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Departing Vice President of Advancement Tommy Bonner looks back on nine years at Mac

After nine years at Macalester, Vice President for Advancement Tommy Bonner is leaving Macalester to take a position at Carleton College. A farewell reception for him is taking place on March 20th. Assistant Vice President of Advancement Operations Kate Abbott will fill Bonner’s position on an interim basis until a replacement is found. The Mac Weekly sat down with Bonner to get his thoughts on leaving.

TMW: To start off, what sort of responsibilities have you had through your position while at Macalester? TB: I arrived in the summer of 2005 as we were beginning to think about the Leonard Center. Of course, it was called the MARC back then — the Macalester Athletic and Recreation Center. Part of my responsibilities when I was hired was to get ready for the next campaign and fundraising for the athletic center, and think about the communications program and how we can make our communications program and public relations stronger. So I came in the summer of 2005 and we began thinking about the Step Forward campaign. It wasn’t called Step Forward at the time, but it was still the big campaign we were doing. We started, I think the first day I was here, [Classics professor] Andy Overman grabbed me, and we went to the architects to look at the first few renderings for the Fine Arts Center at that point. That was one of the big projects on the horizon — that and the athletic center.

What was it like coming into the Macalester community? What were your first impressions of the place? Having moved from Tennessee, it was in part the cultural change. I’m not from the Twin Cities, so a lot of it was getting used to the Twin Cities. Moving in July was the perfect time to move — what’s not to like about July in Minnesota? It was good. Everyone was very welcoming, very supportive the whole time. The faculty community especially has been very supportive.

Are there any parts of your job, or anything in particular you’ve done over the past few years, that you’ve found especially rewarding? We’ve raised about $50 million for need-based financial aid. That’s kind of the base of what makes this place so great. It’s easy to say the Fine Arts Center, funding for that, the Leonard Center — those are tangible, but what people don’t really see are the funds raised for scholarship aid. It’s all about students at the end of the day.

Did you interact much with students on a day-to-day basis? Not really, no. I travel a lot — over the course of the year i will be out of the office, say, 120 days a year. Usually there’s three trips a month somewhere. And if we’re doing our job we’re not sitting in our office, we’re out seeing people and seeking resources that can help the college. That prevents a lot of student interaction.

Is there a typical day of work you have when you’re at Macalester? There’s really not a typical day. A lot of time is spent on the phone and email, corresponding with alumni, donors, either setting up visits, following up on prior visits, negotiating about gift terms, and if it’s a scholarship, what are going to be the criteria we allow them to put on it? Those kinds of things.

What’s next in store for you? You’re headed to Carleton, correct? I am. I’ve been here nine years, and I feel like, with the completion of Studio Art, most of the things that were on the horizon that have been funded are completed. I mean, we can always raise more money for financial aid — but after nine years, I feel like I’m ready for a new challenge. Carleton approached me — it’s not that Carleton’s a better place, it’s a good school. It’s the fact that I can have a new challenge while still staying here in the Twin Cities because we’ve really fallen in love with the Twin Cities. Prior to being at Macalester I was at Sewanee, the University of the South. I was there for 14 years. Prior to that I was at another college for nine. So I tend to be somewhere around nine to 10 years, and then I get the itch to get a new challenge. Hopefully, you know, nine or 10 years from now, I get to look back and see I’ve helped two of the best colleges in the Midwest.

What are your thoughts on leaving Macalester? Of course, it’s bittersweet. There are a lot of good friends, the board, my staff. It’s hard when you think about a career and when’s the right time [to leave], ‘cause I think people change and grow, and I think whoever comes to replace me they’ll find a great person. They’ll come in with great ideas and help take the college somewhere new, which I hope I’m going to be able to do at Carleton. It’s bittersweet and there are a lot of great people I’m going to miss. The good news is I’m still going to live in the Twin Cities, still going to come back occasionally for events.

Are there any specific people you’ve built especially close relationships with during your time here? Sure. Most of the board members, senior staff, my colleagues, Brian [Rosenberg], all of our staff. A number of the staff were here when I came, and we’ve developed great relationships. And it’s a natural tendency when you hire someone to develop a good relationship with them. I’m really anxious to see what the new strategic plan is. The one project — it’s funded, it’s moving, but I didn’t see it all the way to completion is the new wayfinding system. I understand the first of the new signs will go up tomorrow [March 14]. I think it’s going to be finished by Commencement. I knew when I came out here in 2005, there were white signs around some buildings, but it’s still a little confusing to find your way around campus. It’s good to finally see it to fruition.

Do you have any regrets? Anything you wish you did differently? We all make mistakes. There are things I could’ve done differently, but that’s human nature. Unless students are employed in the phone center, or perhaps a student worker in advancement, there’s not a lot of contact. Maybe that’s a regret. I know some colleges have a student advisory board. We tried to do a student ambassador program at one point, but how do we get students more involved in what we do in advancement? The reality is most of your plates are so full, so how do you add something else to it? I’ve been doing this work for a little over 30 years. As you’ve probably heard, Brian’s made an interim appointment — Kate [Abbott]. I think Brian is doing a national search [to fill my position.] It’s been a great run, I’ve met a lot of great people here. I still have a lot of friends I stay in touch with at Sewanee, so the same is true for Macalester.

Any words of advice for Kate as she fills your position? She’s been here 22 years. She knows the place — she helped train me when I got here, and she’s well positioned to do well.

March 19, 2014

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