Higher education

University of Iowa Alumni Association board 'shocked' by news of merger

'We are not happy with the manner in which it's been handled'

The Old Capitol building is shown in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The Old Capitol building is shown in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — News this week that University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld intends to merge the institution’s alumni association with its independent fundraising arm came as a surprise to the association’s board of directors and members.

“The Alumni Association’s board of directors was not aware that he was going to make that decision until the day he did,” said Clare Kelly, chair of its board of directors. “We are not happy with the manner in which it’s been handled.”

Many of the directors feel their charge to determine policies and goals for the roughly 50,000-member association — as laid out in bylaws — were circumvented by the announcement that Harreld intends to “create one, new, unified organization,” Kelly said.

Harreld has instructed the association to stop accepting new members and stop collecting membership dues, she said.

“The board didn’t vote on those decisions,” Kelly said, noting the association is considering contacting an attorney “just to make sure we fulfill our obligations, according to the bylaws.”

But the process is moving quickly, she said, another thing she and some of her colleagues don’t understand.

Harreld announced the planned merger during a Monday afternoon meeting with association and UI Foundation leadership, calling it a “new advancement model.” He provided few details, saying, “While we have a clear vision, there is much work to do.”

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In a message posted on the UI president’s website, Harreld said he has asked UI Foundation President Lynette Marshall to lead the new effort and for the foundation and association to “address unification in the coming months.”

The association and foundation are registered as 501(c) (3) organizations, giving them tax-exempt nonprofit status.

The alumni association, founded in 1867, has an endowment fund valued at about $6 million and members who pay dues that vary by level and commitment.

The UI Foundation was founded in 1956 and is independent from the university. It recently wrapped up the state’s largest-ever fundraising campaign, topping its $1.7 billion goal by bringing in nearly $2 billion.

Right now, administrators don’t have answers to merger-related questions like whether it would dissolve the association, whether all association members would need to vote on dissolution or unification, and how its employees might be affected. The association’s 25 staffers are UI employees, while the foundation’s 233 staff members are not.

UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said Monday the institution is “committed to ensuring employees of both organizations have employment opportunities.”

When Harreld announced the merger, he said it grew from a committee of foundation and association representatives that explored “ways that the two organizations could more closely align to deliver world-class awareness, engagement, and support for the University of Iowa.”

The committee produced a report in March that, among other things, proposed a “re-imagined communications strategy,” enhanced student awareness and education and deeper alumni and donor engagement.

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Although the report mentions collaboration, coordination, and — in one case — a singular voice, it doesn’t specifically suggest a merger.

The report does note the group “unanimously agreed that further discussion of the replacement of a dues-based alumni model with a goal of eliminating it would be a vital step in reaching more alumni.”

UI spokeswoman Beck on Friday cited that in explaining the directive to stop dues and cease new membership.

“The committee formed to explore a new advancement model unanimously agreed that an early goal should be to replace the dues-based alumni-model,” she said.

Association President

Justin McBride, a past UI Alumni Association chair and current board member who graduated from the UI in 1995, said he was “shocked” at news of the merger.

“My concern is in the interest of the alumni — to make sure engagement doesn’t drop off at all,” said McBride, who lives in Florida.

Board members have been invited to participate in a conference call Tuesday with Harreld.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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