Keith Brant became UC San Diego’s
Vice Chancellor of External Relations Sept. 1.
The former assistant vice chancellor for alumni
relations at UCLA, Brant also was executive director
of the UCLA Alumni Association. A few days after
coming to campus, he sat down with Senior Writer
Ioana Patringenaru to talk about his experiences,
his philosophy of External Relations and his plans
for the future at UCSD.
Q: For our readers who are not
familiar with your former position, could you
give me a brief overview of your role as UCLA’s
assistant vice chancellor of alumni relations
and executive director of the UCLA Alumni Association?
A: I was in that role for 11
years. Although, obviously, alumni relations was
my primary focus, I was very involved with communications,
advocacy and had a piece of fundraising as well.
So I have experience in all parts of advancement.
|Vice Chancellor Keith Brant
When I look back on what we accomplished during that period, there are several areas I am very proud of. The first was our student relations program and how we prepared students to become alumni. We made it our charge to educate students on their role in becoming ambassadors for the university and the importance of philanthropy and volunteer service.
Secondly, we developed a very sophisticated marketing operation. We looked at generational differences and focused on market segmentation—generally unheard of in higher education. We recognized that within a large research university, there is not a single common experience but rather a multitude of experiences, both as students and alumni. So, it’s important to think of our audience in terms of demographic buckets and relate to our constituents in very different ways.
Over the last 10 years, we developed a very
sophisticated e-communications program to engage
alumni. Clearly, this development reflects the
era and the explosion of the Internet and electronic
tools. It not only offered a new way to communicate,
it opened so many opportunities to engage people
like never before. Previously, we depended on
a quarterly magazine to deliver information. Now,
we could get into people’s homes instantly,
regularly and efficiently.
I believe we set the standard at UCLA in electronic
communications, partly because we invested in
it early. Today, there is a monthly e-newsletter
delivered to 130,000 alumni in 16 different segments.
So, if you live in San Diego, you receive the
San Diego edition; if you live in the Bay Area,
you receive the Bay Area edition; and then if
you a recent graduate, you receive the young alumni
edition. The young alumni versions are a little
hipper and speak to a younger audience in their
language. The regional editions featured events
going on in one’s area. We always showed
faces and places—that was our theme. So
no matter where an alum was in the world, the
e-mail made one long to be back on the campus.
We often discussed the importance of creating
a sense of community. Every gathering of people,
whether students, alumni, donors or faculty is
an opportunity to help people feel part of something
special, something important, something meaningful.
At a large research institution, we have to utilize
small niches to create community. This concept
is very applicable to UCSD.
Finally, there is a tendency for alumni associations
to focus their energies on getting alumni involved
in the alumni association. But what we realized
is that it is far more important to get alumni
involved with the university and conceptualize
the role of alumni relations on campus much more
broadly than we had in the past. I think there
are a lot of opportunities to broaden alumni relations
at UCSD, too. How do we serve the whole campus?
It’s critical to bring alumni to campus
and continue to engage them in the life of the
campus. The results of a recent survey conducted
by [Associate Vice Chancellor] Stacie Spector
confirms this: getting people to campus is necessary
to build loyalty. The more people— alumni,
donors and community members— are on campus,
interacting with faculty, talking to students,
experiencing the place, the more likely they are
to be enthusiastic supporters.
Q: In many ways, UCLA is a very positive
model for UCSD to emulate. From an external relations
perspective, what do you think we at UCSD can
learn from UCLA's success and achievements?
A: During my last few years
in advancement, we developed a cohesive and integrated
advancement team. Universities traditionally talk
in terms of units, like development, communications,
alumni relations and the foundation. I believe
we have to look more at our common efforts and
less at our divisions. Let’s focus more
on building relationships, engendering support,
developing advocates and stewarding constituents.
What we do should be thought of holistically.
