10/09/2013 09:29 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Homecoming's Timeless Appeal

College presidents are fond of describing their annual homecoming rituals as "picture-perfect" and "memorable." Our recent commemoration at Bethany College was, of course, all of that, and more.

We won the football game, our marching band looked splendid in their new uniforms, a family with longstanding ties to the College joined us as we rededicated the soccer field in their name. One of our communications and media arts alumni, who works in network television, fascinated our students with an eyewitness account of the postmodern Miley Cyrus on that awards show. One of our other alumni, class of 1940, proudly reminded us of his 75-year-long love affair with Bethany. Who could ask for more?

In my 30-some years as a college administrator, I have come to believe that homecoming has more than obvious significance for students, faculty and especially alumni who bask in tradition on a golden fall afternoon. Sure, it's about tailgating, marketing sweatshirts with our logo and fundraising. At Bethany, we sell tickets to the adventurous who climb more than a hundred narrow steps to the top of the Old Main clock tower, a Gothic brick castle that some would say resembles the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein, but which offers spectacular views of our mountaintop campus on a clear homecoming morning. Make that a picture-perfect morning.

Homecoming is more than reconnecting to a time and place that exist for many now only in memory as they go on about their lives without their alma mater--and vice versa. We staff and volunteers listen gratefully to the graduates' stories, happy to welcome them back. But we are also keenly aware that the connection is not constant, even for the faithful. We have a college to run, they have lives and other causes and obligations to honor, and when their reunion class year doesn't come up, we may not hear from them for another five years. We worry that they may not give to the annual fund, affecting our percentage of alumni giving. They move around--the recent grads change jobs every six months to a year--and we have to track them down like a collection agency. Heaven help us if we're not up on the latest social media. Two-hour lunch meetings are not for young urban professionals. We reach out electronically and deploy our young alumni-office staff to meet them for "Thirsty Thursday" evenings in selected cities. It's not the only way to keep the alums engaged, but it saves postage.

We had a strong turnout for Homecoming 2013 and, earlier, the spring Alumni Weekend at Bethany, and I believe--with no disrespect to our advancement staff and volunteers who worked hard to deliver registrations--that we simply offered something that no one else can. We delivered on what we were and are as an institution, as a secure setting for a weekend of relaxation and as an anchor in people's mobile, hectic lives.

You'd think that with recent higher-education developments in online learning, MOOC's, mini campuses in strip malls and all the rest that homecoming would be almost passé, as quaint as a Sunday afternoon band concert. But time and again, wherever I've worked, alumni tell me that nothing substitutes for coming home to their alma mater, if only for a weekend. Their college is a landmark of their life experience, a valued road trip on the journey to maturity, a conveyor of success, status and useful knowledge. Often where they met their spouses, or perhaps retraced the steps of parents or grandparents, college remains for most the place where they have been introduced to their most influential mentors, and been tested to their early limits.

Whatever it is, it is a strand of their DNA. This is where, if nowhere else, they belong. The alumni stroll the campus with evident entitlement and ownership. It's as if, paraphrasing Robert Frost, alma mater is where we have to take you in--even if you flunked out here before (and, of course, especially if you later made a fortune despite that!). Like the durable old clock tower at Bethany, a college campus remains formidable, commanding admiration, demanding respect. Here was where you had to prove something to someone, a long time ago, and the old brick walls bear witness.

I like to think that my alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan, will be around many years after me. We work hard to ensure that same happy outcome for Bethany College, as I know my fellow presidents do for their institutions around the country. It's a tough business we've chosen. Some homecomings, we smile through our fears and put on the best show we can.

But most of the time, for one afternoon, win or lose at the stadium, all of the metrics and objectives, enrollment targets and spreadsheets of my job are left on the desk, replaced by a kaleidoscope called homecoming.

And, yes, there is nothing like it.


Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 23rd year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.