence and Ho Chi Minh City. The newest destinations include Jordan, India, Costa Rica, South Africa, Germany, and Argentina.
In April, sophomores with 3.0 GPAs or higher got invited to hear Wolfgang Vorwerk, the consul general of Germany in Boston, speak; had their passport pictures taken free of charge; and completed passport forms. Eighteen-year-old Hilary Wehner had never had her own passport until that day. "I feel like he's trying to get us to be more international," she says of Nirschel. Indeed, the event was his idea.
In 2004, the Roger Williams University College Republicans attempted to make a point about race-based preferences by advertising a "Whites Only" scholarship. The move, while intended somewhat as a joke, brought tensions to the surface. Nirschel issued a statement on the university's commitment to diversity and to free, but civil, speech. "He did more than admonish the students," says Micken. "He used the incident to initiate a program of 'civil discourse.' "
Through the initiative, a variety of speakers have been brought to RWU's campus, from Salman Rushdie to Professor David Wilkins of Harvard Law School to the civil rights attorney Morris Dees. A new journal, Reason & Respect: A Journal of Civil Discourse, has been established as well. "This initiative really compels people to think and to speak with some reason and some respect, so that their arguments are made in a kind of manner that does not make people uncomfortable, and that we create an environment on campus that allows people to think and speak in a variety of ways," says Robert Engvall, an associate professor of Justice Studies who co-edits Reason & Respect.
"It is a vindication of the name of the school," notes Freeman, adding that Roger Williams stood for tolerance of differences and civil discourse.
Freeman actually first met Nirschel when he was asked to speak on campus about the invasion of Iraq. Freeman believed the U.S. government was taking the country into an ambush in Iraq, yet he spoke to a largely Republican RWU student body. "[Nirschel] always seems to recognize the need to cause people to reflect about their own beliefs," Freeman says. "I think that is the mark of a great educator."