Outside In: The Dugoni Alumni Association Becomes a Dental School Division

“You are not here merely to make a living,” New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson told the New York Press Club on September 9, 1912, on the eve of his election to the U.S. presidency. “You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” Substitute the phrase “Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry” for “the world,” and you will recognize an elegant, timeless description of the dental school’s Alumni Association, which since its formation in 1898 has never forgotten its errand.

Since the 19th century, almost all American higher learning institutions have fostered alumni organizations. Until the 1980s, on the other hand, most European schools, curiously, did not. Alumni networks provide platforms for graduates and school supporters to stay in touch with people who represent a connection with the impressionable, formative years that reshape world views and mold careers. But few alumni groups have been as intimately involved—or as generous in sharing the three Ts of volunteer power: time, talent and treasury—with their alma maters as the Dugoni School of Dentistry’s Alumni Association.

Honoring a two-fold mission of supporting students — both current and former — and serving the school, the Dugoni School of Dentistry’s Alumni Association has been a critical force in helping shape and develop school values. For example, the Alumni Association was an early champion of continuing education in dentistry. In 1925, it established a Lecture and Postgraduate Foundation to offer courses to its members. The Alumni Association was a pioneering proponent of technology. In 1955, not long after television became commercially available, it gave the school a closed-circuit television system. The Alumni Association has long embraced state-of-the-art facilities. Alumni funds largely paid for the 1967 Webster Street school and drove its many remodeling campaigns, in addition to providing a loan to open the Union City Dental Care Center. Alumni have also literally reinvented the dental school at least twice in its 117-year history. They rescued it from closure in 1924, and they were instrumental in brokering the merger of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of San Francisco with University of the Pacific in 1962.

Most alumni think of the Alumni Association as an integral part of the school structure. I remember then-Dean Arthur A. Dugoni telling my class at our first-day orientation in 1982, “You will be a student for three years here at the finest dental school in the country, but you will be an alumnus for the rest of your life.” And, indeed, when I graduated, I found tucked behind my diploma another certificate formally announcing my matriculation as a member of the Alumni Association. The Association feels like a natural extension of the School of Dentistry. Yet throughout its history, the Alumni Association has never really been a bona fide unit of the school. Rather, it accomplished its goals as an independent body, one that, while it both lent and received support from the school, and was even housed within the building, remained outside the actual dental school and University administration. The relationship has been one of mutualistic symbiosis, like an ostrich moving with a herd of zebras.

Last year, the symbiosis shifted. The Alumni Association’s six-member executive board, along with its board of 13 directors, mulled over several significant shifts in the savannah’s financial and regulatory winds. The environment for nonprofit organizations had changed. New Internal Revenue Service guidelines and requirements were bringing more scrutiny of fiduciary responsibilities, placing a higher administrative burden on the Association.

The Association realized it faced a right-turn, left-turn choice. It could become completely independent from the University and dental school, carefully separating all the traditionally intertwined organizational arrangements, and beginning to perform autonomous — and more expensive — functions such as paying rent for space and equipment and doing its own payroll. Or, it could give up its non-profit 501 (c)(6) status and become an official department of the dental school.

Association leaders assessed the costs and benefits of each alternative. On the plus side, such burdens as separate liability insurance, monthly internal audits and vendor contract liability would disappear. On the minus side, direct investment control would be curtailed. Board members concluded that integrating with the dental school would allow access to the University’s full range of administrative resources, including legal, compliance, regulatory and professional counsel. What’s more, such a merger would comply with new provisions of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), a standard for organizations that handle cardholder information for the major debit and credit cards. To step under the University umbrella would be consistent with all other alumni organizations within the University system.

On December 1, 2012, after the move was approved by a 95% vote of current dues-paying members, the Alumni Association transferred its status from external nonprofit to an official department of the dental school. The departmental changeover, says Alumni Association President Suzanne Saidi ’91, which was purely administrative, won’t alter the character of the Alumni Association at all.

Alumni Association Assistant Director Joanne Fox agrees. “I believe our members will find the transition so smooth,” she says, “as to be unnoticeable.” While internal accounting processes have dramatically changed, the organization’s mission is the same—to foster lifelong relationships among the members and with the school. The deep sense of belonging to the Dugoni School of Dentistry family will remain, she says, as will the rapport among members.

