Why College Presidents Aren't More Social

You can’t be a university president and be anti-social. In a president’s ceremonial role, she’ll have to attend luncheons, dinners, meetings, cocktail hours, fundraisers, all kinds of athletic contests. So this blog post isn’t about how painful it is to be a president and attend all those events. No, it’s about why presidents aren’t more active on social media.

And let me just say this right up front: I’m talking about the full range of social media here: blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and other tools for communication and engagement. Like the rest of us, presidents who use social media make choices about what channels make the most sense for them.

For the past month, I’ve been doing research on how CEOs, including college and university presidents, use social channels to build relationships and communicate about themselves and their institutions. Clearly some presidents -- like Paul LeBlanc at Southern New Hampshire University; Dan Porterfield at Franklin & Marshall; Beth Stroble at Webster University; and Robert Wyatt at Coker College -- are comfortable and adept in social media. Walter Kimbrough, soon to be the president at Dillard University, has been dubbed “the HipHop president” (he tweets as @hiphopprez), a sobriquet that has followed him onto TV and into the pages of magazines like People.

These presidents, and others like them, understand that social media offer them opportunities to reach more people in ways that other channels simply don’t. For example, Paul LeBlanc said that his blog and Twitter stream allow him to communicate outside the formal and ceremonial channels that that often characterize his role:

“If you think about the way presidents get to communicate, there are a fairly limited number of tools. I can only do a little bit of walking around. I can send out formal communications but they don’t allow me to talk about aspects of my life that are more personal. These channels allow me to reach a lot of people and give them a more personal view of my thoughts and my life. I really love that.”

Tech users, but not social
Many college and university presidents use technology heavily. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project,

“College presidents are major adopters of new digital technologies such as e-readers, tablets and smartphones: 87% use a smartphone on a daily basis, 32% use a tablet computer such as an iPad daily and 15% say they use an e-reader such as a Kindle or Nook every day.”
Yet, despite this, only about a third report that they use Facebook weekly or more often and only 18% occasionally use Twitter.”

In one sense, it’s not surprising that more college and university presidents aren’t more active on social media: their job is incredibly demanding and complex. James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, reminds us in The View from the Helm:

Today’s university president is expected to be part chief executive officer, intellectual leader of the faculty, educational leader, occasional parent to the students, political lobbyist with both state and federal government, cheerleader for the university, spokesman to the media, fund-raiser, entertainer, and servant to the governing board. Large institutions require strong executive leadership; public institutions need political acumen; and smaller institutions seek a greater degree of hands-on engagement with faculty and students in academic issues. And the performance in any particular one of these roles is usually considered as the singular basis for evaluating the president’s performance by the correspondingly affected constituency.

Duderstadt’s book was published in 2007, before the Edupocalypse was in full swing. Now, of course, he’d have to include several chapters addressing changing education paradigms, alternative credentials, financing, for-profit ed, and other contemporary issues. In short: the president’s job has become even more complex.
Given that reality check, here’s why presidents say they have chosen not to be active on social channels:

  1. Time: Where they will find the time to blog, post, or tweet is a major concern for men and women who find little enough time in a day for their many responsibilities and commitments. And what’s a private life for a president?
  2. Control: Given the nature and scope of their responsibilities, presidents are reluctant to cede control over their message and open up in public channels that can easily be subverted by critics. “It’s not that I don’t welcome dialog: I do,” one president told me. “But I’m concerned about trolls and people who have a grudge against me, or my university, taking over these channels.”
  3. Risk: Some corporate CEOs aren’t active on social media because they work in regulated industries like banking or financial services and they are rightfully concerned about saying something can can be seized on by regulators or investors. University presidents have told me that they don’t tweet or blog because their legal counsel has advised them against it. Others consider the lack of control, especially over responses, a risk they aren’t willing to take.
  4. Unproven channels: Some presidents aren’t convinced that social media is worth their time because there’s no way to show that these channels are successful. To someone with this view, they aren’t worth the investment of precious time.
  5. ROI: Similarly, their most important audiences (donors, the board, significant influencers) don’t pay attention to social channels. So there’s no ROI to show for the time invested in them.
  6. Social pressure: Since relatively few presidents are active on social media, people don’t expect them to be there. So there isn’t a lot of peer pressure from other presidents. And constituents such as students, faculty, parents, alumni, or other significant constituent groups don’t expect presidents to blog, tweet, or post on Facebook.
  7. Age: Many older presidents aren’t comfortable with some of the norms of social media, especially Facebook, which tends to be informal, open, and chatty. They’re simply more formal and reticent about opening up on public channels.
  8. Performance anxiety: Taking the first steps on a social platform can be pretty intimidating. Anyone is bound to wonder what will happen if they make a mistake. [Honestly, I remember rewriting my first tweets.] Then imagine what it’s like for a president, who’s very much in the public eye, to stumble in public with fans and followers watching.

Of course, norms and expectations are changing. And presidents are beginning to realize that social media can be important, if not downright essential, in their personal engagement and communications. I’ll share insights from presidents who are active on social media in future posts.