Land’s End: The Lost Tribe

Why don’t more of UC Irvine’s 140,000 alums support their alma mater?

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In the 1970s, I had a boyfriend who went to UC Irvine. He was a thoughtful and unconventional guy, and I’d never met anyone with such wide-ranging interests—organic chemistry, Frank Frazetta, the rock group Genesis, the Bible. When I visited him once, on his then-new campus, he took me to what I remember as one of the world’s great biology lectures, and it convinced me that California was the coolest, smartest place on the planet. I sometimes wonder what kind of cool, smart man he became after UC Irvine.

The university also was the alma mater of a successful, if distant, family member, the granddaughter of my late father-in-law’s second wife. What a promising child she was, so bright and idealistic. When she announced that she wanted to serve the poor as a doctor, no one doubted that she meant it. She ended up at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, and now is saving lives somewhere, I imagine. I’m not sure because we’ve lost touch—both her grandmother and my father-in-law died while she was completing her education. Still, I’m sure the world is better because she found UC Irvine.  

This month at Angel Stadium, thousands will graduate from that university. The commencement will kick off the school’s 50th anniversary. It’ll be a big deal—President Obama will speak, the result of a blitz of cards and letters and a video invitation from the Anteater student body (and probably a couple of appeals from outgoing Chancellor Michael Drake, who is graduating to a new job in Ohio). As the Class of ’14 tosses its mortarboards skyward, I hope somebody will take names.

Why? Because I’m not the only one who keeps losing touch with cool, smart graduates of UC Irvine. The university, too, would like to know what’s become of the Lost Tribe of Anteaters also known as its alumni. More than 140,000 UC Irvine grads are out there, and yet, according to a study done this year by the UC Office of the President, only about 4,100 of them made a donation of any size to their alma mater during the last fiscal year. That’s less than 3 percent of Anteater Nation.

By comparison, more than 24 percent of Trojans kicked in to USC last year, and their average gift of $3,385 was more than five times the average UC Irvine gift of $650. And lest you chalk that up to private universities always raking in more bucks than publics, every big research university in the UC system beat UC Irvine. Bruce Hallett, the Corona del Mar venture capitalist who recently became the new head of the UCI Alumni Association, says this isn’t because Anteaters are cheapskates. If UC Irvine finds them, he says, they will give.

But tracking down alums and putting the arm on them hasn’t been a school tradition. Particularly in its early years, the state—as with all the UCs—covered most of the university’s budget. Now, of course, only about one-tenth of the system’s costs are covered by state funds. And unlike private colleges, the UCs don’t reserve “legacy” slots for the children of faithful alumni, which eliminates a big incentive for university giving.

As a result, Hallett says, UC Irvine’s alumni database is riddled with decades-old contacts for people who assume the school doesn’t need them. “People graduate,” he says, “and we lose track of them.”

So this month, as Orange County welcomes the leader of the free world to its UC commencement, think about reaching out to an Anteater near you. Tell them to phone home, or just phone Hallett. He promises not to bug them for money. But they’re cool and smart. They’ll know what to do.

 

Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue.

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