Alumni Association-School of Dentistry relationships also remain seamless. The Alumni Association already has many years’ experience collaborating with other dental school units, such as Marketing and Communications, Information Technology, Continuing Dental Education, and Design and Photo Services. And like those areas, the Alumni Association has been under the aegis of the Institutional Advancement division. Fox and Alumni Association Executive Director David Nielsen ’67 have been representing the Alumni Association at monthly Institutional Advancement meetings to share news, develop ideas and plan events with other directors and managers. Some existing interrelationships are deepening. The Alumni Association president-elect, for example, now participates in Pacific Dugoni Foundation (PDF) board meetings, and the PDF president likewise attends Alumni Association board meetings.

As if to illustrate this enhanced synergy, in conjunction with the transition, the Association made two significant gifts to the dental school: a contribution of $155,500 to support the Dugoni New Building Fund, which will name the Dean’s Conference Room for the Alumni Association, and a second gift of $350,000 to establish the Alumni Association of the University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry Endowment.

Most alumni think of the Alumni Association as an integral part of the school structure.

Saidi notes that amalgamating with the dental school and parent University will help the Alumni Association secure a variety of strategic advantages, such as being able to more fully accomplish its strategic plan, garnering support for later growth and ensuring long-term sustainability. The increase in formal institutional assistance will be immediately useful. “Now that we are a department under the dental school,” Saidi says, “we have many more resources at our fingertips.” For example, she explains, “When the school moves to its new building, we will be able to have continuing education courses at the school concurrent with the Alumni Meeting.” In short, the Association will gain greater access to dental school staff and funds, while simultaneously protecting its portfolio. “We have systems in place to make our own decisions,” Saidi says, “and we will be able to allocate funds where the money will be best used.”

The Alumni Association’s administrative conversion has afforded its leaders an extended occasion for contemplating both its fundamentals and future. The Association’s strategic plan, fueled according to its vision statement by the qualities of “pride, passion and performance,” pivots on a foundational set of four values. The first is integrity, a commitment to accountability and high ethical standards. The second is communication, the encouragement of active listening and open discussion. Third is leadership, the application of “visionary guidance with innovation and dedication.” Fourth is camaraderie, the embodiment of belonging, goodwill and rapport.

Association goals involve improving the value of the Association; creating a multi-venue, top-quality continuing education program; developing and maintaining a content-rich online presence focused on alumni, who can now log on to a dedicated website at dugonionline.org; growing and expanding active alumni membership; and developing a practice management program that includes transitions, opportunities, staff development and resource information.

Traditional alumni activities, programs, functions and events including its Annual Meeting, the Alumni/Graduate Banquet, First-Year Welcome Cioppino Dinner and various regional receptions, luncheons, dinners and breakfasts for members, will all go on under the new administrative arrangement. Saidi also lists a number of newer alumni initiatives specifically aimed at supporting students, including collecting extracted teeth for laboratory classes and board examinations, helping secure patients for state and regional board examinations, contributing articles for the quarterly student publication The Articulating Paper and contributing to overseas student missions. The Alumni Association is also now forming committees to assist in the transition to the new dental school campus.

Saidi says that while her main mission as president of the Alumni Association is to grow membership, the newest — and future — members are most in need of alumni help. She observes that older dentists already understand that alumni relationships with the school and each other are crucial for personal and professional growth. “I want to also help younger dentists understand that we are here for them,” Saidi says. “They should not feel alone, like an island.”

The Dugoni School of Dentistry beginners are responding. “During my almost 10 years on the Alumni Association Board,” Saidi says, “I have seen firsthand the students and our younger alumni reaching out to us more and more for help with events, sponsorship and support. We have a huge amount of support and positive energy to give back to them.”

As the relationship arm of the Dugoni School of Dentistry, the Alumni Association aims, regardless of its administrative details, to keep fostering warm connections of every age. Quite simply, Saidi says, “I want our Alumni Association to be the best anywhere.”

Eric K. Curtis ’85, DDS, of Stafford, Arizona, is a contributor to Contact Point and is the author of A Century of Smiles, a historical book covering the dental school’s first 100 years.