For four decades, Paula Bonner MS’78 has been a presence on UW–Madison’s campus. She arrived as a graduate student, oversaw the development of the women’s varsity sports program, and then led the Wisconsin Alumni Association® (WAA) for 17 years, guiding it through merger with the UW Foundation. She’s been inducted into the UW’s Athletic Hall of Fame, been cited as a national leader in alumni relations, and ridden down State Street in nearly 30 Homecoming parades.
At the end of June, she stepped down from WAA’s presidency, and she’ll retire on October 31, after the opening of Alumni Park. As she prepares to wrap up her career as the UW’s most enthusiastic graduate, she spoke with Badger Insider magazine and offered insight from her past, present, and future.
You studied physical education as an undergrad, but you taught for only one year. How come?
When I graduated [from the University of North Carolina–Greensboro], all I could think about was athletics and getting more opportunities for girls to participate in sports. These where the early days of Title IX, well before the era of more unlimited horizons for women’s
careers. It was 1975, and I had the pleasure of teaching in Barnwell, South Carolina. But after about seven months of the nine-month school year, I knew I was ready to not do that again. Eighth-graders are delightful and malleable in terms of values and aspirations, but they’re also — well, I wasn’t cut out for being a disciplinarian.
You came to Madison for graduate school. What was it like?
It was an interesting time on campus — ’75, ’76 — and it was a very vibrant time for gender issues and equity. I, being from South Carolina, came up to Wisconsin and thought I’d died and gone to heaven because it was so progressive, and I felt like there was a real place for women. I just took to the city and campus and state like a duck to water. I felt like I’d come home.
What did you study?
My graduate program was an independently designed one, so I took some physical-education courses, but I also took a lot of higher-ed administration courses in the School of Education. My thesis was on the application of values to the decision-making process. I did a study of a number of the leading women in athletics administrative positions around the country, and I [surveyed them with] different questions that were about leadership in women’s athletics.
And you also worked in the athletics department?
With my graduate assistantship, I was a 50 percent administrative assistant in athletics, working with (then) Kit Saunders [Nordeen MS’66, PhD’77]. So, I got right into athletics administration and management, helping to run tournaments and all kinds of things. When I finished my master’s thesis in August of ’78, Kit and Otto Breitenbach [’48, MS’55] said, “We’d love to have you stay on full time as assistant athletics director,” and I said, “Well, I’d love to do that! That would be perfect!” Then in ’82 there was some restructuring of the Athletics Department, and Kit had new responsibilities, and I was essentially the women’s athletics director. And then I had 13 years helping to build the women’s athletics program.
Was the UW a welcoming environment for women’s sports?
At the start of Title IX, the UW had converted 12 women’s club sports into intercollegiate teams … The faculty and the staff on the UW–Madison Athletic Board were involved in Title IX and equity issues on campus, and that was a great network to work with. [They convinced the athletics department that] Title IX exists, and we need to move along here. Let’s work on the budget and the staffing and all of that kind of thing. … I didn’t know it then, but it gave me an understanding of faculty governance and how to use informal power and influence along with official, formal power. Because mostly I was using the informal kind of stuff to make things happen.
You did that for 13 years. What brought you to WAA?
In 1989, WAA’s longtime director, Arlie Mucks [’47], had announced his retirement at the end of the year, and the executive committee of the board was then looking at who should be the executive director. With Donna Shalala’s encouragement, they were going to name Gayle Langer [’83], who had been the associate executive director. And Gayle wanted to be able to go ahead and hire an assistant executive director. Gayle talked to me about whether I was interested, and I wasn’t sure.
What made you decide to jump to the alumni association?
Donna Shalala came over and said, “Come on over, Paula, I want to buy you a hot dog for lunch.” We stood at the back of the parking lot at Bascom and wolfed down a hot dog, and she said, “I think this would be a great move for you. And this’ll be great. Maybe you’ll even come back and be the athletics director after this. You know a lot of people, and I think this would be great. We need a good, strong alumni association. We have a lot that we need to get done in outreach around the state.” I said, “Okay!”
And you saw immediately that this was the right move?
I remember my first week at the old Alumni House. I had a tiny, little, four-by-six office, and it was literally tucked underneath the staircase. And I had had a really cool, big office in Camp Randall. And I sat there thinking, “What have I done to myself? What am I doing here?” I was just scared and sad and thought, “Oh, my God, what have I done?” But Arlie, Gayle, and I overlapped from July through December 1989, which was fun. I got a little bit closer to understanding what I had gotten myself involved with. I really didn’t have a clue, but I caught on pretty quick. I remember driving around the state with Arlie and Donna and meeting so many people. That was a crash course in outreach, public relations, and building relationships.
How did Shalala help guide you?
The thing that Donna did that was both personally rewarding but also very good for the development of the alumni association was that she really turned to Gayle and me to help her out with some of the new types of programs that she wanted to initiate. We helped provide some of the logistical planning for SOAR and Parents’ Weekend and that kind of thing. [We were] trying to tell the story to the citizens of the state that educating their children was really important, and it mattered. Irv [Shain] had done a tremendous job building the research capacity and emphasis at the university — tremendous in that area. Donna came in and took a look at … state support, knowing that we needed a stronger set of allies and advocates. I think back on all these things that got put into place under her. We had this — I call it the trifecta — of Donna, David Ward [MS’62, PhD’63], and John Wiley [MS’65, PhD’68].
How has UW life changed in the last 40 years?
