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University leaders reach out through social media

Tweeting presidents? Yes indeed.

BY CASSANDRA HENDRY | APR 09 2014

University and college presidents are increasingly using social media to engage with their constituencies, says Dan Zaiontz, who works in strategic planning and public affairs at Seneca College in Toronto.

As a capstone project for his recent master’s degree in communication management at McMaster University, Mr. Zaiontz conducted confidential interviews with 22 presidents (11 each from Canada and the United States) about their social media use. Twitter was the most popular platform, with all 22 presidents using it, followed by Facebook with 16 users. LinkedIn was a distant third while tools such as Instagram, Google+, Reddit and Flickr barely registered.

“What I found was that, regardless of their level of familiarity with the technology, they were all pretty passionate advocates for the value of social media in terms of helping advance their institution’s interests,” says Mr. Zaiontz. Some presidents did say, however, that they were anxious about missteps and negatively representing their university, including alienating key stakeholders.

Dominic Giroux, president of Laurentian University and an active Twitter and Facebook user, says he’s rarely had negative experiences with social media – “only once or twice, where there’s a comment from someone that’s not appropriate or attacking someone, which I removed. And that’s it, in close to five years.”

Not all presidents have such a sunny view. In his report, Mr. Zaiontz cites University of British Columbia President Stephen Toope, who controversially told the Ubyssey student newspaper in 2013 that he “despised” Twitter and then doubled down in the Vancouver Sun, saying it “encourages thoughtless, reactive modes of communication.”

Each to his own, says Dr. Giroux, who acknowledges that social media use is a deeply personal choice for senior leaders in higher education. “I don’t think it should be forced on anyone … it needs to fit with the personality of the president,” he says. Most of the presidents interviewed for the report agreed, stressing that they didn’t want people to write posts or tweets for them if they made the choice to use the technology.

Whether the presidents used social media to share institutional information, personal details, or a mixture of the two, there’s definitely more pressure on them to use it, says Mr. Zaiontz. “We no longer live in a world where the president can be isolated in his office. They don’t have the time in their day-to-day operations and lives to interact with students, and that’s where social media has become increasingly an engagement tool.

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