While improving higher education is important to all Americans, alumni are especially concerned about their alma maters. They are the largest private source of financial support for higher education. And — because they have the freedom to speak without reprisal — they can address challenges at their alma maters with independent judgment and clarity of purpose. Alumni are, as University of Wisconsin emeritus professor Charles Anderson wrote in Prescribing the Life of the Mind (1993), “members of the guild. Presumably they are competent to participate, as citizens, in its affairs. There is, it would seem, a qualified public to which the university might answer.”
Yes, so it would seem. And so it is that a handful of universities have, over the years, formally invited alumni to participate directly in the selection of the governing board, through a petition process. Yale, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Penn State have all allowed alumni to gather signatures to earn a place on the ballot.
Petition candidates — most recently at Dartmouth and at Harvard — have demanded more of their alma maters. Part of a growing alumni movement to return students to the center of education, they are refusing to remain silent when academic standards and intellectual pluralism are threatened.
Joining their ranks this month is Michael Horowitz, a Yale alum who is seeking a spot on the Yale Corporation. His candidacy is operating on a shoestring budget, but it is raising issues of quality and cost that are important to Yale — and higher education more broadly. The deadline for petitions is October 1 — and Horowitz still needs several thousand alumni signatures. But the issues he raises, his spirit of engagement, and the excitement generated by his platform underscore the critical role alumni can and must play in supporting fundamental academic values at their alma maters.