One of the most exciting themes of the time I’ve been here is this kind of transformation of undergraduate education. We reduced the size of the place a little bit. We got more intentional around advising. We’re much more thoughtful academically and in terms of extracurricular activities, cultural life, residential colleges — all of those kinds of things have just come light-years in the last 40 years. I think that has led to why we have 30,000 to 35,000 applicants a year here.
What do you consider your major accomplishments at WAA?
A hallmark of the last decade was a commitment to providing alumni with a whole new level of academically based lifelong-learning programs. WAA partnered with the Division of Continuing Studies to offer such new programs as Alumni College by the Sea and Alumni University, and we partnered with other UW campus units to present programs that continue today, such as Wednesday Nite @ the Lab, Made in Wisconsin, and the now-legendary Grandparents University®. I have also always been very proud of the alumni magazines, On Wisconsin and Badger Insider, as well as the different versions and types of digital newsletters that we’ve had, certainly now into the Flamingle. I really see alumni relations and engagement as the accumulation of impact across many channels. And there are two other really important accomplishments from this period. First, we’ve seen WAA extend its international reach — for instance, we hosted alumni gatherings in Asia in 2000 and in Europe in 2003, and we’ve seen international alumni take a greater interest in the health of UW–Madison. And second we’ve really improved volunteer participation. This is with our board and with advisory groups and with career initiatives and through digital and in-person programs. In addition to working with wonderful staff colleagues, I would say that the partnerships and friendships built with so many incredible, talented, diverse, and dedicated Wisconsin alumni has brought me the greatest joy and satisfaction.
In 2014, you helped to lead WAA through a merger with the UW Foundation. Why was that important?
Both we and the Foundation have the same ultimate goal: to support UW–Madison. We engage alumni to keep the UW strong; the Foundation engages donors to promote the university’s financial health. Mike [Knetter, the UW Foundation president] and I felt that the organizations could do so much more working closely together. We can coordinate our combined efforts in a truly strategic way so that alumni, donors, and friends know that they’re part of UW–Madison’s past, present, and future.
But these 40 years haven’t all been positive, right?
This is very sad to me, as I sit here today: when I came, the board of regents was a strong mix of both political parties, and they came together to take care of and advance the university. But with the politicization of the appointment of the regents and the rise of divisive, partisan politics, it’s really challenging. Now education is a political football, instead of being a strong place of common ground. Politicians used to reach across the aisle to work on educational issues. There was a time when the university was very much loved, and that feeling was bipartisan. There was a positive synergy around the partnership among the alumni and the chancellor and the regents and the state to make some big ideas come to fruition. But the tide turned, and now we’re trying to hold up the dam.
What kinds of things have alumni helped to accomplish?
Alumni played an active role during the campus reaccreditation project in 2009, and they gave input on the strategic directions that came out of that process. People off campus don’t realize how important this was, but the university has to renew its accreditation with the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools every 10 years. We spent two years in self-study, and the process set the UW’s strategic framework. Some of the university’s chief goals right now — reinvigorating the Wisconsin Idea, providing an exemplary undergraduate education — those were influenced by alumni input.
That was a project that ran under two chancellors — Wiley and Biddy Martin PhD’85. How have you kept consistent when leadership changes?
It’s the whole totality of our brand. I think we’ve strengthened the brand of WAA quite a bit in the recent period of time — marketing, communications, events. We hang together better and do a better job of communicating all that we do. And that’s helped us show the value that alumni have to different leaders — to show what alumni are capable of. And in turn we’ve been able to mobilize alumni to support leaders: David Ward when he was pushing for the Madison Initiative and Biddy when she was promoting the New Badger Partnership. I still feel like we did a very brave and honorable thing, trying to communicate about that in a turbulent time.
What advice would you give to your successor, Sarah Schutt?
Sarah has hit the ground running, as I expected! I don’t think she really needs any advice from me. I can’t wait for alumni to get to know her better, and I’m looking forward to watching her lead alumni relations and engagement for a long time to come. My only advice is to keep listening and working with fellow alumni, as well as with campus leaders — “bringing outside perspectives in,” as I have said for so many years. But, Sarah doesn’t need me to tell her that!
One of your last major initiatives is Alumni Park. Why create a park?
I think it was really obvious that this last block of the East Campus Mall, a block that had been designated to be green space, was just sitting there like a big, fat softball on a batting tee. Someone had to take advantage of that opportunity, in some way or another, and I saw that it could be WAA.
You’ve also launched a rebuild of the alumni center, One Alumni Place.
I wanted alumni to start feeling like they had a spot especially for themselves to come into, and I wanted more visibility for the alumni center. That red pylon has been really important to me. I hated this building being in the shadows. Now I think it’ll be very hard to sit on the Union Terrace and not see the big, red sign that says “Wisconsin Alumni.”
You call Alumni Park a storytelling park. It includes information on lots of grads. Which are your favorite stories?
Emily Hahn ’26 [the first female engineering graduate] — I don’t know that she’s my favorite, but she’s an example of somebody we’ve immortalized by putting her in the park, and she could’ve just gone on forever without ever being known. I also love the numbers of people who are honored. The breadth and range of all of these graduates and their stories — that makes me very happy to have such a range represented in there.
And afterward, when the opening is over and you’re retired — what will you do then?
I’m going to come to the park for sure on December 4 for my birthday. I’ll have a Plazaburger. I’ll sit on one of the benches and stare out over the lake, and look at everything, and just really absorb the park. And I’ll come into One Alumni Place and sit on one of those chairs that I love, and read, and stay out of everybody’s way. It’s just a great, beautiful space.