Coaxing university leaders into the social media

I spent yesterday at the annual conference of CASE Europe – the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on blogging and tweeting by university heads. That, I might say, is a space I am used to being in on my own. When I was in Ireland I was, as far as I ever discovered, the only blogging and tweeting university president, and I am now the only university principal in Scotland doing so. There are some in England (including one of my fellow panelists yesterday), and there are by now a good few in America, but none in Scotland apart from me, and I think none at all now in Ireland.

In the course of the discussion one of my fellow panelists (not the university head) suggested that it was enough for a university head to come to understand the potential of social networking; they didn’t need to grasp the techniques in any detail or become active themselves. However to be frank, I am not sure about this. Universities are in the business of communicating, whether through teaching or through research, and it seems curious to me to suggest that presidents or principals – or for that matter lecturers – should be able to stay away from today’s channels of popular communication. We really should not be quite as other-worldly as that. Universities are not historical theme parks; they need to engage with contemporary society.

It is my view, therefore, that university heads should dip their toes into this particular water, and should try out forms of communication that will make them seem less remote to others. And we should welcome their efforts when they do.

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12 Comments on “Coaxing university leaders into the social media”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    *In the course of the discussion one of my fellow panelists (not a university head) suggested that it was enough for a university head to come to understand the potential of social networking; they didn’t need to grasp the techniques in any detail or become active themselves.*
    This statement seems logically flawed: how can anyone (let alone a university head) understand the *potential* without also having a *practical* appreciation of social media? Besides, it is based on the old dichotomy theory vs practice as if the two were not facets of the same medal. The so-called ‘techniques’ are as important as anything else to aquire knowledge and understanding. Also such statement is potentially dangerous because it seems to imply that within universities the use of social media should be the prerogative of the ones who master the ‘tecniques’, i.e. business/marketing departments, web teams etc., in this way the unique purpose of comunication becomes ‘to sell the university’s story’, and, as often argued in the forum, important as the commercial aspect is, universities are about something else as well.
    As far as Scotland is concerned, it is disappointing that, with your exception, no university head is active in this area, Scotland finds itself approaching a critical historical juncture (I’m thinking about the Scottish independence referendum to come) and so far has worked hard to supplement the traditional image of itself – mostly heritage based ‘a la Walter Scott – with one which is modern and innovative and where investments in renewabale energies and the creative industries are paramount. University heads, regadless of their political inclinations, have a responsibility to represent and contribute to *this* Scotland by not only understanding the theoretical potential of social media but by actively joining the contemporary social discourse of their time via the media used for this purpose. The risk is not only that universities, as you put it, become historical parks, but that like beautiful historical cities (Venice) they slowly sink in the murky waters of irrelevance.

  2. Al Says:

    Of course, you also referenced us in your talks!
    all of us here make the site a little more interesting, and a few of us raise the tone here too!

  3. no-name Says:

    Is it your opinion that the university sector has suffered for not having particularly engaged in television?

    • Jilly Says:

      I think you’re over-looking the marvel that was Open University broadcasting, no-name!

      • no-name Says:

        Yes, the question overlooks much, but not the Open University. If the use of television by the Open University amounts to particular engagement by the university sector or widespread use by university presidents, then, admittedly, the question is irrelevant. However, as yet, the impact of neither “University-Head Big Brother” nor its high-brow sister has been reported in the newspapers I read. If the Open University use, with other exceptions, do not amount to particular engagement, the question remains.

  4. Jeff W Says:

    The vice-chancellor/principal at my alma mater is actively tweeting and blogging. I think it’s a positive exercise. People feel much more connected to, and invested in, the institution. Additionally, it allows the principal or president a platform to engage, get instant feedback and even talk their book. What’s not to love about social media in higher and continuing education?

  5. John Carter Says:

    It is only common decency to give leaders time to catch up.

  6. ryreed Says:

    The question certainly overlooks the fact that television and social media are totally different mediums for communication. We are also talking about leaders, rather than about universities per se?

    • ryreed Says:

      This was in response to the reply left by no-name above. Apologies.

    • no-name Says:

      It is a tautology that television is different from blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The claim that television is not a social medium is false. Early days of cable broadcasting were comparably hailed as lowering the barriers/standards for entry and was notable for broadcasts of local events that did not find their way through the spectrum allocated to the major companies. However, broadcasts led by university principals have not trickled into public expectations of content.

      It is also true that the leaders of universities are not the universities; yes, I agree.

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