Thanks to the Internet, it’s continually a new world in terms of communications, and Alastair Summerlee is the first to admit that he doesn’t always quite get it.
“I’m perplexed by the incredible popularity of things like YouTube and Facebook,” says the president of the University of Guelph. He personally doesn’t see the purpose of spending a lot of time on such sites, “but I absolutely recognize that there are an enormous number of people who do.”
Perplexed or not, Dr. Summerlee became an active, even enthusiastic, participant in the world of online communications two years ago when he launched his blog, “From the President’s Window.” In doing so, he became part of a small but growing group of college and university presidents who use blogs to share news about their institution and sometimes offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what their job is really like. While many academics, more than a few deans and some university staff members blog about scholarly and workplace issues, only a handful of presidents in Canada are bloggers (about 30 presidents of U.S. colleges and universities are in the game).
Dr. Summerlee, in his first blog entry, explained his motivation for creating it: “I am told that people actually want to know what I am thinking.” Skeptical at first, he says the responses to his blog have convinced him that’s true. “It’s surprising the number of people who read it. I get responses to it from all over the place – from staff, from alumni, from people in government.” One of his blog posts, about ill-behaved travelers, attracted a reply from someone in South Korea with no connection to the university.
Not everyone Dr. Summerlee works with was thrilled with his decision to become a blogger. “Our legal counsel strongly advised me against doing it,” he says. “The blog sometimes makes the folks here in central communications blanch a little, too.”
Is that because the president is tackling wildly provocative topics on his blog? Not really. A typical blog entry might chide campus vandals or underline his university’s environmental efforts or boast about campus-wide achievements of the past year. The unease felt by some of his colleagues probably says more about the carefully scripted way that university presidents typically communicate – through speeches, press releases and mass e-mails – than it does about any potential pitfalls associated with blogging. Spontaneity and informality – hallmarks of online communications – aren’t normally the order of the day. And if one university president sounds pretty much like all the others, dishing up the same clichés about striving for excellence, well, that’s come to be expected.
The appeal of blogs is that they can offer readers a glimpse into the personalities of the people who put them together. Blogs aren’t supposed to be constructed by teams of lawyers and PR consultants who massage the messaging. “Blogs can help put a human face to presidents and let them engage with their faculty, staff, students and alumni in a way that’s just not possible in any other format,” says Bob Johnson, an online marketing consultant in the United States who works with universities and colleges. Mr. Johnson keeps track of universities where presidents maintain blogs. Judging from the reaction these get from their audience, he says “many people truly appreciate that their president is taking the time to do this.”
However, “blogs are not for everybody,” warns Karine Joly, an expert in online communications. Her own blog, Collegewebeditor.com, examines the way new online technologies are affecting the marketing practices of North American universities. “If you insist on a really formal style of communication, then [a blog] might not be right for you. It’s not a magic bullet. You’re not going to take somebody who isn’t very approachable and make them seem more approachable.”
She says that people who read blogs “expect a certain tone. It needs to be conversational. They have to have a sense that you are really trying to share some information with them in a straightforward way. That doesn’t mean that the president needs to write like a 16-year-old on Facebook. You don’t have to try to be hip or cool. Be yourself.”
For University of Calgary president Harvey Weingarten, the decision to start “Harvey’s Blog” last year was an easy one. “I spend a lot of my time thinking about communications and how we can reach out to people,” says Dr. Weingarten. “It’s absolutely vital that [universities] explain what we are doing and why we do it.” A blog, he reasoned, might be a particularly good approach for offering some insight into what he does for a living.
“The job of university president can be somewhat mysterious, especially to people outside the university com- munity,” he says. “One of the things I’m trying to do is to take away some of the mystery.”
Dr. Weingarten is also keen to make the workings of universities themselves, especially his, easier to understand. One post shed light on all the hurdles the University of Calgary faces when it decides to construct a new building. “The blog gives me an opportunity to talk about what goes into running these sorts of institutions. People are seriously surprised, for instance, when I tell them that our university has to spend $30 million a year just on utilities.”
Trinity Western University president Jonathan Raymond began his blog a year ago and confesses that he still worries about what he posts. “Every time I write something I wonder, will it just be a waste of people’s time? Is this something that might be meaningful to someone? I always pause before I hit the send button. You don’t want to be misunderstood.”
In Dr. Raymond’s case, it was his daughter who convinced him to start blogging. A graduate of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, she follows the blog written by its president. “She finds it helps her stay connected to her alma mater. She is interested in the topics he addresses and in what he has to say about them.”
Dr. Raymond compares bloggers to newspaper columnists. “There are certain writers who appeal to you because of what they write about and how they write about it. They keep you coming back for more.” His blog often explores issues and themes that transcend the day-to-day operations of the Christian university that he heads in Langley, B.C. For example, he asks whether universities focus too much attention on developing skill sets and not enough time on helping their students become better people: “Among North American universities, there is too often the single focused desire to produce graduates who are competent. Too many universities ignore the world’s great need for competence to be amplified by character,” he wrote in one entry.
“I think there is an obligation among academic leaders to encourage dialogue,” says Dr. Raymond, who sees blogs as a potentially valuable tool to do just that.
