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Through the Looking Glass

 Sometimes we look in the mirror and see who we were. Sometimes we see who we are becoming. Sometimes we even see who we are right now. So who are the MIT alumni? What are the trends in alumni composition? How about their attitudes toward the Institute and the Association? What does that portend for the future? The MIT mantra is “Let’s look at the data,” so here are the numbers.

There are 115,382 of us living. Of this population, the Alumni Association has records on 102,245. Overall, 17 percent of alumni are female, but for classes prior to 1970, this percentage is 3 percent or lower. The percentage rises steadily thereafter, with women constituting 32 percent of the classes of the 2000s. Fifty-two percent of alumni have undergraduate degrees. We are concentrated on the coasts, especially in the northeast, Florida, and California, but have strong contingents in Texas and Illinois. We number 19,417 in Massachusetts and 14,345 in California. Our alumni are in 147 different nations, from Afghanistan to Zambia and from Algeria to Zimbabwe. Japan has the largest number of alumni living outside of the U.S., with 1,446, and Canada is next with 1,330.

This past spring, the Association commissioned a survey of alumni attitudes toward the Association and the Institute, and I have had the opportunity to preview the results. Conducted by Opinion Dynamics, the analysis divided us into three groups, according to the years in which we received our degrees. I will call them the Venerables (pre-1969), the Boomers (1969-1987), and the Recents (post-1987).

A total of 1,798 alumni were interviewed, a response rate of more than 40 percent. Our pollsters noted that we are a cooperative group with a higher response rate than other colleges. Opinion Dynamics also noted that we were not shy in ascertaining the authenticity of the solicitation and commenting on the survey methodology. I view the high response rate as evidence of the commitment of our alumni to the Institute.

Alumni were asked what makes them feel good about the MIT of today. Almost all alumni cited some facet of excellence: good education, high standards, good reputation, leadership in technology and science, research, and innovation. This suggests that alumni are heartened by MIT’s continued orientation toward the future and commitment to excellence. We don’t so much hold a nostalgia-based view of our alma mater as realize that MIT was on the cutting edge when we were there and that it needs to remain on the cutting edge today to maintain its excellence.

Are there bad feelings out there among alumni? Clearly, the changes in the fraternity system have made a difference. Eleven percent of undergraduate alumni reported that they feel bad about the fraternity living group issue. The recent release of the FSILG task force report should begin to heal these wounds.

Not surprisingly, Opinion Dynamics commented that we are more wired than other alumni groups and that we do keep up with our alma mater. Ninety-four percent of alumni read Technology Review, and 73 percent have visited an MIT-related website. Web visitation, not unexpectedly, correlates with age. Fifty percent of Venerables, 78 percent of Boomers, and a whopping 94 percent of Recents have made cyber visits to MIT.

The survey found that 36 percent of us do volunteer work, and 77 percent have made monetary contributions to MIT, another statistic strongly related to age: 86 percent of Venerables, 82 percent of Boomers, and 62 percent of Recents have made gifts. And why do we give? “MIT is important to society for the education it provides” was the leading response. Second was “I feel real affection and loyalty to MIT.”

My principal goal for the year is to increase the Association’s effectiveness in leveraging the communications mechanisms that we use to keep in touch with each other and the Institute. By and large, the Institute is doing a good job, with only 6 percent of alumni saying that MIT either does not keep them informed or does not do it very well.

What can our Alumni Association do for us? The Venerables and the Boomers rated “Keeping alumni informed about developments at MIT” as the Association’s most important service. Recents stated that “Providing alumni with an e-mail forwarding service” was most important. Not surprisingly, the least important service to Venerables and Boomers was “Providing social opportunities to alumni.”

The Association board has convened a committee to examine the ways that the Association can use the survey data to help increase the connections between alumni and the Institute, the Association, and each other. Committee recommendations will guide future surveys so that we can track alumni attitudes over time and better measure the effectiveness of our programs.

The data show that even among the Venerables we can use technology to get the word out, which we plan to do. With apologies to the screenwriters of the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, what we can’t have here, and what we won’t have here, is a failure to communicate.

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