A Voice for the "Big D"

October 1, 2003
New DAA President Sales: "It&squot;s an awesome responsibility"

 New DAA President Sales: " It's an awesome responsibility". Photo: Joel Levin

 

Michele Miller Sales, the new president of the Duke Alumni Association, has perhaps the ideal credentials to represent nearly 120,000 alumni, while overseeing a board of almost fifty directors. She's a professional arbitrator and mediator who brings skills honed during a career in law and her years as a volunteer for Duke.

Since 1986, Sales '78, J.D. '81 has been a member of Seattle's Alumni Admissions Advisory Committee, which screens and interviews prospective Duke students; she was chair from 1987 to 1992. In addition, she has chaired and served on reunion leadership committees for the Annual Fund. She was a member of the board of directors for the law school's alumni association before she joined the DAA board of directors in 1998, and she served as president of the Duke Club of Seattle from 1994 until 2002. In 1999, Sales received a Charles A. Dukes Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service to the university.

Despite an apparent intensity of involvements, she maintains that she is "no longer a workaholic. Actually, I intentionally changed my career from being a trial attorney to being an arbitrator and mediator so that I would have more control over my life and a little more time to do what I want to do."

She plays golf "whenever possible," she says, gardens with her husband, Chris, takes out their thirty-two-foot powerboat, or plays with their two dalmatians, Rockie and Scooter.

This year her focus will be on her role as president of the DAA. "It is an incredible honor to represent 120,000 alumni, spanning however many years we have graduates. And it's an awesome responsibility. How do you balance their issues and interests if you're presenting the position of the alumni association? I have to be careful and the DAA board has to be careful that we recognize how diverse our alumni are. But that's really the beauty of the board. We really try in our nominating and selection process to diversify in age, gender, geographic location, and race, so that we are truly representing all Duke alumni. We have a voice for each of those constituents on the board," she says.

" One thing in particular that I think has been brought home to us over the past couple of years is that this board represents not only the Trinity and engineering-school graduates but also the professional schools and the graduate school. We're being continually reminded by some of those representatives that it's the 'big D' that we have to be concerned about."

However, Sales recognizes there will be challenges. "I think probably our biggest challenge right now is effective communication with alumni," she says, "through the printed avenues, including Duke Magazine, but also electronically. People don't want spam--and we're very conscious of that--but we're also working on how to communicate, in a timely fashion and in a cost-conscious fashion, what DAA is doing, what DAA has to offer alumni, and getting feedback from alumni as well."

Like her predecessors in the presidency, she has already met with the majority of senior Duke administrators and deans. But her visits have been more than courtesy calls, she says. "What I took to them was that, in this year of transition, I wanted to know what we could be doing to assist in the process. I wanted to make sure that, as other issues continued to come up on a university level, they could look to alumni for ways to develop or implement solutions, that we are not just a financial resource for the university. It's not that we should be imposing ourselves on everything that comes up, but that they think of us as a resource for solutions."

For at least a decade, Duke's trustees have invited the DAA president to serve ex officio on its board. (The immediate past president becomes a voting member of the trustees.) Sales plans to emphasize her role as the voice of alumni. "Fortunately, the first year you're a nonvoting member, and I think that gives you the time to get your feet wet and to figure out what are the issues that most directly involve alumni--not that we don't know or care about other issues," she says. "I won't even pretend to say that I know the issues right now."

And, the following year, when she becomes a voting member, she says, she and the rest of the trustees will face a whole new set of issues. "We'll have a new university president, and we don't know what he or she is going to want to do. And we don't know what other changes are going to take place in the administration over the next year. So I don't have an agenda on the board of trustees; I'm just hoping to learn and to contribute in those areas that most affect the alumni body."