Alumni
Magazines
Matter

College and university publications reach out to a wider world

By Catherine O’Neill Grace | Illustration by Brian Stauffer

I

I’m not sure when the late Brian Doyle, editor of Portland magazine, wrote the famous mission statement for the university magazine he led. But I am sure that it’s something my colleagues and I in this business have printed out and hung on our bulletin boards, handed around at CASE Editors Forums, and shared with each other via email. I received it first from my longtime friend and colleague Robert Benchley, who’s now the editor of University of Miami Medicine magazine.

Here’s an excerpt from Brian’s statement: “The University of Portland’s Portland Magazine wants to be the finest magazine on earth. It wishes to connect to its readers, of every sort and stripe, in their electric souls and imaginations and shivering hearts. It wishes to account the stories and dreams and visions and glories and sins and grace of the University in the largest conceivable terms, so that any and every reader, anywhere where American is spoken or read, whether you have heard of the University or not, will be engaged, intrigued, and riveted by the University’s character, flavor, and roaring pursuit of hope and courage and imagination bent into forms of prayer and weapons against the dark.”

Tongue in cheek, you say. Well, a bit. But over the course of the eight years that I have been senior associate editor of Wellesley, I have come to feel that Brian was right. We really do seek to share the dreams and visions of our institutions “in the largest conceivable terms.” We want to tell stories that matter not only to our alumni, but to the larger world.We celebrate the nostalgic, to be sure. No summer issue of Wellesley would be complete without a photo and short report about hoop rolling, a race run every April since 1895, in which seniors in their graduation robes roll old-fashioned wooden hoops down a college lane onto the lawn above Lake Waban. Yes, we cover hoop rolling. But in recent issues we have also published stories about the prevalence of hatred against Asian Americans; about the disappearance of North America’s birds; about the efforts of our 1999 alumna, Jocelyn Benson, secretary of state for Michigan, to secure the vote during the last election. Our alums, our faculty, our students are in the world and are making a difference in the world. And we want the world to know about it.

Like so many of us, I am working remotely at the moment. Scattered on the pine trunk that serves as a table in my home office are a stack of recent alumni magazines, from Smith, Stanford, Clark, Amherst, Kenyon, Harvard, Mount Holyoke, Williams, and Swarthmore. Their pages tell stories about students fighting for climate resiliency, about the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on the economy, about efforts for racial justice, about teaching in prison. A cover line on Kenyon magazine asks, “Is the American experiment still viable?” Alumni magazines are telling stories that matter.

“ The role of the magazine is to ‘show alumni the diversity of thought and experience of the population of people who constitute the Williams community.’ College magazines do this best ‘when they are making connections to what’s going on out in the world…’”

—Amy Lovett, Williams College

There are dozens of other examples from other institutions back in my office on campus. And I guarantee that every one of those volumes contains at least one story that carries readers into the wider world where someone from their community—a student, a faculty member, an alum—is out there making a difference.  And those stories are being read: According to CASE’s Alumni Magazine Readership Survey, magazines remain the primary source of institutional information for alumni, over email, the Web, or word-of-mouth. Since 2016, more than 80 percent of the 91,000 alumni surveyed by 176 institutions said they read all or most magazine issues.

As I was thinking about the role our publications play in the world, I called up a trio of thoughtful colleagues about the question. They represent a range of  institutions: a venerable liberal arts college, a large university medical school, and a fast-growing Texas university with vigorous undergraduate and graduate research programs. “Do our magazines matter?” I asked them.

My first call was to Amy T. Lovett, editor in chief at Williams Magazine, at Williams College, in Massachusetts. “The elevator pitch mission of a magazine is to connect alumni, faculty and staff, and prospective students to each other,” she says. “You keep them informed, keep them entertained, make them aware of the enduring values that haven’t changed.”

