Alumni connect, engage and support IAH faculty and programs


April 15, 2014 | Angie Barker

Carolina alumni speak at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ events, help connect the IAH to others and provide critical financial support for its programs.

They play a key role in the IAH’s success, the strength of its community and the quality of its activities, says IAH Development Director Allison Burnett Smith.

“It’s wonderful to have alumni back on campus, sharing in the intellectual exchange that takes place,” Smith says. “They tell us that participating in our activities helps them feel connected to the Carolina community as well as what is happening on campus. So, there is mutual benefit.”

Alumna Lane McDonald (ABJM ’00) agrees.

“I think of the IAH as my home base and place for reengagement,” McDonald says. “It the place on campus where I feel most welcome, reconnected and part of a team that has a purpose – helping professors have a better experience at UNC. They pass that on to students, and that ensures more students have the experience I had, which was incredibly positive.”

Alumni contribute in many ways

The IAH reaches out to alumni for a variety of reasons. Generous financial support from alumni funds IAH programs for faculty, so that is an important reason to engage them, Smith says. But their contributions go far beyond that. Alumni play a vital role in enriching the IAH experience for faculty, students and the UNC community.

This spring, for instance, alumnus and Baltimore pediatrician Dr. Michael Zollicoffer shared his unique insights along with IAH Fellow Jonathan Oberlander in a public conversation about the impact of the Affordable Care Act. The IAH co-hosted the event, “Poverty, Access and the Effects of Obama Care,” with UNC’s Alumni Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity.

Some of UNC’s newest alumni connected with IAH Faculty Fellows during the March Young Alumni Leadership Council meeting. The council is a board of visitors for alumni who are between one and 10 years out of college.

“It was great to have the opportunity to share with them what is going on at UNC and let them interact with some of our Faculty Fellows,” Smith says. “They take what they hear back to their communities and share what they’ve learned with other alumni, so it’s a great way to connect with a broader community.”

Salons connect former students with faculty

Salons are a key way that the IAH connects alumni with faculty. Salons are small dinner parties of eight to 15 people or larger gatherings of 15-18 hosted by alumni that focus on a single topic of conversation. The IAH recruits a Fellow who is an expert on a single topic to introduce and lead the discussion. Alumni have hosted salons this year in New York City, Rocky Mount, N.C., and San Francisco, and will host a May salon in Highlands, N.C.

McDonald and fellow IAH Advisory Board members Dee Schwab (English, International Studies ’69) and Brian Fenty (ABJM ’08) hosted a February salon in New York City that featured UNC sociologist and democracy expert Andy Perrin discussing his new book, American Democracy: Toqueville, Town Halls, and Twitter. The book examines how democracy has changed since the United States formed.

Around the table sat creative writers, nonprofit executives, investment bankers and entrepreneurs who had majored in many different disciplines at Carolina over a 40-year span. The setting was similar to that experienced by IAH Fellows when they convene to focus on a single topic.

“The salons are such fun. It’s like being back in school,” McDonald says. “It’s wonderful to hear from really smart people about some relevant and interesting topic just for the sake of understanding the topic better and having an engaging conversation.”

McDonald first connected with the IAH while studying journalism and mass communications at UNC, when the IAH was located in West House. Her father, UNC alumnus Morris McDonald (BA English, ’68), and college friend of former IAH Development Director Mary Flanagan, introduced the two.

“I would just stop by when Mary and [IAH founding director Ruel Tyson] were building out the IAH. I didn’t really understand what it was or what they were doing, but Mary was nice enough to let me pop in,” McDonald recalls.

When McDonald moved to New York, where she now works for a Swiss private equity fund, the two kept in touch. Five years ago, Flanagan invited McDonald to fill an opening on the board.

As a board member, McDonald contributes financially to the IAH and weighs in on financial, business and programmatic strategies. But hosting salons has become her favorite way of engaging personally and connecting the IAH to other young alumni.

McDonald co-hosted her first salon with John O’Hara (MBA ’79), board member and former board chair, three years ago. It featured IAH Fellow and UNC Kenan-Flagler taxation professor (now dean) Doug Shackleford discussing the debt crisis at its height, when key European Union countries were threatening to break away.

“It was an economically precarious time and Doug led a conversation on what was going on and what the repercussions might be. People got really into the conversation – talking loudly, pounding the table. It was such an enthusiastic, wonderful conversation,” McDonald says. “Out of that meeting of 17 attendees, 10 of whom had never heard of the IAH, they all walked out saying, ‘Wow! That was such fun. What is this IAH and how can I be a part of it?’”

One  attendee from that early salon, Brian Fenty, has since joined the IAH board and co-hosted the most recent salon with Schwab and McDonald.

“UNC gave me a huge head start. It changed my life. So I feel a need to pay that forward and give back to UNC,” McDonald says. “The IAH is a great way to reengage. It takes people from different experiences and different places and brings them together to support our faculty in their academic pursuits so they continue to deliver the best possible Carolina experience for students.”

Alumni exchange enriches faculty experience

Faculty members also benefit from involved alumni, both through the IAH programs that alumni support as well as the personal interaction.

IAH Fellow and democratic design expert Andrew Reynolds participated in a February salon in Rocky Mount. He discussed his work as a United Nations senior election advisor and as a U.S. State Department and National Security Council consultant helping set up democracies in countries around the world.

“We, as faculty, need to break out of our bubbles and interact with and understand the perspectives of really smart people who aren’t necessarily spending all their time thinking about Syria or Yemen or how you design an election,” says Reynolds, an associate professor of political science and chair of global studies.

“So, when we meet with IAH alumni, who are uniformly high-achieving, caring, interesting people from lots of walks of life, it allows me to connect with the North Carolina community and also understand the reality of politics in this country and the reality of how we deal with the rest of the world,” he says. “I am enriched by connecting with our extended community in this way.”


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