Illumination by Modern Campus

Reynold Verret (Xavier University of Louisiana) on Meaningful Engagement with Alumni in Higher Ed

June 22, 2023 Modern Campus
Illumination by Modern Campus
Reynold Verret (Xavier University of Louisiana) on Meaningful Engagement with Alumni in Higher Ed
Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Reynold Verret to discuss the importance of your alumni and how to create an ecosystem that embraces a meaningful engagement with them. 

Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Reynold Verret, who is President of Xavier University of Louisiana. Reynold and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the importance of your alumni and how to create an ecosystem that embraces a meaningful engagement with them. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02):Reynold, welcome to the evolution, or my goodness, Reynold, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you.

Reynold Verret (00:09):Happy to be with you.

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:10):So let's start off talking a little bit about alumni engagement. This is obviously a critical topic for every institution, but for, you know, not for profits and for smaller institutions, it becomes especially critical. What does meaningful alumni engagement look like?

Reynold Verret (00:25):Well, meaningful alumni engagement means participating in the mission even after ones left the campus once graduated and has gone into an their subsequent life. And for us, it's actually committing to the culture of service, which comes from, from, from our charism and our mission. The same so that they are engaging, serving the current students just as they themselves were served when they were young women and men on campus. And that social of engagement, not only in the career work network for our students, but also involving, you know, clearly financial support for students. We, our alumni are very much engaged in the recruitment process. So they're scattered lot, many, many in, in the, in, in the Midwest, upper Midwest, many in the out west, many in the Northeast as well. And our alumni are very much engaged in the recruitment process and also in the sendoff for our students.

(01:21):So they are a resource even for our parents. And even the, the counseling that parents, especially when our first, our first generation parents who may have very little insight from their experience of how to support a young woman or man in college. The alumni are resourced because they become friends and, and extended family in a, in, in a, in a very long standing way. So that engagement is actually to be part of the mission. And I think they are, even though they are not enough faculty, they are not internal tos governance in a, in, in, in a significant way. But they clearly are sustainers of the legacy and mission in the, in the way they understand it. And they in some ways counsel us in, in, in whether we are getting it right.

Amrit Ahluwalia (02:06):You know, it's, it's a fascinating topic cause I think for so many institutions, when they think about alumni engagement or the alumni community, it tends to boil down to the idea of future donors. And that's kind of where the relationship ends. You know, we think about alumni in terms of homecoming, we think about alumni in terms of football tickets, but we might not think about alumni as being active members of the community or active learners in sort of an open loop learning model upon graduation. We, we very much kind of bracket them into these very specific silos. Why does Xavier, university of Louisiana have such a different culture when it comes to the relationship that it develops and maintains with its alumni?

Reynold Verret (02:52):Well, I for a number of reason, but I'll begin with this one, that in many ways our charism, if we look at our mission, which has contributed to the more Justin make society, it's very much a notion that I translated it. It's, it's about the meaning of what you are doing, what you learned at Xavier, whether as a biologist, chemist, teacher that you go to law school or medical school or, or whatever, that none of that will have any meaning until you are put into the service of someone else. So it's very other centered that other centeredness that they, that that begins really on campus in in how students interact. And that's a self-sustaining culture that, that, that transforms students in, in a significant way. I think that's the key piece. So the alumni in some ways have asking themselves, consciously or unconsciously, am I of served? Am I being of service not only to Z, not only to anyone else, not only to my, to my family, but to the larger world as well. So that comes out of the culture of, and it is, it is part of our legacy as being in h bbc, which means descended from the legacy of the formerly enslaved and also being Catholic in our, in our faith tradition also is other centered. It's not about the individual.

Amrit Ahluwalia (04:08):Absolutely. So when it comes to building an environment that engages alumni and frankly engages the community in which the university sits, what are some of the challenges that a, that a higher ed institution can face when trying to build these, these relationships and these ties?

Reynold Verret (04:26):Well, I think the, the, the largest challenges that alumni are heterogeneous group you have thousands of alumni and you have hundreds of different perspectives on any given issue. So the assumption, I think the assumption of that, that, that there as an alumni perspective, right, is actually as an American perspective,

Amrit Ahluwalia (04:46):<Laugh>, right?

