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Q&A With Alumni Leaders

At the end of the Exceptional by Example campaign, UMBC Magazine sat down with four prominent alumni, including past (Anita Maddox Jackson '80) and present (Bennett Moe '88) presidents of the UMBC Alumni Board, a long-term donor (Emmerson Small '74), and UMBC's vice president of Institutional Advancement (Greg Simmons '04), to talk about its success and the future.

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UMBC Magazine:
What does it mean for a university of our age and size to have exceeded our campaign goal (of raising $100 million) so handily? And what are the implications, campus wide?

Greg Simmons: It’s hard to understate how important it is for a university our size and our age to cross the hundred million dollar threshold, especially considering this is our second ever campaign. What it really means, I think, is that we have an extraordinary community of people who really believe deeply and have confidence in the work that we’re trying to do, being a research university that cares deeply about undergraduate education. And when I say community, I mean everything from outstanding students who are coming to the place and putting 100% of their efforts into it, I mean faculty and staff who are working hard every day to make sure that students are put into a position to be successful, and extraordinary individuals, corporations and friends, and – most importantly our alumni – who are understanding the language that we’re using, who are excited about the programs we are putting into place, and seeing the  impact and quality of work of the students and faculty, and they’re investing in that so we can continue to be seen as a university that’s really leading the nation in terms of innovation, whether that’s innovation in the classroom, innovation in the lab, or innovation in economic development.

I think the implications are, in many ways it’s a validation that the things and the values we’ve been talking about for the last forty five years are things that make sense to people, and they’re…telling us to continue the work that we’re doing, and, quite frankly, that they want to be a part of it, that they want to help to make sure students have the resources they need to study appropriately, they want to make sure that faculty have good equipment and they have the opportunity to follow the research that they believe in. They understand the idea of a true liberal arts experience to make sure people can be good neighbors, be good employees, be good leaders. And so it’s super exciting, especially for a place in the midst of a rich and wonderful territory with colleges and universities all over the place, for us to have this kind of success this early in our career, it’s really exciting.

UMBC Magazine: 
And it’s great to see so many examples of it all as you walk throughout campus. I’m going to ask our guest alumni to think about this: When you think of the words “Exceptional by Example,” what comes to mind?

Anita Jackson:  I love the phrase; I don’t know who coined it, but it shows that we are ahead of the curve, that when you look at our competitors…we’re setting the example, we’re setting the stage, we’re setting the bar to achieve in excellence. And, that’s what it means to me in every way, whether it’s fundraising, whether it’s the quality of our students and what they’re doing after they leave UMBC. It’s our honors status, it just means to me setting the bar.

Bennett Moe: To me, it’s very similar to what Anita said, it applies so broadly. It’s a fantastic program slogan because it not only speaks to the excellence of the students that we have and we’re trying to attract, but it also speaks to the excellence of the staff and the direction the university is going, and it also speaks to alumni in that we have so many alumni who are out there doing fantastic things and are willing to give back to the university. So for me, it’s covering all the different constituencies within the university.

Emmerson Small:  When I looked at this question, I immediately thought of the students and successful graduates, and that’s what it means to me. I thought less of the physical plan, and more of the students who are currently there and those who preceded them and who are yet to come because that is UMBC the way I see it. Fabulous staff, fabulous research, fabulous leadership…but, I look at the people who have gone through UMBC and read some of the bios in some of the articles that are published and to me, that is UMBC. It’s the students. It’s way back when when there were only three buildings. It was very strange to actually see an institution from birth, which is where I was. Now there was a class, what was it Greg? 66 is when it started, right? So, I arrived on campus in August of 1970, so the first class was graduating, but there wasn’t much there but mud, and to watch what’s happened is absolutely phenomenal. And I see UMBC as the culmination of the students currently, the alums and the future students.

UMBC Magazine:  Speaking of the future, what do you think about alumni involvement? You are all involved in your own ways. Why do you think that is so important?

Bennett Moe:  You know, alumni involvement for the university, I think, is critical. There are so many ways that alumni affect the university, and the students that are coming through can benefit so greatly from that involvement. The campaign was a financial campaign, but there are so many other components that go into a campaign like this that keep alumni engaged with the university so…they are able to see what the university is doing, the opportunities they are affording students and the opportunities that we have for alumni to be engaged with students and share with them their experience, and share with them the excellence that they built in their post-grad life, and be able to give back in that way. So there’s a lot of very critical connections between alumni and students and staff, and being able to engage alumni in the university is going to make the experiences of the students that much more rich.

Anita Jackson:  I definitely agree with Bennett. Alumni involvement is critical, and I see alumni involvement as a measure of success for the university. If an individual can get an undergraduate degree or an advanced degree from UMBC, go out into their career, you know, conquer the world, and then remember that, you know, I am where I am today because of the foundation that UMBC gave me that is an excellent measure of success. And it’s one that the university should strive for. As we go into the future, you want to be able to say that your school, your alma mater, is still reaching the heights of success, from an academic standpoint, from the quality of students that are matriculating from this school, and so to me it’s the ultimate gift back and the ultimate realization that, you know, you are where you are in your success because of the university.

