An Accidental Career Move Leads to a Life in Development—and the Shaping of a New Field
By Robert Ast '08
Susan Feagin '74 first came to Columbia in the fall of 1968, a transitional moment both for the University, which was still reeling from the student revolt in the spring, and for her personally. "I was 19 years old, I had one year of college in Texas, I was just married, and I had just been on an airplane for the first time," she recalls.
Feagin planned to work full-time while her husband, a Columbia College student, completed his education. She obtained a job as a "junior, junior, junior secretary" in the president's office and almost simultaneously matriculated at the School of General Studies. "GS was much more of a part-time place then," she remarks. "There were more classes in the evening, more of us who were working full time and going to school part time." At the time, the GS and CC faculties were distinct entities and the GS faculty was made up largely with adjunct and non-tenure-track female professors, she recalls. "What I've realized in retrospect, though" she notes, "is that some of the very best faculty I had were these young women and young faculty members, who I think in today's world would be tenured and would be very senior but at that time just didn't have that opportunity."
She continued working at the University in an administrative capacity until she graduated in 1974 with a degree in sociology, and took a job with Columbia's then relatively small alunmi and development office. "I was the first person Columbia hired to do research on potential donors, corporations, foundations," she says. "It was an opportunity for me to move from the administrative secretarial positions to a sort of junior professional one, and so without knowing a whole lot about it I made the move on that basis, because it seemed like a career opportunity. And then over the next three or four years it just became clear to me this was something I enjoyed doing and that I had some aptitude for the various roles the job required, and I would say within five years I thought, 'Okay this is something I think I really want to invest in over time as a career."'
Over the next two decades she worked in alunmi relations and development at Columbia and Harvard, and, consequently, had a firsthand vantage point as the burgeoning field took shape. "Development as we know it today was really created in the second half of the 20th century," she observes. "Coming into it in the mid-'70s was a wonderful opponunity for me both here and at Harvard to be part of the new ways of thinking about how to connect alumni back to the university and how to engage people in a new way, so that they feel invested and want to make a significant gift back to their school."
In 1998 Lee Bollinger, then president of the University of Michigan, recruited her to Ann Arbor to serve as vice president for development, and his appointment as president of Columbia gave her a chance not only to return to her alma mater, but also to use her own experience as an alumna. "When I came back to Columbia in 2002, Lee and I talked about our experiences as Columbia alumni and the fact that Columbia needed to be very different in its outreach to alumni," she says. "There was so much that could be done and that needed to be done. And so I came back as a vice president on a mission to remake and rethink Columbia's relationships with its alumni and that's been both professional and very personal."
Even before her professional return to Columbia, though, Feagin was active as a volunteer in the GS alumni community, serving on the GS Advisory Council and endowing a scholarship for GS students. "When Gillian Lindt was the dean of GS, we had lunch, and she asked me if I would consider creating a scholarship," she recalls. "I think she knew it was something I'd been thinking about doing—but she asked me for twice as much money as I'd been thinking about giving, and I was so impressed that she did that that I found myself agreeing to it. Every year I get to meet the scholar who's supported by my scholarship and then keep track of some of the ones who've gone before and what they're doing. I think creating a scholarship fund is the best way to stay in very close contact with what's going on in your school over the course of the year, so it's been a thrill for me to be able to do that myself.
"You know, in General Studies we always talk about our nontraditional students, but I don't really like that term. I think we're all students who came to Columbia in nontraditional ways, but we're very traditional in the way we feel about General Studies and Columbia."
Feagin recently stepped down as executive vice president for University Development and Alumni Relations to accept a new position as special advisor to President Bollinger. And while the successes during her nearly decade-long tenure are numerous—including such notable accomplishments as the creation of the Columbia Alumni Association, the establishment of the Columbia Alumni Center, and the $5 billion Columbia Campaign, which has thus far surpassed its fundraising benchrnark, she received the Columbia Alumni Medal at the 2011 Commencement ceremony not for her professional work, but for her volunteer efforts. "One of the things I didn't expect about graduation day was the instant camaraderie among the alumni medalists," she says. "There was a sense of personal pride, but also the shared sense of being part of Columbia and part of this remarkable day."
Watch the video of Susan Feagin on Columbia's YouTube channel.