Reynold Verret (04:48):That's actually the large, that diversity of views also within the alumni, there's a generation, there are generational spans. For example, we have at least three generations, if we look at, at least we think generations in 25 year increments, right? We have at least three generations of alumni. Some come before the civil rights movement of the sixties, some who are in the middle of the days of rage, the Vietnam War, the and others who are really coming out of the nineties, even if I'm thinking about, of our recent and posts very different experiences of the world and very different views of what America is and, and, and what America will be even. So that to understand that diversity and to actually bridge that and, and, and actually see the commonalities, acknowledges the difference of, of life experience mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, that that's a child that every university has to deal with. And I might put up one other piece that actually I think of myself as an alums of, of, of institutions that in many ways my view of the institutions where I was, where I grew up, where I came to be, where I cut my teeth, wipes, made my mistakes. It's very conservative. It's actually a view of the institution when I was in school. So I look at the place, they've changed it, <laugh>,

Amrit Ahluwalia (06:03): This isn't where I went, <laugh>,

Reynold Verret (06:06): This isn't right why are these students doing this? That's we would've, and that, that, I think that dissonance plays that in the alumni across the generations and, and, and even as the alumnis, as a cohort, because we have that dissonance that's part of being an alum lady institution.

Amrit Ahluwalia (06:25):So, you know what, that's, it's a really interesting point. I, I wanna follow up on this momentarily because it, that's, I'll be totally honest with you. I went, I went to a very traditional institution and I'm based in Canada. So I went to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. And it's an institution, sort of well known for its alumni traditions. It's well known for its the culture, but culture changes. And, you know, the, the alumni from the seventies and eighties when they'd come to campus and see the stuff we were doing didn't make sense. And now when I go back, there's things that the students there are doing that don't align with my view of what that culture should be. How does the institution engage with its alumni to help them understand the way the culture of the institution is evolving? When the role of the alumni, to a certain extent is to be the, the guardians of institutional culture? To a certain extent they are the guardians of the identity of the institution.

Reynold Verret (07:18):It's, I, I they can do both. What we, I think where it begins is that a number of alumni are engaging with, with the students of today, many of us are parents. So we, we, we, we, we, we, we, we, we are living the dissonance. That, but they're engaged with student that, and actually they do see the difference. And, and, and there are conversations between younger students and, and I think it's cycling one of the great generative experience to actually be engaging within the generations where both are teaching each other. That's important. And I think there, there is respect and sometimes there's the amazement of, of the older generation at the genius that is seeing these young and men. So, so you, you have that, the other part is to communicate very intensely, very intentionally and explain why we are doing certain things.

(08:04):For example, if you think about in the last in the last 20 years, oh, I see 30 years even the, how the issues of race and identity have played out different are playing out differently, and the young people are moving in places that the generation of the sixties and seventies is, is understanding, but not, it's not their experience. I'm calling, I quote a, an an older colleague from who was it LA who once referred to, he was referring to race and equity and justice about 17 years ago on college campuses. And he was saying that I have to quote proverb an Arab proverb, which says, the caravan has moved on, but the dogs keep barking. And I use that to explain to you exactly. Because if you think about it, we in this room, were having a conversation about and equity mm-hmm. From my perspective. But the other people on campus have moved on. They're doing, they have other questions, they're not your questions. Right? And, and he nailed this was, this is almost like, oh, this, this is one 2000. And he says, just around on campus who's dating who, when that could happen in your generation.

(09:15):That's, in other words, they've moved on. Their perspective is quite different. They also are hunger. They also hunger to learn from us because that context of where this comes from is important to them as well. So there is a great honor and respect for the generation at the same types. I think it's a natural part of being human that, that we experienced that I'll, I'll quote one other piece I remember from the Harvard Lampoon on 1970s, 1980s, where the motto was to find the limits of good taste and go one step beyond every think about it, right? <Laugh> grow my hair, I'm gonna put a, I'm gonna put a nose ring, <laugh> of good taste for one step. That's almost what every generation has done.

