Are Canadians less loyal to their universities?

Watching March Madness over the weekend, a Canadian viewer of the NCAA men’s basketball championship simply can’t miss the cultural difference between our two nations, in how we relate to our colleges and universities.

Watching March Madness over the weekend, a Canadian viewer of the NCAA men’s basketball championship simply can’t miss the cultural difference between our two nations, in how we relate to our colleges and universities.

One can’t help but wonder: why are Americans so much more devoted to their universities than we are? What’s the source of this fanatical fandom — the almost religious zeal — that alumni in the U.S. seem to have for their alma mater?

It’s an order of magnitude so much higher than the Canadian experience; surely someone must have studied the phenomenon to try to explain it.

Here’s a story I picked up at a social gathering over the weekend.

A friend, just returned from their regular winter vacation in Arizona, told of a golf date he had at their resort. Members arrive at the clubhouse and are mixed for tee times with the other members, to go out as random foursomes.

My friend was wearing a hat with a large letter M and a golf mate asked if it meant my friend was from Michigan, or was a graduate of the state university. Why? Because the companion was from Ohio. He owed his loyalty to Ohio State — and there was no way he was ever going to even share a tee box with anyone connected to the University of Michigan.

These are gents of retirement age at a winter resort, not hot-blooded young university students who found themselves in the wrong pub.

We don’t get that kind of loyalty in Canada. We don’t pay for it, either.

The alumni associations of Canadian universities and colleges must look across the border with envy at the captive crowds of graduates who can be relied upon for regular financial support.

There are quiet corners on some U.S. campuses, well-treed (or ivy-covered, depending on climate) with well-appointed chapels so that alumni (or their children) can be married under the university logo.

Lord knows what might happen in a mixed marriage, should a lass from Georgetown meet a lad from Gonzaga. Under whose colours would the children be christened?

In our family, between parents and children, we have collectively paid tuition and fees for 25 years of post-secondary education (not counting the academic enslavement of one as a sessional instructor working on a doctorate). Those years were spent at seven different institutions.

The alumni association letters arrive quite regularly, asking for our grateful support. Where should our loyalties lie?

Cost of education doesn’t seem to explain the differences in alumni loyalty.

American students pay a lot more out of pocket for their educations, but student debt per graduate is similar between our two countries.

Just the same, there is a trillion-dollar U.S. student loan bill outstanding, and millions of students are in default. You can’t use private-versus-public support of tuition costs to explain why U.S. grads are so much more fanatically loyal than Canadian grads.

I’m going to suggest the differences are part of cultural history.

America gained nationhood with a violent revolution against Britain, but retained part of its class system.

America saw itself as just as good as Britain and to prove it, built ivy-league schools that are just as class-based, and resemble the exclusivity of Oxford and Cambridge.

A working-class student who qualifies can enter both, but on acceptance takes on a different (higher) status. In equal-opportunity U.S., status is determined in part by where one gets one’s professional credentials.

Thus, it is important for alumni to promote the status of their alma mater.

In Canada, we retained the British tradition in legal and public institutions, but rejected the rigid class system. We try to rank our universities (Macleans magazine makes an heroic effort every year to do just that), but a degree is more of a degree here, regardless of the appended “from the U of ….”

Instead of ranking class size, or the happiness of second-year students, perhaps Macleans should try to rank the per-graduate donations and loyalty of alumni.

Which schools do best in retaining loyalty of their grads? Which schools have more grads showing up to cheer at sports events years later and which can count on cash gifts or large endowments?

Not quite at the level of U.S. schools, I would imagine. But reviewing that would give a better measurement of our personal connection to the institutions that opened doors for us to achieve our dreams.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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