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Incoming External Relations Vice Chancellor
Highlights Top Priorities for Future

| September 25, 2006

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.

Keith Brant
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 on. 

Q: What do you think your top priorities will be?

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 that level.

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 California?

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 to UCSD.

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.


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