Amrit Ahluwalia (10:09):That's, i I I feel it's important that you know that that's gonna stay with me for a really long time. I'm gonna be cooking on that idea for a while. You know, let me ask you something cuz there's, we know that the post-secondary institution can be a relatively siloed place. Departments tend to, to exist in, in isolation from one another. It can be challenges challenging to create alignment. But through the course of this conversation, we've touched on a number of different parts of the institutional ecosystem that drive to create not just a strong campus culture, but a strong campus community that involves its alumnis that creates a learning environment that that's designed not just for the learners that are there today, but the learners that were there before. And those that'll come later. There's a number of different offices that play a role here. There's obviously alumni engagement and development. They have a critical role to play. But there's also the, the academic offices, there's the school of continuing education, there's student affairs and, and student life. How do you start to create interconnectivity between those different offices to, to help, to create intentionality around how the institution delivers this culture where, you know, otherwise it might be the result of numerous individual interactions, but maybe not something coordinated.

Reynold Verret (11:28):Well, I think in, in, in, in, in one dimension, it requires that even at the, at the leadership position, even what I would call the cabinet, that the members there recognize that they interconnectedness, but also that they rely, they depend on each other to, to actually address large issues.

(11:48):The important issues are not the issues of any one office. But then if you think about a student who's struggling with persistence in college, right? There is clear an academic dimension that maybe the dean and the academic affairs people do, but basically there's a student affairs student life component as well. The there other, then it's, it's that partnership that actually can connect, can resolve the needs of that student. And so the, the acknowledgement that basically no decision that I make as provost, as VP facilities is independent of cannot be questioned or doesn't have perspective from student affairs, housing and all the other, and all the other parts of university.

Amrit Ahluwalia (12:26):Yeah.

Reynold Verret (12:27):So that, that those council have to be very fluid. Now the other part is that as we do the major piece that are truly integrate, that integrate many parts, for example, what we do, for example, when we're welcoming alumni in homecoming it truly brings in many pieces of the university. But also if we talk about how the alumni associations and the, and the chapters are engaged in recruitment, that clearly it's, it's a, it's an, it's an enrollment issue, right? And, and how we keep these young people on campus find funding them as as well. But also the conversations about with, with, with, with all the other, all the other dimensions of caps are engaged in the alumni chapters as well. So the fact that they all have, from their perspective, some engagement with the, with the alumni in some ways brings them together. I think that integration for all universities tend to, all organizations tend to like very neat compartments. But I think at the same time, our battle is to actually break those silos because don't succeed in the silos. Because, for example, if someone tries to make a decision and the schedule says someone else has something else important, if we haven't talked, we have a problem, a bad problem, <laugh>.

Amrit Ahluwalia (13:38):Yeah.

Reynold Verret (13:39):And, and that's, that's, that's one of the simple, simpler examples. So clearly the integration and moving beyond the silos to say that basically my authority is not, is not, is, is not ultimate within my sector because everyone within their leadership and with every division has some right and duty to trespass into your territory <laugh>, because that's the collaboration that's, that's the important collect.

Amrit Ahluwalia (14:03):Absolutely. So, I mean, let's tackle the, the question of low-hanging fruit. You know, as you think about not necessarily your own campus, but the, the standard campus, what are some low-hanging fruit that senior leadership can, can start with to begin strengthening the, the institutional relationship with its alumni community and, and its community in general? Its service area.

Reynold Verret (14:26):I think the, the first piece is, is more fluid communication, more fluid communication. I think it's also including options for involving the alumni into the, not necessarily the, when I say the academic life, the intellectual life, the campus, not necessarily the cor the courses, because alumni have lives and complicated lives, but there are many that occur on campus that are having deep discussions, speakers, things like that. Now we have facilities who actually put these things on, on disseminated media, on Zoom and things like that to welcome the alumni into those important conversations because universities will have a role, especially now fractured society. Universities have a role to play the new, to be the, to be the neutral ground, to use a, a very new analogy to be the place where those conversations and to engage the alumni. And part of that is less generations and engaging the generations and the students in these conversations.

