The University of Connecticut’s governing board voted unanimously Thursday to sever its relationship with the school’s 126-year old alumni association, saying membership dues the organization charges have led to low engagement with graduates.
“It’s a new day. The old model of alumni engagement at UConn just wasn’t working,” UConn President Susan Herbst said before the vote. “Clearly, a new approach is needed. It’s one that sheds the old dues-paying model.”
The trustees’ vote puts the job of handling alumni relations under the UConn Foundation, the school’s fundraising arm.
But records show the UConn Alumni Association’s board had agreed in December to stop charging membership dues and was planning to have members vote on eliminating them.
Before the ballots went out, however, Herbst informed the organization that the university would be ending its relationship with the association regardless. The separation means the association can no longer use the school’s name, logo, alumni names and contact information and will no longer receive about $500,000 a year from the university.
“The board agreed to making it a non-dues paying model,” said Carl Ey, a board member of the association. “If anyone is pointing to that, they are using that as an excuse.
“This is a very aggressive takeover by the university…I am personally offended,” Ey said.
Asked about the association’s movement toward eliminating dues, Montique Cotton Kelly, UConn’s assistant vice president for alumni relations, told reporters Wednesday, “There wasn’t definite movement.” Cotton Kelly also serves as the alumni association’s executive director.
The association’s governing board voted on Dec. 3 to send their members a ballot on changing bylaws to eliminate dues, and a 2014 memorandum of understanding between UConn and the association references a plan to eliminate the dues-based model.
UConn officials informed the board Wednesday that the alumni group “requested the University promise to increase its direct financial support to offset the loss of membership dues.”
Those membership dues raise about $500,000 each year, though Cotton Kelley said it costs the association about $300,000 each year for staff to compile and mail notices to collect those dues.
Dr. William Sherman — a lifetime association member, past president of the organization’s Hartford chapter and a major donor to UConn — is puzzled by the separation.
“I’ve never heard of a university cutting ties with their alumni association. My perception is it’s a sad day for the alumni,” said the 1958 graduate who helped pay for the school’s track and field sports complex. “It has the potential of leaving a bad taste in the mouth of alumni…We are being absorbed into the foundation, which sounds like it is going to dilute the assocation quite a bit. We aren’t going to rule ourselves.”
Three members of the association’s governing board, two of whom declined to speak on the record, said in interviews that they opposed the change and believe UConn’s decision to sever ties was both financial and an attempt to increase the university’s control.
The alumni association’s tax filings show the alumni group spent $2.7 million, earned $200,000 from its investments and had $9.2 million in assets in 2012, the most recent year available. Those assets include the Alumni House on campus.
But Herbst said Wednesday the move was not financial and was done to get more participation among graduates. Of the 230,000 UConn alumni, there were 14,050 dues-paying members in June 2014 — too few engaged alumni, Herbst said.
But Mark Moyle, a non-dues paying alumni, said the $50 annual dues is not a fair measure of engagement.
“I am engaged, even though I am not a dues-paying member. The two are not equivalent,” he said.
Cotton Kelly was unable to say how many alumni actually participate in events hosted by the association, such as social gatherings and reunions.
University leaders said the move is also meant to end any confusion because multiple groups are reaching out to graduates.
“I am confident that we will improve our communications with our alumni as we move forward,” said Larry McHugh, the chairman of UConn Board of Trustees.
“In order to thrive and be successful, universities, of course, need strong support from active alumni bases across their state, the nation and even the world,” said Herbst. “UConn needs a big, welcoming, all-inclusive tent to house our ever-growing alumni base, and that is what this is really about. It’s not about getting a financial gift from everyone, from all 220,000, even though that would be great.”
Existing lifetime members of the association — about 4,000 people — will continue receiving the added benefits that have been given to dues-paying members, officials said. Those benefits include reduced ticket prices to selected sporting events and 10 percent off UConn gear at the UConn Co-op.
It has not yet been determined if the UConn Foundation will continue providing those discounts now that no alumni will be paying membership dues.
The Alumni Association has not yet voted on whether to dissolve or what to do with its assets. The dues-paying members will need to vote on how to move forward.
“The 11,000 strong of the alumni association may not vote for” dissolution, said Ey, who lives in Washington, D.C. “From what I am hearing here, a lot of people are going to vote against it.”