Alumni Column – Smoothing the Transition for Student Leadership

Student turnover. In many ways, this is the single greatest threat to the true success of clubs and organizations on our campus. Around this time every year, student groups elect new leadership as the senior class speeds towards graduation and their busy lives after Colgate.

And while each new officer brings vision, energy and a fresh commitment to his or her organization, the transition can often be a major challenge. Certainly the big traditions are maintained — a banquet for the Hindu Student Association, the Konosioni Auction, or the CAB Winterfest, to name a few — but the institutional knowledge is still jeopardized and the continuity of long term projects is far too often sacrificed when the reigns are passed along with such frequency.

Nowhere have I seen the reality of student turnover be as hindering as it’s been on the Student Government Association, which I had the honor of running five years ago. Each April a new administration is elected with a full platform of ideas and improvements for Colgate. Yet all good projects take time, so very often initiatives are sacrificed or fall apart when a term expires and graduation distances those leaders from campus.

Looking back at the history of SGA, the real success stories all involve student-driven proposals that worked in partnerships (not mandates) with the Colgate administration over several years. The academic honor code, the Colgate Cruiser shuttle bus and the ‘Gate Card are a few examples of what has come from the SGA when transition was done right. Even so, true institutional memory is rarely maintained beyond the most immediate predecessors, which weakens the organization and limits its potential.

In response to this dilemma, a group of former SGA leaders from various decades have come together with me this semester to build a database and network that will be a resource of information for the current and future undergraduate officers. Titled the SGA Alumni Assembly, this database contains a full roster of all former SGA presidents and vice presidents, but more importantly, it will index issues they addressed in office and any advice they can lend. I began my own term with the surprising announcement that Colgate would be taking the Greek houses under University ownership as part of the New Vision for Residential Education.

I would have benefited greatly from a resource that could direct me to SGA alums who dealt with Greek Life challenges in their own administration. After the harmful graffiti incident earlier this fall, current SGA President David Kusnetz would have been able to use the Alumni Assembly in a similar way to seek out former presidents who handled other issues of racism on campus. We envision the network as a tremendous opportunity to bridge the connection between students and alumni that will support our current leaders and re-engage alumni in a meaningful way.

Of course, the key is to be a support system for SGA without being intrusive or meddling in the day-to-day affairs. It is important that any alumni group such as this avoid micromanaging issues, but rather stand ready to assist and mentor when the need arises or the students look for guidance.

In the meantime, our alums will stay connected through an e-mail listserv that provides information from the campus and encourages interaction, in addition to on-campus meetings over Reunion or Homecoming that can bring this Alumni

Assembly together for its own networking events. One doesn’t need to look far to see where alumni involvement has had a strong impact on student groups. The fraternities, sororities, a capella groups and sports teams all engage their alums in a way that strengthens their organization, maintains critical history and provides support — even funding — towards their mission. It is long overdue for the SGA to join this category of organizations that are bolstered by their alumni base.

The potential to enhance the visibility and success of SGA at Colgate is too strong. And as our Class of 2009 moves toward Commencement, with torches being passed in SGA and numerous other student groups, I encourage you to consider how we can keep these graduates connected and how all our organizations can tap into the spirit, passion and resourcefulness of Colgate alumni who are so uniquely dedicated to their alma mater.