There are some inefficiencies now in terms of
how we do some things. In working together, collaborating
and bringing people to the table who haven’t
always been there for the discussion, I believe
we can create a higher-performing team.
Q: How would you describe your External
Relations philosophy and how do you see this philosophy
meshing with the overarching goals of the university?
A: While I’m still very
new to the campus, a few things come to mind.
First, we in External Relations work for the academic
community and we have to create close synergies
with the academic units, the schools, the
divisions, the colleges. In the past, there’s
been a feeling that External Relations did its
own thing and did not always effectively communicate
to our campus colleges. That’s not
acceptable. A closer connection to the academic
core is critical.
Secondly, I believe it’s important that we are data-driven and results-focused. And that’s not always easy to do in public relations type work. But I think at the end of the day, we need to prove to our stakeholders what we’ve accomplished and use data to make our case. Certainly, our peers in academia have to prove their hypothesis with data. We used to say in graduate school, “In God we trust … all others must bring data! ” As an advancement unit, we need to be focused on the data as well.
The other thing I believe whole-heartedly in is quality. Every time we do an event and every time we communicate with an audience, whether it’s on the Web, or in a publication, a memo, or a report, those things ought to be high quality and represent UCSD very well. We shouldn’t do anything less than top-notch, first-class.
Also, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox has outlined three priority themes: international, innovation and interdisciplinary. I believe we can be catalysts in these areas. For example, there is a lot of discussion about corporate relations. How can External Relations be a facilitator of corporate relations, since that is part of an external audience? How do we help foster innovation in terms of bringing new funding sources to the table? How are we part of the international agenda, especially in Asia and Latin America?
Q: Going forward, what are your plans
for the first few months of your tenure as Vice
Chancellor of External Relations here at UCSD?
A: What I’m doing now
is meeting people—everybody I can. There
are a lot of constituents here. I’ve already
talked with most of the deans to understand their
priorities as well as the vice chancellors and
other members of the administration, to understand
what they do, how we interface and how External
Relations can be helpful.
I am also meeting with the UCSD Foundation Trustees and other members of the donor community . Similarly, I plan to get to know the UCSD Alumni Association Board, key alumni, as well as influential members of the greater community.
Finally, I’m getting to know the External
Relations staff to better understand what people
do, how we’re funded, and how we are structured
as well as our systems and processes. For the
first few months, it’s really about doing
some tinkering first and then diving into it with
bigger plans and strategic changes as time goes
Q: What do you think your top priorities
A: Clearly, there are two current
efforts underway that are pretty central. One
is the conclusion of the capital campaign, The
Campaign for UCSD: Imagine What’s Next.
We want to have a successful year, end the campaign
having reached our goals and devise the appropriate
types of recognition and celebrations.
The second area is the branding and messaging initiative that University Communications has undertaken. Hopefully, by the end of this fiscal year, we’ll have a solid plan to launch a major marketing campaign. As the fundraising campaign winds down, we’ll launch a marketing campaign that will better position the university for the next fundraising campaign in a few years.
Q: Do you have any thoughts about what
can be done this coming year to help the university
reach its $1 billion goal for The Campaign for
UCSD: Imagine What’s Next?
A: I think we’re well
on our way to reach the $1 billion goal. Campaigns
are meant to do two main things. They’re
meant to increase the level of fundraising from
where we were at the start of the campaign to
where we are at the end of the campaign. The campus
essentially has done that. I think at the beginning
of the campaign, the campus was raising in the
neighborhood of $80-90 million per year. Now we’re
in the $140-160 million range. So that’s
been successful and, at minimum, we need to sustain
The other thing is to galvanize resources and people. That’s harder when you have a seven-year campaign because there are many other changes in that period. So what’s really more important, in addition to closing this campaign on a high note and being successful, is looking ahead and thinking about how we grow the fundraising level. How do we create systems that are going to do us well into the future?
