Alumni Association CEO to retire

Margaret Carlson has been head of the Alumni Association for 25 years.

Margaret Carlson stands outside her office on Friday in the McNamara Alumni Center. Carlson has been the CEO of the Alumni Association for the past 25 years.

Jules Ameel

Margaret Carlson stands outside her office on Friday in the McNamara Alumni Center. Carlson has been the CEO of the Alumni Association for the past 25 years.

by Taryn Wobbema

It was 1985 when Margaret Carlson received the phone call from the University of Minnesota beckoning her to fill an open fundraising position. She said she always intended to work at the University, but as it turned out, fundraising would not be her higher calling. âÄúI saw there was an opening for the head of the Alumni Association, and I said, âÄòThatâÄôs the job I want to apply for,âÄô âÄù Carlson said. She was named the associationâÄôs chief executive officer, making Carlson the first woman to hold that position at a Big Ten university. With her retirement looming, the Alumni Association announced Feb. 6 that Phil Esten will replace Carlson when she leaves in March. Esten is currently the associate athletics director at the University and he spearheaded the TCF Bank Stadium project, working with design, construction, operations and management. The 37-year-old will be the seventh person to head the Alumni Association. He said he looks forward to taking the managerial skills he used in the athletics department and applying them more broadly to the University. âÄúMargaret Carlson set a high bar,âÄù Bruce Mooty, co-chair of the search committee, said in a statement, âÄúand Phil is uniquely qualified to carry that leadership forward.âÄù Carlson, 66, transformed the University of Minnesota Alumni Association into more than programs for pride and spirit. The 106-year-old association has become one marked by its initiatives to support the University with its money and with its stories. When Carlson took control 25 years ago, she brought with her a vision of a network of members who work together to spur state and private support of the University. Permanent shareholders Each of the 402,000 living alumni has a story, Carlson said. âÄúPeople tell me their stories,âÄù she said. âÄúI think thatâÄôs my job, to help people understand that students come here, the University changes their [lives] and they go on and change the world.âÄù Carlson said she considers alumni the âÄúpermanent shareholdersâÄù of the University, which gives them the responsibility to act as ambassadors. Mary McLeod, chairwoman of the Alumni AssociationâÄôs Advocacy Committee, said Carlson has guided the association in researching policy issues, establishing a position on those issues and lobbying the state Legislature. âÄúWe have made a difference on many of the key initiatives at the University over the past 25 years, and MargaretâÄôs fingerprints may be found on every one of them,âÄù McLeod said at CarlsonâÄôs retirement celebration in January. Carlson will be remembered for some of the large and far-reaching projects completed under her watch. She helped lead the campaign that established the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, a committee that vets potential regents, giving more public input to a process that Carlson referred to as âÄúfar too political.âÄù In 2000, the $46-million McNamara Alumni Center opened. Carlson said the association had wanted a building for decades. Bringing Gophers football back to campus is another boasted accomplishment of the Alumni Association under Carlson. It was resolved in 2003 that the organization would pledge $1 million toward the new stadium. At President Bob BruininksâÄô request, they coupled the gift with $500,000 toward scholarships. It wasnâÄôt until 2006 that the Legislature approved the necessary $138 million to build TCF Bank Stadium. Matt Clark, Minnesota Student Association president in 2000 and 2001, worked alongside Carlson when bringing Gophers football back to campus was still an elusive dream. âÄúBack in 2000 âĦ we were looking at every option, including having the Vikings play on campus at that same time,âÄù Clark said. He is now a lifetime member of the Alumni Association, he said. He attributes his motivation to join after he graduated in 2001 to CarlsonâÄôs strong leadership. Clark said he and his wife give financially to the University, and his involvement in the Band Alumni Society âÄî a program with more than 450 members offered through the Alumni Association âÄî has allowed him to act as a mentor to current students in the band. Clark also said that as part of the Legislative Network, he meets with state legislators to convince them to support the University, despite MinnesotaâÄôs rough financial outlook. Carlson said she is most proud of this level of alumni involvement on campus. Alumni advocacy has become a staple since she has been CEO. âÄúPresidents come and go,âÄù Carlson said. âÄúFaculty come and go. Alumni are the only permanent shareholders of the University of Minnesota.âÄù The path-breaker Carlson said she was inspired by her mother in her leadership role. âÄúMy mother was a path-breaker. She was in education for 28 years, and when she retired she ran for the Kansas Legislature,âÄù Carlson said. âÄúShe became the first female Catholic democratic legislator out of Dodge City, Kansas.âÄù Carlson earned her bachelorâÄôs and masterâÄôs degrees at Kansas State University. She moved to Minnesota with her husband, Cal, in 1966 and spent 42 of the years that followed as either an employee or a student at the University. In 1983 she earned her doctorate degree in educational administration and public policy. After a three-year stint as executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, she became head of the growing Alumni Association, which has doubled in membership since she took the helm. Carlson meticulously plans her day, waking early to utilize the quiet time by herself and make her to-do list. The rest of her day is filled with meetings: breakfast, lunch and committee meetings with a handful of phone calls, a couple surprises and a crisis âÄúthat often happens,âÄù Carlson said. âÄúI donâÄôt know how she finds the time to sleep,âÄù McLeod said. Carlson said her job keeps her busy seven days a week, but she loves her work. Originally, she planned to stay for five years. Now, 25 years, an alumni center and a Gophers-only stadium later, Carlson is taking her passion to a national higher-education consulting firm and leaving her job behind. âÄúI came from Kansas, and this has been my love and my life ever since,âÄù she said. -Taryn Wobbema is a senior staff reporter.