(15:24):And we're modeling how that can be done very well. Respectfully, the alumni are important part of that because it cannot just be just the student community. It it's also in those conversations exactly. Asking a hard question of why certain groups are dis un are unsettled with something other groups are not, for example, takes the the complexity of transgender athletes, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, it's very tough, right? We need to listen to each other. At the same time we feel that we have a response to take care of people. <Laugh>. Yeah. And that, and, and, and, and, and that those things are not diametrically opposed. They seem to be in, in a polarized setting, right? So those doc difficult thing, we need the alumni in, in the conversation. I think the, they, their presence is part of the learning is a learning experience for, for the younger students.

(16:14):And I think, and vice versa, the other part, the other, the, the other work I think alumni have for us, an important way of representing us where we cannot be. We are not, we can't be 56 president at the same time. And they represent us in significant ways, even as we do a capital campaign for us, a significant effort for us, the alumni become should and, and, and, and they welcome it, but we need to recognize how they can be examples of our, of our, of our success and represent us in ways the alumni for our students, our incoming students, and our current students are an example of what's possible for them as well. For example, one of the pieces that we do, Xavier, I think, and I re is that in our creative development efforts, right? We have, we have a program where alumni and some non alumni friends come to Xavier for many careers, right?

(17:06):And spend a week visiting classes and to show, and where as soon as I explain these unusual career pathways, for example, the chemist becomes a C analyst, okay? Or the historian who's now, who's now a psychiatrist to show that how peoples find their way through their pathways. That it's also helping students understand that the disciplines that they are engaged in are not narrowing their, their options, but actually opening 'em into a wide range of options. That's sort of halala and I having practical work in the educational work, especially in, in, in, in, in the co-curricular work of the university. Yes, we engaged them.

Amrit Ahluwalia (17:46):Let's talk a little bit more about the idea of co-curriculum and the idea of, of student engagement in general, because I think we're starting to get to a secondary role that the institution plays. It's not necessarily just in conferring degrees and registering students into degree programs and ensuring that the academic machination works. It's about creating a holistic learning environment. One that's designed around learner success, one that recognizes the humanity of the individuals it serves. How do you create a robust co-curriculum within a post-secondary organization? And from the perspective of relationship development with learners, how valuable is that environment to creating a robust alumni community as opposed to more of a transactional environment where students, you know, come in, pay their money, get their degree, leave?

Reynold Verret (18:37):Well for us, and, and I'm speaking Xavier, Louisiana the service mission of our students, the fact that we probably have 30 plus thousand hours of student hours per year of service for a school of less 2000, 3000 students. Oh, that sense of purpose in why we are here and education. It's not just education for a job. It's not just educate for a good job, which some people now educate that way. It's educating with a sense of purpose and basically where will you be of service and understand that that may change throughout your life. That sense of purpose is, is part of the coco curriculum that the activities that students do, not only to serve each other, but which actually in, in doing that we serve, it also creates community and friendships and also all the good that's good for our, for us, our being psychic individuals, but the sense of exactly of being a service in general, whether internally or externally actually is a sense of purpose.

(19:37):That's clear. Part of the, now we men now the words are terms, for example, teaching leadership skills in doing that. One learn leadership one learns many other skills but part of that leadership to quote colleague Chris Loy who writes about Jesuits to the company of Jesus to American banking and things like that mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and look leadership quite differently from the way banking or American industry look at banking leading other people to make them follow my vision. So the leadership is also about learn le learning to lead oneself and knowing myself, <laugh>,

Amrit Ahluwalia (20:12):Right?

Reynold Verret (20:12):Here's one that growth is actually what happens in, in, in those leadership, those activities, whether it is about the student newspaper, the student play, or whether it's about the, the, the science students, the chemistry students who do tutoring in several high schools, in several high schools and, and do, and they do together, travel together, but also to engage. And they, and they are giving on themselves <laugh>. And that all that is leadership that actually develops a person to come to know oneself and to know who I am, why I am that's where the core curriculum actually really enriches students lives. You'll find the same thing if you go to some of our sister institutions and je we talk about the when we educate mind, body, and spirit, right? The the whole person that of education actually is funda is the fundamental education for all. And I think part of that also removes education from purely materialistic.

