Alumni: A lifelong bond with ‘lifelong benefits’
Q&A with Robert Sweeney, Senior Vice President for Development and Public Affairs
The U.Va. Difference
Fourth in an occasional series
By Charlotte Crystal
Photo by Bill Sublette
Q. What attracted you to U.Va.?
A I came to U.Va. in 1991 from UNC-Chapel Hill and before Chapel Hill, the University of Richmond. I’d seen U.Va. from a distance. I had a sense of the culture. There was a sense of real substance here, a sense of grace, a sense of tradition. It epitomized Virginia. The first impression U.Va. made on me was its powerful physical presence. This was Mr. Jefferson’s University.
Q. What has contributed to your success here?
A I have had the privilege of working with a very talented, energetic and visionary group of people — alumni and friends of the University, development officers, faculty, administrators and others — who worked extremely hard to make our last capital campaign a success and who are working very hard to make our current campaign just as successful.
We are looking at best practices in a number of areas to help us in our pursuit of excellence as we move forward. Within Development and Public Affairs, team members are helping to overhaul policies and procedures that we hope will make this one of the best places to work in the country. With the University and the U.Va. Alumni Association, we are revamping our relationship to improve our collaboration, and possibly create a new model for other universities. With colleagues at other state universities, legislators and other stakeholders, we have restructured the relationship between Virginia’s public institutions of higher education and the commonwealth of Virginia. We believe we have come up with a new model for higher education — a public university that maintains access for qualified students, regardless of their ability to pay, but funded primarily by private sources.
Q. What has been your biggest challenge here?
A We are a federation of 10 independent schools and 27 foundations. In this decentralized environment, a command-and-control approach will fail. We place a heavy emphasis on collaboration. My success depends on partnerships with key stakeholders. Luckily, our culture could not be more supportive — we work together to get things done. It gets back to the values of the University — personal integrity, honor, ethics, respect for the individual, trust, truth-telling.
Q. What role do alumni play at U.Va.?
A We believe we have a unique relationship with alumni. There are only a handful of schools that evoke the same level of passion among alumni. If we look at the top 20 schools, the PQ — passion quotient — is highest at U.Va. and Princeton. I believe it is greater here than at Stanford, Duke, Harvard or Dartmouth. Why is that? Partly because of the power of the physical presence of the place. The power of the student experience. Students’ close relationships with faculty and the overall value system contribute to a powerful university experience.
Our alumni will help us understand what U.Va. needs to know to be successful in the future and how we need to position ourselves to be a major player in 2150 and beyond. Institutions are built to last beyond the lives of men. How can we help undergird an institution we can’t even see today? Our alumni will help us find the way. Diversity is a good example of this. We’re more diverse now than we used to be and that’s a good thing. We need to be still more diverse in the future. Alumni are helping us move along that path in meaningful ways. Also, our new financing structure is based on philanthropy, which at U.Va. is driven by alumni, parents and friends. The success of our new model will depend on alumni embracing it. U.Va. is doing something unique and important and we hope our success will show this to be a worthy model, one worth emulating by other institutions of higher education around the country.
Q. We’re hearing a lot about alumni engagement. What is that?
A Alumni engagement is a way of adding value to our students’ lives even after they leave the University. Jefferson’s mission was about lifelong learning. We’re looking at creating new programs to stimulate intellectual curiosity, to provide new travel opportunities. We want to build on the programs we offer now, programs such as Summer on the Lawn and those at class reunions. We want to work at engaging our alumni so that in the future, when people talk about the best in the business, our name will appear. We want people to feel that being an alumnus of U.Va. is a lifelong relationship from which they will reap lifelong benefits.
Q. What keeps U.Va. among the top universities in the country?
A Thomas Jefferson talked about an aristocracy of the mind. We want to continue to have the most talented people from Virginia, from the United States and from around the world coming to Charlottesville. We want to embrace the best and the brightest, whoever they are and wherever
they come from. We want them to get an exceptional education while they’re here and to go out and make exceptional contributions when they leave. With AccessUVa and other student support provided by generous alumni, parents and friends, we are better positioned to reach the founding vision of this University than ever before. We want to be the leading example of a truly great public university.
Q. Are alumni different here than at other schools?
A Yes. Our alumni talk about their time at U.Va. as being “a transformational experience.” A lot of things go into that — extraordinary undergraduate teaching, close student-faculty relationships, research opportunities, access to one of the best research libraries in the country, a Grounds listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, strong student self-government, an Honor Code. After leaving here, our students don’t just go out and get jobs, they go out and become leaders. And the values they learn here, based on Jefferson’s principles, become a way of life.