Emmerson Small:  Without question, alumni involvement is critical. I just made a little note when I was reading these questions and I thought to myself, you know it’s do or die. And by that I mean, with the involvement with the University System of Maryland Foundation board I’ve seen alumni representatives from other campuses. You begin to see the involvement that they have. And I think UMBC has that as well, but as Anita mentioned: remember, remember UMBC. That’s the network that can be created. If there was a way to expand the network…I heard a young man here not knowing, before I interviewed him and read his resume, where he had gone to school…and he was a UMBC grad. He was on a golf scholarship and he rowed crew. And there was immediate connection. We started talking. And I see that throughout other campuses, and through other universities, about that network and how powerful that is. So I think that, creating that kind of network going forward is just absolutely huge.

Bennett Moe: As the university is maturing we’re making that transition from what had been largely a commuter campus to largely a residential campus, and so the greatest bulk of our alumni graduated in the last ten years. We’ve created that foundation of excellence with those students who have graduated in past years, and now we’re able to connect and build those networks through those folks with the current students, building in them the mindset that that’s how to give back to the university, that’s how to make connections in the post-grad world, that’s how to connect back to other students to bring them up as well.

Greg Simmons:  Emmerson and Bennett and Anita have all said this in a far more elegant way than I could. But, at the end of the day Emmerson is right: a university is more than just a bunch of buildings. It really is people, experimenting, learning, trying to find their way to what they want to do with the rest of their lives. And what to me is so exciting is because we’re such a young place, our alums have the opportunity to work with us to really shape what alumni interaction with the campus can and should be going into the next generation of university relations with people. They have the opportunity to say this is what we expect and this is what we want to do and this is how we want to help students…and at the end of the day, that’s really…we’ve heard that again and again from not just alums but everyone who’s contributed to the campaign, that it’s really about helping the students and there’s nothing more important than that one connection. When we think back to our own college experiences, we think about specific individuals, either a specific faculty person or somebody in our fraternity or sorority or an advisor, and it’s those people that made our college experiences unique. The great opportunity that we have is really helping to remind people to think about who that one person was that really made a difference to them in their college experience and then pay that forward. Help make sure that we’re putting today’s students and giving them that same opportunity that many of us had to be successful going forward.

UMBC Magazine:  Where do you folks see UMBC heading? Coming out of a campaign that focused on providing scholarship opportunities, research dollars, pumping up our creativity and competitiveness, and really investing in talent…where do we go from here?

Bennett Moe:  From an alumni perspective, building on what Emmerson said, I think one of the things that we’re working on doing is building those networks and fostering that kind of alumni involvement, so looking out towards the fiftieth anniversary of the university, I think that by that time we’ll have some very entrenched networks of discipline (based) and affinity-based groups that are going to be able to network between alumni and students and businesses and create some really great opportunities for students coming out of the university.

UMBC Magazine:  What are our next steps, in terms of future campaigns?

Greg Simmons:  Right now, what we’ll be doing is taking a period of time to wrap up the campaign, to thank people, to help people understand the nature of the investments that have been made and how we’ve been able to steward that really effectively. What you’ll then see is kind of a broad, multi-year conversation that really does start thinking about the fiftieth anniversary. How do we start to make sure that current students, faculty and retired faculty, and alumni, the people who are really central to the success of the campus going forward, really have the chance to participate in a dialogue that says what do we want the fiftieth anniversary to look like? And how to we want to chart a course for the next fifty years? So, I think we will see, as Bennett said, a broad, rich dialogue that is building alumni community across the country. The last three months I’ve been with groups of alums in San Francisco and Chicago and Boston, and, of course, the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area and there’s a lot of excitement about things. How can we connect? How do we start to tell what our experience was and how do we start to shape what the campus is going to be going forward? So there’ll be a lot of that kind of dialogue, and I think you’ll see from the campus under Dr. Hrabowski’s leadership, under the leadership of interim provost (Phillip) Rous, a conversation that starts to say: what do we want people to think about when they think of an innovative, public research university and how do we really want to continue to lead the way in setting an expectation for the kind of experience that we want students to have? How do we make sure that the loop – and this is a metaphor that we’ve been using for some time now, particularly as we think about the master plan activity and the fact that we have a research park with 85 companies – how do we want to make sure that the loop, which is a really important symbol of the campus, one of the things that people remember from as far back as the 70s to now, how do we make sure that that loop doesn’t become a barrier, but more of a permeable membrane that helps students come and go and alums come and go and companies and agencies interact with the campus in a way that really is a model for what people should expect from higher education across the country?