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Interview: Chancellor Robert Coombe discusses the importance of alumni

Q: What is the role of alumni in the life of the University?

A: Alumni are carriers of the identity of the University just as much as students or faculty are. If we define alumni as full members of the University community, then they really do have a broad role that is much more than just a source of funds.

"If we're going to be a great University, it's going to involve all of us," says Chancellor Robert Coombe. Photo: Michael Richmond

Look at our mission — to be a great private university dedicated to the public good — and our values — excellence, innovation, engagement and integrity. How are those expressed? In one sense, they’re expressed in the day-to-day life of the University itself — in the kinds of things we teach our students, in the way that we try to shape our students’ lives while they’re here, in the kinds of scholarship that is done by faculty.

But, in a very large sense, they’re also expressed in the day-to-day lives of our alumni. We talk a lot about the University’s intellectual capital being used for positive change in society. We’re not just talking about students and faculty. We’re talking about everybody, including our 110,000 alumni.

Q: Are alumni worth more to us than dollars and cents?

A: Alumni have a number of roles, some of which relate directly to what we’re doing with our students, including mentoring and Hyde Interviews.

But it’s also true that alumni serve as our antennae. They enable us to sense more quickly what’s going on out there, what the trends are like so we can be agile and nimble in our response. We include alumni in search committees and strategic planning groups, and there’s a reason for that. They are our footholds outside the walls of the University. They inform our planning and implementation, and they also tell us how we’re doing. Are we staying abreast of change? Do our students come out of the University prepared? We pay great attention to that.

Q: What is DU’s biggest alumni-relations challenge?

A: We haven’t been focused on alumni for so long that many have just walked across the stage, gotten their diploma and then drifted away because there hasn’t been any real articulation of what their role in the life of the University is to be. It’s a challenge to bring them back because for a lot of years, all they saw from us were requests for financial support. The University has to offer value to them. We’ve been talking about how they’re important to us. But, we need to be important to them as well. We have to somehow get the message out that all of the assets of the University are available to alumni for the entirety of their lives.

Q: After so many years of neglect, how do we convince alumni that the University now means what it says about its commitment to alumni?

A: At the alumni roundtable in September, an alumna said that one thing that has been difficult in the past is that DU has started initiatives, but if they didn’t go as expected, we simply stopped. And so, at least from her perspective, the alumni community doesn’t really trust us to persist in these efforts.

We are going to have to come through for alumni and stick with this plan, probably for a period of years, before we build that level of trust. We want our alumni to trust that the University is serious about this and that we’re going to put the resources on the table to be of value to them.

Q: Can DU really excel and realize its vision for itself without the help of alumni?

A: No. Think how handicapped we would be without all of that energy, talent and commitment out there. If we’re going to be a great University, it’s going to involve all of us.

Send your questions for Chancellor Coombe to or write to: University of Denver Magazine, attn: Q&A, 2199 S. University Blvd., Denver, CO 80208.

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