“Alumni are the only ones with a lifelong relationship with a university,” says Judith M. Cole, the MIT Alumni Association’s new executive vice president and chief executive officer. And since August, she has been in charge of strengthening alums’ relationships to the Institute and to one another.
“Alumni relations is about community building,” says Cole. “Through the partnership of volunteers and staff, the campus community becomes a university community that incorporates alumni into the life of the institution. Alumni are not an external audience–they are part of the family.”
Cole arrives at MIT with more than 20 years of experience in alumni-relations management at Carnegie Mellon and Yale universities. She also brings a diverse business background to her new role.
As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Cole earned a degree in business administration, with a concentration in finance, in 1976. After graduation she worked in banking for six years, ultimately as a vice president at Texas Commerce Bank.
Cole then decided to go back to school, returning to her home state of Connecticut to earn a master’s degree in public and private management at the Yale School of Management in 1984. During graduate school, she landed a summer internship at AT&T Bell Labs’ new-ventures group, where she was called on to ask the tough, practical questions that helped the company think from an outsider’s perspective. After earning her degree, she worked at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). However, she says, neither consulting nor banking felt like the right career fit.
So she returned to New Haven and took a consulting job organizing the 10th-anniversary celebration for the Yale School of Organization and Management, as her grad-school alma mater was originally called. That led her to sign on with the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA), where she remained for 17 years and served as the director of education and AYA services. Her work focused on educational programs, graduate-school alumni relations, and the development of revenue-producing programs. The world of higher education provided the right mix of intellectual and psychological satisfaction.
“I am a lifelong learner, and I thrive in educational communities,” Cole says. “Higher education has made our nation great. And if we don’t all support and nurture our great institutions like MIT, we are forgoing a huge opportunity.”
In 2004, Carnegie Mellon recruited her to revitalize its alumni-relations program in anticipation of a major fund-raising campaign. As associate vice president for university advancement and director of alumni relations, she worked to strengthen the alumni board and to increase alumni involvement. At both Yale and Carnegie Mellon, she sought to increase participation in social and intellectual events, activities such as mentoring students, and giving.
Fund-raising is vital to the strength of any university, Cole says, and annual giving is an important goal of alumni relations.
“Gifts of any dollar amount are important,” she says. “In recent years there has been so much publicity around large gifts that alumni can think that their smaller gifts do not matter, and this just is not true. The aggregation of many smaller gifts can make a huge difference. A single raindrop in the desert does not amount to anything, but a hurricane in the desert can create a lake.”
At MIT, Cole sees the opportunity to build stronger relationships with graduate-school alumni, who now make up more than half of all Institute alumni. Whether graduate alumni feel a positive association with a university, she believes, depends largely on their career and the prestige of the institution. “In most cases, the graduate degree will be most relevant to your career,” Cole says, “and there is no place more prestigious than MIT for your graduate degree.”
One benefit of her new post is that she now lives closer to her son, Christopher, who is entering his third year at Hampshire College. Another is closer proximity to her favorite haunts in northern Maine, where she and her son fly-fish.
And then there is MIT itself. “President Hockfield is an extraordinary community builder,” she says. And she knows that first-hand, since they were colleagues at Yale. “The opportunity to work with her again and to contribute to this remarkable educational community is a great gift,” she says.