As many readers of this blog know, I started writing it when I was still President of Dublin City University. The first post was published on June 5, 2008. Over the following 24 hours 2 people read the post, and nobody commented. In fact, only 11 people read the blog during the first week of its life. After that I started alerting people including DCU staff, and numbers grew (though not anything close to current levels). At the time I had a vague idea that I would use it to communicate with my staff in DCU, give them an idea of what I was up to and what I was thinking about, and give them an opportunity to comment if they wished.
Projects often have a life of their own. On a Friday the 13th (June 2008), the Irish Times ran an article on the blog, and that day I had 253 readers. It is a significant multiple of that now, and the blog has long ceased to be focused specifically on DCU. There are many readers from (as far as I can tell) all over the world, and not all of them are in, or even have a connection with, higher education.
I am not alone as a university president blogger, though it is not a large community. In these islands, as far as I am aware, there are two other presidential bloggers: the Vice-Chancellor of Salford University, and the President of Athlone Institute of Technology. Salford’s VC publishes posts once a week, whereas the Athlone President’s posts are more sporadic. In both cases there are not very many readers’ comments.
I am not aware of any other blogs in these islands, but in Australia there is the always interesting (and sometimes controversial) Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University. His topics are topical and eclectic. There are usually some comments, but apparently we get to read only some of them:
‘This blog is moderated because not all comments submitted are publishable – over 254 posts since 2007 we have received more than 4,000 comments, many of which have been rejected because they are variously defamatory, obscene, unintelligible, disguised spam, ad hominem attacks or off topic. Some also are of such a technical nature that they would be best communicated in, say, direct emails to the VC’s office.’
In the United States there are many presidents who blog. In most cases, such as this one, the purpose of the blog appears largely to be the dissemination of university news and announcements. Others may be more discursive, but even then (as here) comments are often not invited.
There are some risks you run as a blogging president: the ‘foot in mouth’ risk – i.e. that you’ll say things you really shouldn’t say, even if it’s true; the ‘boredom’ risk – i.e. that everyone quickly discovers that you really don’t have much to say and drift away; the ‘it’s running away with me risk’ – i.e. that you become so engrossed in it that it takes up time that should be spent on other things; the ‘audience’ risk – i.e. that the readership of the blog grows beyond academic circles, and that you don’t really know how to address them coherently; or the ‘nobody is listening’ risk – i.e. that you set out boldly to find that nobody is following,m and that you have few readers.
What, in my view, is the secret of success? Actually, I am totally clear in my mind on this: the difference between a dull blog and a fascinating one is the quality of the participation. Comments posted on the blog prove someone is engaged by it, and this makes all the difference. Academic discourse should be participative. To achieve such participation, you need to show that you welcome it, and you need to address topics that generate a bit of heat from time to time.
My view of presidential blogging, after two and a half years of experience, is that it is an amazingly useful tool if handled right. I have no regrets (yet…) about going down this path.