For presidents who enjoy the writing process, there also can be personal rewards. “When I travel, I keep a travelogue and I often write about what I’ve seen for friends,” says Dr. Summerlee. “I find that writing about the things I experience helps me to reflect on them.” Dr. Weingarten, too, appreciates the self-reflection that writing provides. “It helps me organize my thoughts about what has happened in the last few weeks and to focus on what might be interesting for people to know about.”
Presidents who blog all struggle with one common challenge: keeping the blog up-to-date. Next to their other responsibilities, writing a blog post often ranks low on their to-do lists. “I’m a little disappointed in myself,” says Dr. Weingarten, who has posted just 14 times since he began Sept. 1, 2007. “I don’t update it as often as I should.” Dr. Summerlee has posted just 10 times in the same period.
But when they do find time, there’s never a shortage of subjects to address, adds Dr. Raymond of Trinity Western. “There are so many different types of things that come across our desks.”
Blog post by University of Guelph President Alastair Summerlee
I am talking about collegiality. We have it in abundance at Guelph, and it makes us different, effective and enviable. I believe it is the cement that holds universities together. Without it, they would not only lose their soul but would also have no gravitational pull.
Posted on Sunday, January 20, 2008
Blog post by University of Calgary President Harvey Weingarten
In 2006, the University of Calgary community printed 72 million pieces of paper. By 2007, we had reduced our paper consumption to 56 million sheets. Good progress, but still an awful lot of trees. The irony is that paper use often increases despite all the new digital technology. A lesson, I suppose, is that if we are to become more sustainable, it is not just about introducing new technology. It is also about doing things differently from the way we did them in the past.
Posted on Thursday, May 22, 2008
Blog post by Trinity Western President Jonathan Raymond
UBC president, Professor Stephen Toope, in speaking to the [Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences] underscored the importance of “hot debate” saying, “I think in Canada we are a bit too polite … we are a little afraid of controversy.” In his remarks, Dr. Toope may himself be a bit too polite. The reality, within Canadian higher education, may be a profound intolerance on university campuses for any position on certain topics that may be articulated outside a narrow latitude of acceptance.
In more everyday language, Canadian university campuses have an ironic problem of political correctness and debilitating dogma that undercuts true academic freedom. The problem is ironic in that universities at their best are to be champions of diversity, models of freedom of thought and speech, promoters of plurality, exemplary of tolerance, and beyond mere tolerance, advocates and provocateurs of open expression and debate.
Posted on friday, June 13, 2008
Blog of note
Ron Burnett, president of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, doesn’t spend much time discussing institutional matters on his personal weblog (although he does mention the MFA graduating class’s art show and the B.C. government’s decision to grant Emily Carr official university status). Instead, the communications scholar tackles a wide-range of cultural topics, from how technology is transforming and in some cases replacing our traditional notions of writing, to meditations on the nature of comic strips, to biting reviews of such popular television shows as 24, Lost, and Prison Break.
To blog or not…
Here’s help in deciding how to answer that question:
- As a university president, you wrestle with multi-million dollar decisions, you dine with political leaders and business kingpins, and you prevent senate meetings from getting sidetracked by the know-it-all who likes the sound of his own voice a little too much. But do you have what it takes to be a successful blogger?
- Across North America, a growing number of university presidents are starting blogs. Karine Joly, an expert on universities and online communications, eyes the trend with a degree of skepticism and sums up the mindset of some prospective bloggers in this way: “They’re cool, they’re new, I want one.”
- The first question that university presidents should ask themselves before hurtling into the blogosphere is: What would be the point of your blog? “Blogs aren’t for everybody,” says Ms. Joly. “It’s better not to have a blog than to do one badly.”
If you’re still interested in creating a blog, here are some tips.
- Be strategic: “The first thing you need to do is to sit down and write out the things you want to accomplish with your blog,” advises Ms. Joly. “Think about the kind of audience you hope to attract and write your blog for them.”
- Be brief: Long-winded expositions and run-on sentences don’t cut it online. “Some blogs could do a better job of being web-friendly,” says Bob Johnson, a marketing consultant who advises universities on how to operate online. “Long blocks of dense text with no subheads or bullet points to scan aren’t going to be read by as many people as blogs that have short paragraphs.”
- Be punctual: A typical mistake made by bloggers, says Mr. Johnson, is “leaving long gaps between posts.” Readers quickly lose interest if a blog offers no new content for weeks on end. While you don’t need to update it every single day, readers should have a clear sense of how often you will be posting. And once you’ve made that commitment – be it once a week or twice a month – stick to it.
- Be informal: Adopt a conversational tone, be straightforward and avoid jargon. Steer clear of “CEO-speak” – words like “synergy” – that people rarely use in everyday conversation.
- Be open to responses: A blog is a two-way communications tool, notes Ms. Joly. Readers should be able to post responses to what you are writing. Comments make for a more vibrant blog and allow the blogger to take the pulse of the community on certain issues: “It can be like a town hall.” But she advises not to allow comments to be posted automatically. Before posting them, make sure the comments relate to topics under discussion and don’t contain libelous statements.
- Be interesting: Nobody has to read your blog if they don’t want to, so why should they? What is it about your job that you find compelling? Who are the most intriguing people you get to meet? Write about them and not about yesterday’s press conference that you yourself found awfully dull.