Amrit Ahluwalia (21:16):Yeah, no, absolutely. Re I mean, I, I tell you, I'm, I think I mentioned this to you. I'm, I'm absolutely gonna be cooking on this conversation for quite some time. There's some, I, I really, I so appreciate your time. Now, I will tell you, this is not just a podcast for people pa passionate about higher education. It's also a podcast that has a lot of people very passionate about their food. I happen to be one of those people. So you happen to come from and are based in one of the best food cities, arguably on the planet, new Orleans, Louisiana. If someone's going out for dinner in New Orleans, what are at least two of the places where they need to go? <Laugh>,

Reynold Verret (21:56):I'll give you not, for example, I'll never leave out. For example Chase's restaurant, which is now Dookie Chase, Leah, Leah passed away iconically in New Orleans, doki Chase, that's one. But also it's a range diversity of food that is occurring in New Orleans. For example Jam's Cafe, small maybe 10 tables, maybe Cafe off Maple Tunisian husband and wife. Jamilah, the chef is Jamila the husband takes the front. Fantastic Tunisian, but also the integration of Southern European and Northern Africa. Most people don't know about it. It's a great little place. The other one is I've gotten to know him a newcomer, newcomer in the last decade from Boston Frita, f r i t i. It's a small, it was one of the, he opened, he opened, first of all at Stan at the rock streets, at the Roth Market now is now open down not far from the downtown. And that's Haitian restaurant. And the, where you see the integration of both Caribbean, the Haitian, and also what you see is the linkage between that cuisine and what is New Orleans cuisine. Mm-Hmm.

(23:22):The commonality and the difference, even how they use okra and things like that. But he's a brilliant young chef, but they are Charlie's good. They're also places that where you see even New Orleans, the integration between how Vietnamese food is becoming New Orleans food.

Amrit Ahluwalia (23:41):Yes.

Reynold Verret (23:42):And that teaches you something about how New Orleans has always been an evolution of, of integrating different traditions. When the Italians came around, you started seeing how food change as well from, from their culture. And before the Italians came, you had others. And then you have the advent of always new people and always in the background are Latin Americans of different IATs coming through. We even have New Orleans tamales and, and new, the tamales in Louisiana are, are little Grier. They are authentically New Orleans, different tamales. The tamales are different. And what you realize that they were brought in there by Mexicans,

Amrit Ahluwalia (24:28):Right?

Reynold Verret (24:29):Cause the Mexicans and, and Honduras to have a long standing. But from my understanding, Mexicans who were during the early 19 hundreds revolutions in Mexico, when battles would fail, many of the armies that lose, take refugee in southern, in, in southern Texas and also in in New Orleans. And they would bring certain traditions that remain and get reinvented in New Orleans,

Amrit Ahluwalia (24:54):Right? Cause then they're, they're in sort of the melting pot of the mixing pot that is southern.

Reynold Verret (25:00):They leave, they leave a tradition that becomes part of New Orleans. So what you you're seeing is there's an old whole archeology of New Orleans that you can see in foods how people drop certain things that show traces of different influences. Even for example, you look at Albo, the gumbo, but then you have, which is actually from sas France leaves. And you can see it's a Native American tradition that actually gave, you see this, the range of food. And also what you see is people are mixing them. You have interesting mixing, for example gumbo zep, which is a, a tradition of gumbo with greens in it. And then I remember someone mentioning of recipe gums that with lemongrass, that's Southeast Asian influence, <laugh>.

Amrit Ahluwalia (25:48):I mean, that would be unbelievable though. Wow.

Reynold Verret (25:52):I'm saying there's a lot of experimentation, Orleans cuisine and a lot of new hands coming from many different places, especially post Katrina. That's why you're seeing these different influences coming together. And so I'd say dookie, chase, freek, and I'd say Jamila. Now we give you a nice stamping of new Orleans.

Amrit Ahluwalia (26:11):You are an, you're a gentleman. Thank you so much again for, for your time here today and, and for taking the time out to chat. I really do appreciate having you on.

Reynold Verret (26:19):Thank you. I enjoyed this. This was good. I, I look forward to the product.


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