For a long time, French and U.S. universities were truly on two different continents when it came to alumni relations. When Gilles Bousquet received his doctorate in French literature and civilization from France's Université de Provence 30 years ago, not only was there no graduation ceremony of any sort, at any degree level, but graduates received their diploma in the mail, with no special recognition, as if it were any ordinary administrative document. The departments in which he studied did not reach out to him as an alumnus for years, even though he stayed in touch with various professors and administrators.
What a contrast with the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where Bousquet is now chair of the Department of French and Italian and the former dean of international studies. Faculty and administrators there actively engage with graduates, who represent a critical component of their alma mater's prominence, viability, and influence. At French universities, staying connected with graduates has been an almost invisible notion. But today at UW–Madison's longtime partner institution, Aix-Marseille Université (of which the Université de Provence is now a part), the situation is rapidly changing.
With decisive leadership from AMU President Yvon Berland and advice from Bousquet and his UW–Madison colleagues, a team of AMU faculty and administrators has created a strategic alumni initiative. As part of this effort, a group of distinguished graduates has formed a high-level advisory board, as one might see at a North American institution, to advance AMU's objectives. AMU is also developing a universitywide database to better reconnect with thousands of graduates and invite them to interact with their own program and with the institution as a whole.
Bousquet and his colleagues' work with AMU demonstrates that it is possible to adapt best practices of U.S. institutions to a large public French university to create an alumni relations—and fundraising—infrastructure. Such relations would be a game changer for French higher education more broadly, benefiting students and strengthening an overall sense of community at individual institutions.
"Besides reinforcing a sense of belonging, we want to offer unparalleled access to opportunities," Berland says. "For alumni, this will help them connect with university partners who meet their needs across all sectors. For students, this provides the potential for new paths to academic and professional success."
A 2012 merger of three universities on two major sites—Aix-en-Provence and Marseille—AMU is now the largest French-language university in the world, with 78,000 students and 8,000 employees, spanning 130 research centers and institutes. For around 60 years, the original and now-merged Aix-Marseille Université and UW–Madison have enjoyed a collaborative relationship: UW–Madison established its second study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence in 1962, and for decades Wisconsin students have taken classes at the Aix campus. UW–Madison has also hosted instructors from AMU, fostering scholarly collaborations across disciplines.
In 2014, Berland, who has been AMU president since 2012, visited UW–Madison, meeting with faculty, students, and administrative officials—including alumni association and foundation leaders. He learned how alumni bond with their alma mater and how the university community consists not only of the 43,000 students and 20,000 employees on site but also of nearly 450,000 alumni living in the U.S. and more than 100 other countries. During Berland's visit, current students spoke with him (in French) about themselves and UW–Madison. A student leader serving on the homecoming committee described how several generations of her family had attended Wisconsin.
After visiting Wisconsin, Berland invited Bousquet, who is conducting comparative research on alumni relations and fundraising in the U.S. and French higher education systems, to talk to the AMU presidential cabinet. Bousquet described the way alumni view UW–Madison as well as how the university sees its alumni, emphasizing the importance of alumni engagement in supporting and furthering the university's mission. He also talked about the organizational structure of alumni relations at UW–Madison, including the role of faculty leaders and fundraising professionals, and noted some of the major gifts UW–Madison has received over the years.
The discussion energized AMU leaders to launch a systematic alumni relations effort. Berland established a senior project team, which includes Bousquet, to lay the groundwork. The team—now embedded in AMU's Office of Economic and Social Partnerships, which is led by Vice President, Dean, and Professor Jean-Philippe Agresti—reports directly to Berland and meets regularly through Skype, phone, or in person.
"A university like AMU cannot afford to establish an alumni infrastructure that doesn't involve all units," says project team member José Sampol, AMU professor of pharmacy emeritus and adviser to Berland. "The implementation of this infrastructure must be a bottom-up approach to raise awareness across campus."
With the word alumni mostly unknown among French academics and students alike, the team began to build an alumni relations framework from scratch, keeping two points in mind: "We had to convince the faculty and the schools and colleges that it is in their own interest to develop the relation with their alumni," says senior project team leader Nathalie Teissier, AMU associate professor of supply chain management, "and in so doing, be respectful of the specific organization and culture of each component of the university."
