How Much Alumni Matter

November 9, 2016

By Jeffrey Vincent, Interim Dean

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my nearly
30 years in higher education is how much alumni matter to the
success of a professional school.

I saw this when I taught at the Kennedy School of Government
at Harvard, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts and
the School of Pacific Studies and International Relations at the
University of California San Diego. And I’ve seen it since joining
Duke in 2007 as the Korstian Professor of Forest Economics and

The achievements of our alumni are proof we are doing our
job. Our alums’ spheres of influence and expertise extend ours,
and open new doors for research, teaching and outreach. Their
reputation for leadership and innovation becomes ours, and helps
attract the best students to our programs.

People know the Nicholas School, in large measure, because of
our alumni.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary this year of the uniting
of the Duke Marine Lab, Department of Geology and School of
Forestry and Environmental Science into Duke’s School of the
Environment, it’s a fitting time to recognize and thank our alums—
both those who came before 1991 and those who came after—for
the central role they have played in our school’s growth.

It’s also an opportune time to look forward to the next 25 years
and think about what the school needs to do to ensure that our
future alums will be a diverse, well-trained, exceptional cadre of
individuals who will lead the planet toward sustainability. We are
currently engaged in a strategic planning exercise intended to do
just that.

If we want to continue attracting students who reflect our
commitment to the values of leadership, innovation and inclusion,
we need to offer more competitive financial aid so that every
outstanding student who wants to come here can afford to do so.

Our new Nicholas Scholars program and the launch of our small
but essential need-based financial aid program are important
steps in this direction. But they’re only first steps. We need to
do much more to make the school financially accessible to all
exceptional students.

When I speak with prospective students, I like to tell them that
tuition is the “advance dues” they pay to be part of the Nicholas
School club—part of our illustrious alumni network. We need to
find new and better ways to open that door to more of them.

We also need to keep evolving our MEM, MF, undergraduate
and doctoral programs so we continue to provide graduates
with the foundational knowledge and cutting-edge skills needed
to stand out in an increasingly competitive job market. In 1991,
few universities offered educational programs in environmental
science and policy. Today, nearly all do.

Alums can play a vital part in all of this not only through
financial support, but also by sharing their time, enthusiasm and
real-world insights with our students by hosting class field trips,
serving as Masters Project clients, sponsoring internships, and
taking part in networking events. They can return to campus to
lead talks and training workshops, or head out on the road with
us to meet prospective students, and also help us spread the
word about the school and its programs to potential partners in
industry, government and the nonprofit sector.

Alumni also can help inform our decisions about new programs
or courses we need to offer.

Our Natural Resources Finance Initiative sprang from this
sort of alum-driven synergy. A group of forestry alums saw an
unmet need for young professionals who are as adept at financial
analysis as they are at resource management. Though still a work
in progress, the initiative has attracted outstanding students who
have landed top internships and jobs, and it has spawned a series
of highly successful Executive Education courses for working

These are just a few of the ways alums can—and, nearly every
day, do—contribute to the school’s success.

But this relationship needs to be a two-way street. As a school,
we need to do more to give back to our alums and show them
how much we value them. A good place to start, it seems to me,
is building stronger connections with them and listening more
closely to their concerns and suggestions.

Thanks to the great work being done by Karen Kirchof, Deb
Wojcik and their staff in our Career and Professional Development
Center, and by Kevin McCarthy, Glenda Lee, Mike Gulley, and
other staff members in the Office of Development and Alumni
Relations—as well as countless other faculty and staff members
schoolwide—we’re strengthening these relationships.

We’ve also launched a new alumni engagement program, “Go,
Grow, Give”, designed to explore new ways to publicly and privately
demonstrate our appreciation for all that alums do for us.

My door is always open to any alums who want to be part of our
efforts to lead the school into the future. I hope you’ll feel free to
call, email or visit me to share your ideas. Thank you for all you do
for the school.