At least seven Alumni Association board members resign over merger discord

Media Credit: Ethan Stoler | Contributing Photo Editor

Venessa Marie Perry, the president of the Alumni Association, announced a merger between the group and the University's alumni office at a Board of Trustees meeting last month.

Uncertainty about the future of the GW Alumni Association has pushed at least seven members of the group’s governing body to resign, former and current board members said.

In interviews, more than 10 alumni who either currently sit or have previously served on the organization’s Board of Directors said their questions and concerns about the impending integration of the Alumni Association and the Office of Alumni Relations were ignored by the group’s leaders. Current and former members said anyone who voiced opposing views about the merger was silenced by senior leadership, as some alumni raised concerns that the union could threaten the independence of the organization.

But even alumni who said the merger may be a positive move for the association said the rollout of the change was opaque and one-sided – prompting many to leave.

Venessa Marie Perry, the president of the Alumni Association, first announced a strategic task force to align the goals of the organization with GW’s alumni office in October. She reported at a Board of Trustees meeting last month that GWAA would officially join the Office of Alumni Relations in July.

But past and present board members said Perry presented the merger to board members months before as if the affiliation were likely to happen whether or not board members wanted it.

Perry, who became president of the Alumni Association last June, said the group has facilitated “productive conversations about the advantages and disadvantages” of the merger for more than a year. She said all members of the board were given the opportunity to provide feedback about the change during board and committee meetings, participation in a working group focused on integration and question-and-answer sessions during conference calls.

“Change is difficult and like any important decision, there are some board members who agree with integration and some who do not,” she said in an email. “Those who have been most participatory in these conversations have been supportive of integration.”

She said the members who decided to leave the board “did so of their own accord.”

Of the 11 alumni who spoke to The Hatchet, seven spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

A former board member said after Perry sent an email in early May with updates about the board’s activities, four board members sent their resignation emails in the same email chain.

In the email, which was obtained by The Hatchet, Perry said the merger is a positive step for the organization and that the group cannot improve if there is “disrespect and dissension” on the board.

“If people don’t like the way the organization is going, then this is probably no longer a good fit for you,” she wrote.

In one of the resignation letters obtained by The Hatchet, an alumnus who had served for five years on the board said though they agreed with the merger, alumni had been “sidelined” and “marginalized” during the process. The discussion on the direction of GWAA was confined to short board meetings and included little follow-up or written documentation, they said in the resignation letter.

“Dissension isn’t disrespect,” the alumnus said in the resignation email. “It’s absolute respect for the organization and concern for the future.”

The alumnus said that while members understand the pressure from the University to merge the GWAA with the alumni office – many had heard that University President Thomas LeBlanc and the Board of Trustees insisted that the two entities unite – the “conflict and discord surrounding this decision seems like it was entirely avoidable.”

“While there are certainly merits of the integration proposal, it feels overshadowed by the secretive and confrontational rollout,” the resignation letter states. “That’s emblematic of the lack of transparency, trust, information-sharing and respect for board members.”

Monika Laws, an alumna who currently serves on the governance committee of the board, said alumni would have rallied around the strategic alignment of the University with the alumni group, but there was no transparency from Perry or Matt Manfra, the associate vice president for the Office of Alumni Relations, throughout the planning of the merger.

She said most of the communication about the merger took place over email and conference calls, and when she and other board members asked for information and transcriptions of meetings of the strategic alignment task force – the main group working on the merger – the requests went unanswered by Perry.

Laws added that the departures of several dedicated members of the board will damage the University’s reputation and hurt efforts to gain financial and volunteer support from alumni.

“It’s really impacted negatively board members who are elected to represent the alumni body,” Laws said. “You have people, alumni going in to the community, coming off the board in a very negative way. That is not how we build strong alumni relations.”

Manfra said planning is still underway for exactly how the two entities will be integrated. He said the GWAA discussed the merger for more than a year, and the GWAA and staff from the alumni office are “active partners” in the conversations about the change.

Manfra declined to say how alumni and staff members at OAR have reacted to the merger and how the office has reacted to feedback from alumni. He declined to say how long it will take to merge the offices.

He also declined to say how the merger will improve alumni giving at the University or how the change has altered the alumni engagement strategy and goals of the office. He declined to describe how the merge would benefit alumni and GW or how OAR’s staffing would change as a result of the merger.

Six past presidents of the Alumni Association wrote a letter, which was obtained by The Hatchet, to the board in October 2016 warning members that merging the two organizations would mean a loss of independence for the organization.

“An independent structure was vital at times when the University was not supportive of alumni programming,” the letter states. “On the other hand, an independent voice is also helpful when the relationship is good because independent volunteers can advocate points in a way that staff and University appointees cannot.”

Charlie Leizear, a current board member, said the way Perry has handled the merger doesn’t reflect the new University president’s goal of building up philanthropy and volunteer engagement at GW. Perry runs the association in “fear and secrecy,” he said.

“Unfortunately, Venessa’s inability to engender trust among the GWAA’s Board of Directors has put this merger in jeopardy and only makes it appear as if things have returned to the age-old stereotype that GW only cares about money,” he said in an email.

In interviews, past and current alumni on the board recalled meetings and emails when Perry would allegedly dismiss opposing views and questions about the merger and other decisions she made about the association.

Jeff Fair, a former board member, said he felt like he was giving back to the school and making an impact during his first years serving on the board, but after many board members left, he decided not to renew his term this year. Fair said he often felt like members of the board were belittled for asking questions and thought it was wrong for Perry to “unilaterally” decide to shrink the board last October.

“The last two years were bad – the last year has been nightmarish,” he said.

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