The highest level of the administration must support an alumni network, and such a program must align with the institution's strategy. At U.S. institutions, the president's personal and public commitment to developing alumni relations is a key factor of success. At AMU, Berland has prioritized alumni relations, and university publications inform the community about the initiative's progress. Senior staff also receive updates during meetings.
"The development of an alumni network," Berland says, "is central to Aix-Marseille's strategy as we train the vast majority of decision-makers, socioeconomic actors, and future influencers of our region."
Another key to success is educating staff. Advancement professionals are not yet part of the institutional infrastructure, nor is a foundation or an alumni association that would serve the entire campus and be a dedicated partner for these ongoing efforts. The notion of a financial contribution from alumni—as a natural extension to support university programs—is much less familiar in a French environment. Yet more than ever, reconnection and engagement are indispensable as first steps toward alumni philanthropy. At a time when public funding—the major source of financial support for French universities—has become limited, alumni contributions, financial and otherwise, will be even more critical going forward.
In 2016, Julie Underwood, UW–Madison's then-dean of the School of Education, led a workshop for AMU deans, vice presidents, and senior staff that examined the why and how of alumni relations. Underwood asked participants to spell out what they would like to accomplish in alumni relations and what challenges and opportunities they saw. "It is always interesting to listen to colleagues on other campuses—in state, across the country, and across the world—work through their concerns, issues, and ideas," Underwood says. "Most of the time they are consistent with our own, and we have an opportunity to learn from one another."
During the next two years, the deans of AMU's Graduate School of Management and School of Education visited UW–Madison, while Bousquet and other UW–Madison colleagues visited AMU. Although these visits were primarily devoted to developing scholarly collaborations across disciplines, they also served as opportunities to share information about U.S. alumni relations practices and how AMU can best adapt them to a specifically French approach.
Currently, the senior alumni project team continues to create momentum and visible outcomes, working in three complementary areas:
The identity of AMU as a whole is established at the level of the university and also rooted in the specifics of each school or college. A successful alumni network must function at both levels. "Alumni are ambassadors of the values carried by our profession but also of an extraordinary social mobility, facilitating professional integration thanks to Aix-Marseille Université," says Dean of Pharmacy Françoise Dignat-George. A universitywide alumni relations infrastructure, she says, "is a win-win and an extraordinary chance to match the success of our students, the visibility and the reputation of the School of Pharmacy, and of Aix-Marseille Université."
Despite France's different systems of higher education, the alumni experience—a personal, professional, intellectual, and emotional one—exists in the nation's universities. But it must be uncovered and given voice and purpose. Alumni relations and fundraising are long-term investments, and the biggest challenge to developing them is part cultural, part organizational. So how do institutions show short-term returns when many believe deep down that "this is not part of the French culture?" Focusing on the right results is key—for instance, making AMU's universitywide community visible and tracking tangible positive effects on students.
"Building a strong alumni network is essential for AMU, as competition is now not only national but global," says AMU business school alumnus Alain Batty, a member of Berland's advisory board. "Alumni are true ambassadors of the institution from which they graduated, not only locally but also everywhere around the world where they now live and work."
The journey of Aix-Marseille Université into alumni relations has so far shown that graduates do indeed recognize the important role their education has played in their life and are willing to give back. More broadly, public universities in France have characteristics to which their alumni are attached: a spirit of scientific inquiry that drives research, as well as the values of public service and universal access to higher education. Career-related issues are also critical, and alumni can make significant contributions as mentors and expert practitioners. As external voices, alumni can be agents of change, particularly at a time when universities worldwide are challenged to be more active in building our common future.
Gilles Bousquet is chair of the Department of French and Italian and former dean of international studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Nathalie Teissier is associate professor of supply chain management at Aix-Marseille Université in France.
José Sampol is professor of pharmacy emeritus and adviser to the president at Aix-Marseille Université.
The authors serve as AMU's alumni relations senior project team.