For example, the annual giving programs have produced modest results. We need to take a look at those and make sure that in the next few years, they grow. In terms of major gifts, we need to do more outreach to alumni and community members to talk about what the university is doing and engage their interest. We need to ensure that we are engaging people now who are going to be important for the next campaign.
Q: And these would belong perhaps to
a younger demographic?
A: To some degree, yes. The
annual giving program really needs to focus on
younger alumni and create the habit of giving
to the university. At the same time, we need to
involve mid-career alumni, people in their 40s
and 50s who have either attained wealth or are
moving in that direction, to get them excited
about the university . And, we can’t
forget to sustain the meaningful involvement of
our longtime supporters and volunteers.
Q: Before I move on to questions that
are a little more personal, is there anything
else in this area that you think our readers need
to know about?
A: I’m quite anxious to
try new things but also recognize that I need
to respect the fact that there are a number of
new initiatives already in place. While
there is much room for growth and opportunity,
there has been a lot of good work done, generally
well, and there are many good people here. I’m
a person who likes change but I know a lot of
people don’t; it can be intimidating. So,
I need to make sure it’s done at the right
time, in the right way.
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Where did you grow up? What took you to Southern
A: I grew up in a working class
suburb of Chicago. After two years of college,
I transferred to UCLA where I entered the film
school. I went to Hollywood and thought that would
be exciting. But when I finished my bachelor’s
degree, I decided film and television would always
be hobbies, but not a career path or a lifestyle
that I wanted to pursue further. I really loved
UCLA and started working in the alumni association
almost right out of school. At the same time,
I became interested in issues affecting the campus
and enrolled in the master’s program in
higher education. I finished my doctorate in higher
education and did my dissertation on grass roots
leadership, looking at the ways individuals emerge
as social entrepreneurs in the community. They
are often the flip side of business entrepreneurs;
they do it for social justice or social causes.
Q: So movies are one of your hobbies,
what are your other interests or hobbies when
you are not working?
A: Raising our two boys, six
and nine, is a major part of our life. We have
fun with the usual activities, sports, hiking
and biking. I’m also an architecture and
urban design buff. That may have been another
career path I might have taken. I love historic
buildings and preservation and those kinds of
issues. I also enjoy traveling.
Q: Would you like to tell our readers
anything else about your family?
A: They haven’t moved
to San Diego quite yet. They will be moving down
during the course of the year. My wife has a career
too and managing two careers and two children
is always a balancing act.
Q: What made you decide to come to UCSD?
A: I’ve watched UCSD from
120 miles away and have always admired what it
has achieved in such a short time. As a
scholar of higher education, I know that UCSD
is clearly the higher education success story
of the last half century. There’s no other
institution that has achieved so much in such
a short period of time. I’m just in awe
of the place. When the opportunity came up, I
thought it would be a great time to take my experience
and apply it here. That’s really why I came
I’m also excited to work with Chancellor Fox. She has a lot of energy. She is sincerely interested in being thoroughly engaged in the external relations program and that’s not always true of campus CEOs. So, the fact that she wants to be out meeting donors and wants to be in the community is great. It’s just a pleasure to be able to work with that kind of energy.
Q: As assistant vice chancellor of alumni
relations at UCLA, I imagine you’ve rubbed
shoulders with a few Hollywood
stars and sport stars who are UCLA alumni. Can
you tell me about a couple of these experiences?
A: Famous people, especially
celebrity types, tend to be very private people
and they’re often not very engaged with
their Alma Mater. Even at UCLA, it’s difficult
to get actors and entertainment VIPs involved.
It’s not as glamorous as you think it would be. It’s not a whole lot different than here that way. One of the things we struggled with at UCLA was getting the support of the entertainment community. Unlike other industries, they are not traditionally supportive of higher education. They tend to be more supportive of health issues rallying around support for cancer, and pediatric AIDS and all kinds of diseases. And, maybe the arts. But they’re just not that involved in other types of support for higher education.