University presidents must take 'measured' approach to social media and technology


The relentless presence of social media and the increasing importance of technology have put new demands on university presidents and boards of directors, according to a recently-released study by Deloitte Center for Higher Education and Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities.

“Presidents must be accessible and responsive but also measured and restrained in an era driven by 24/7 news coverage and the inflammatory nature of social media,” the study warned.

“In a day and age when social media can turn into a minor dustup into a national story and impact an institution’s brand almost overnight” the omnipresence of social media makes an “external focus” critical for a contemporary president, the study said. The president “owns the brand and the larger experience of the university,” one trustee told researchers.

But university presidents must also have a clearer awareness of the role of technology in shaping their offerings and attracting potential donors, according to Cole Clark, executive director of higher education for Deloitte, and one of the authors of the report.

Clark said in an interview with EdScoop that presidents he interviewed for the study “all have taken a very active role in ensuring that the [campus] technology leadership has more of a seat at the table from a strategy perspective versus the ‘keep the lights’ role that’s been traditional in higher education over the years.”

In developing the report, titled “Pathways to the University Presidency: the Future of Higher Education Leadership,” researchers surveyed more than 150 current four-year college and university presidents, did in-depth interviews with two dozen presidents and trustees, and mined data from more than 800 resumes of sitting presidents about a broad range of leadership issues.

While the study didn’t address technology issues directly, Clark noted that among top skills a university president needs in a changing world is financial and operational acumen, “which obviously includes the technology component as part of that operational element. Those things are much higher in the list of needed skills than ever before.”

“It’s clear from both quantitative data as well as anecdotal information that technology, which is part and parcel of the overall operational aspects of the institution, is much, much more important,” he said. “If you think about it, technology is really now at the heart of just about every major initiative. Every single one of the major challenges or issues that higher education is facing has technology as a key enabler of the solution.”

University presidents also need to embrace a culture of risk-taking, which might involve technology in breaking cultural norms that impede progress on campus, “in branding, in driving efficiencies and effectiveness through the use of enterprise technology versus the niche, departmental or unit-level approach that has been deployed over the years,” Clark said.

Technology may also play a key role in fundraising, which is an ever more crucial skill area for presidents today, Clark said.

“What’s emerging is that fundraising is not being looked at in the traditional sense of developing a pool of support from alums, but presidents are being asked to think strategically about new revenue sources for the institution,” he said.

“Technology certainly has a tremendous role in this, whether it’s creating a complete set of online programs [to attract potential donors] or using engagement software technologies to reach out [to more potential constituents],” including non-traditional students, such as lifelong learners. “Technology plays a tremendous role in how we hang on to that relationship and make it stick in enabling that strategy.”

At the same time, social media “has heightened the awareness of current presidents and boards of trustees who are recruiting individuals for open positions,” said Clark. “There is the need to take a measured response to any sort of crisis, perceived crisis, issue or challenge because of the inflammatory nature that things can take on in social media context.”

Some presidents interviewed for the study said they refrain any social media posting themselves, while other indicated they post only items that are newsworthy or informative in nature, Clark told EdScoop.

“Some mentioned that they are quite active but don’t react to postings that would tend to create more of an inflammatory environment. They have looked to create organizations within their cabinet or within the administration that take a professional or public-relations approach to social media because it can so easily get out of hand.”