Disintermediation and Alumni Engagement: A Definition


It's a longwinded, jargony, obnoxiously buzzing buzzword, but understanding it is essential to effectively engaging your student and alumni communities.

We were thinking about disintermediation the other day—well, we think about it every day—and realized that we haven't seen the word explicitly defined in the context of engagement and advancement in higher education. Hence this post.

Andrew Gossen, senior director of social media strategy at Cornell, calls disintermediation “a graceless word, but a useful concept,” and we’re inclined to agree. Clocking in at seventeen letters and seven syllables, “disintermediation” might not seem good for anything but the second line of a haiku. But when life asks you to define an unwieldy word...you write that haiku:

What we choose to call
is just “connection.”

Before the internet, when an alumna wanted to connect with another alumna, she had to go through her alma mater—whether by contacting the local chapter of her alumni association, networking at a reunion, or asking the institution for access to its alumni database.

Now, she can connect with other alumni online, through social media and elsewhere, without having to go through her alumni association or alumni affairs office. This makes it easier for her, but it cuts the institution out of the equation.

Many alumni like it this way. Take Evan Mandery, a Harvard alumnus who wrote an opinion piece for The Huffington Post titled, “Why I'm Skipping My Harvard Reunion.” Mandery cites a practical reason for not wanting to attend his reunion—he just doesn’t need to:

I've never been unable to locate an old friend or classmate online. If one wanted to have a real conversation—as opposed to an exchange of resumes—my address is the third result that comes up when you Google me. I'm a good e-mailer and I like to have lunch.

Alumni like connecting this way—we’ll call it connecting extramurally, after the Latin extra muros, “outside the walls”—because it allows them to connect in their own time and on their own terms, without institutional mediation.

So, that definition:

Disintermediation is the shift from traditional, institution-centric networking toward decentralized, extramural connection.

Disintermediation happens when it’s easier to connect with another person directly than it is to route that connection through the institution. It has already transformed how schools engage with their alumni, and it continues to shape that relationship as institutions adjust.

We mentioned at the beginning of this blog post that understanding disintermediation holds the key to successfully engaging your community, but we didn't talk about how to adapt to and leverage disintermediation effectively. Well. Stay tuned.

Further Reading:

(What is it with all the Andrews?)