UMass-Amherst alumni group won't share data

Is irked by system's efforts to coordinate fund-raising

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / January 13, 2008

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst Alumni Association says it will not turn over a list of its members to UMass officials, in a standoff between the five-campus university system and its flagship that reflects broader tension over efforts to unify the largely independent campuses.

The association's 11-member executive committee unanimously approved a resolution last week defying any requests for its list of members, citing concerns about graduates' privacy as the university system seeks to create a central fund-raising database.

"It's the opinion of the alumni association that we own the database of alumni," said Sean LeBlanc, a vice president of the association. "There are a lot of privacy issues that come into play, and it's our responsibility to protect our members. We take this very seriously."

University leaders will consolidate lists of prospective donors from all the campuses into a sin gle list to coordinate fund-raising, which has lagged behind other state systems for years. At a meeting Friday, system officials agreed that the UMass-Amherst records would be walled off from the larger database to address privacy concerns.

University officials believe the Amherst database, which is administered by the development office at UMass-Amherst, belongs to the university. The alumni association counters that it has proprietary rights to the list because its membership constitutes much of the database. The alumni association is independent but receives more than $1 million a year from UMass-Amherst and works closely with its development office.

UMass-Amherst fund-raisers declined to comment, but sources said they generally supported the alumni association's resistance. UMass-Amherst has the largest number of donors and alumni and raises far more money than the other four campuses.

Alumni association leaders are concerned that fund-raisers at all five campuses will have access to members' confidential information and could pepper them with solicitations.

LeBlanc said that system leaders had not formally requested the database, but that alumni association leaders believed they were poised to do so.

"The role of the alumni association is to represent Amherst's 210,000 alumni," LeBlanc said. "I wish all the best to the other campuses, but I'm an Amherst guy."

University leaders said there were no plans to centralize fund-raising beyond the database, which development offices on all five campuses could access.

"Fund-raising has to be campus-driven," said Bob Connolly, a UMass spokesman. "No one thinks it would be good to have five IT or payroll departments. This is about efficiency and oversight, not the president's office taking over."

Connolly said the unified list would help improve fund-raising. Last year, the board of trustees called for the centralized record keeping to improve oversight, he added.

"All five campuses are working hard in this area, and this is about supplying our development professionals with the tools they need to get the job done," he said.

The central database would save the system about $840,000 by making it unnecessary for each campus to upgrade its record-keeping software. No development staff members will lose their job or be displaced under the new system, he said.

Darrell Byers, vice chancellor for university advancement at UMass-Boston, said the move would make the system more efficient and effective.

"It will help us be better organized and prevent us from stepping on each other's toes," he said.

While all campuses would have access to basic information about prospective donors, only one campus would be privy to more personal information, Byers said.

The tug-of-war over the records follows last year's controversy surrounding president Jack M. Wilson's discussions about ways to create a more cohesive, efficient system with the five campuses. The informal discussions, coupled with proposals to reorganize university leadership, drew criticism from some faculty and politicians and raised fears that the campuses would lose their independence.

Ed Rubin, an active alumni association member, said the group's leaders have been overly defensive about centralization efforts as they struggle to attract members. Just 3 percent of graduates are members of the association, far less than at most universities.

"I think there's a paranoia there," he said. "They have been resisting change and control all along."

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