She adds, “Williams is an institutional magazine, and it’s read primarily by alumni. And what makes it different is that we’re not necessarily writing to alumni; we’re writing about Williams. If we were writing a magazine for alumni, the assumption is that the only way to spark connection and engagement is through nostalgia—writing about the college song or purple cow mascot or printing the school colors purple and gold on every page.”

But it’s bigger than that, Lovett says. The role of the magazine is to “show alumni the diversity of thought and experience of the population of people who constitute the Williams community.” College magazines do this best “when they are making connections to what’s going on out in the world and showing that, hey, there’s a graduate who researches that, or there’s a professor who’s teaching a fascinating class about that, or there’s a group of students who are taking it upon themselves to go out and address food insecurity, or any of an infinite list of things. That’s exciting to write about. And from what we hear back from reader surveys, I think it’s exciting for our readers to read about. They’re interested in those stories.”

These stories, Amy adds, “help us make sense of the times.”

“We are leaning in, on science, on ethics, on the role of humanities in the world. And in that context we can hold a space for the kind of civil conversation and civic community that other places might have a harder time managing.”

—Lynn Gosnell, Rice University

Lynn Gosnell, senior editor of Rice Magazine, in Houston, says that working in a university setting puts her 60,000-circulation publication “close to the source where research and discovery is happening,” allowing it to synthesize fresh ideas and approaches to knowledge. “We can report in an in-depth fashion. Our alumni are smart, engaged, involved, informed people, and we connect them back to this very cool project of higher education. We write stories based on data and research and interpretation that we hope are useful to the world. We are a voice for expertise.”

A new column, “The Explainer,” started in Rice Magazine last year, asks experts from the university about something topical. “We’ve had two columns so far,” says Lynn. “The first was on why there was a freeze and everybody lost power in this area, in the whole state, and part of Oklahoma. We asked one of our civil engineers who’s an environmental expert.” The second “Explainer” explored vaccine hesitancy. “We are leaning in, on science, on ethics, on the role of humanities in the world,” Lynn says. “And in that context we can hold a space for the kind of civil conversation and civic community that other places might have a harder time managing.”

In spring 2020, Bob Benchley was just about to ship University of Miami Medicine magazine to the printer when Covid hit—and the decision was made to start over. “We went online, and in about five weeks, we produced 37 stories about our response to Covid,” he says.

The University of Miami School of Medicine’s location gives it a unique perspective, Bob says. “Miami is both a destination and a stepping-off place. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen here, and often here first. As one of our really smart faculty people said in an article about racial equity in clinical research, ‘We’re asking the questions that a lot of other places don’t even know are there to ask yet.’”

The magazine is distributed to staff, faculty, alumni, and donors, and “the dean sends it to the deans of all the other medical schools,” Bob says. Dean Henri R. Ford, M.D., M.H.A., arrived on campus with big dreams about expanding the medical school’s reputation and reach—and the magazine is a part of that plan.

“A lot of that is instilling pride and the sense of importance in our alumni, that they went to a great place, that it continues to be a great place, and that what we’re doing matters, and what they took away from us matters.” 

“A lot of that is instilling pride and the sense of importance in our alumni, that they went to a great place, that it continues to be a great place, and that what we’re doing matters, and what they took away from us matters.”

—Bob Benchley, University of Miami

Let’s circle back to Brian Doyle, as those of us in the alum magazine community so often do, though we lost him in 2017. He wrote that a college or university magazine can “be the mission in the bowl of [your readers’] hands four times a year.” He exhorts those of us building alumni magazines to be “as real and personal and personable and honest and genuine and testy and silly and sweet and tart and curious and tearful and hilarious as some magic person who was the compendium of all the University’s people would be if she showed up at your door and said, ‘Hey, can I come in and sit in the kitchen and tell you amazing stories?’ ”

That’s what college and university magazines do: They carry the stories of our vibrant institutions into the world, where they just might make a difference.

Catherine O’Neill Grace is an author, editor, and magazine junkie based in Sherborn, Mass. She still laments the shuttering of New England Monthly magazine.