A few months back I took a vague interest in how many University heads were on Twitter. I’ve been active on the social networking site for a few years now and have kept tabs on most of the main speakers in HE, but failed to come across more than a couple of UK Vice-Chancellors.
I asked Times Higher Education if they knew of any: ‘@vcsalford is the only one we know of UK-wise, there's also http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/ (blog from DCU president).’
I took a look, Professor Martin Hall sends out messages once every few days. Implies a busy schedule; but a connection with a popular emerging communication tool. Decent number of followers (315 currently) who he tends to interact with.
After a bit more digging I found that the office of the VC for Southampton is on Twitter (@Soton_VC_Office). Official messages in a corporate voice, little personal interaction but hasn’t been updated since mid January. Could it be that they found it too difficult to maintain as a staff and had to resource elsewhere?
Up until the recent emergence of the newly appointed De Montfort University Vice-Chancellor Dominic Shellard, in June this year, that was it. @DMUVC is doing very well at engaging with his audience as demonstrated by the near 300 followers that he had gained in a few weeks. Interacting with staff questions and claiming to be tweeting himself without the aide of an assistant with constant meeting updates is a time consuming task.
No other UK VC’s have ventured into the territory. So it begs the question: why?
“He send text messages, how hard can Twitter be?” These fairly logical words came from a friend of mine as we were discussing how to get senior academics into social media.
For some, commenting on current affairs and announcing the contents of their lives is an easy process – one akin to a good gossip in a pub. But winning executives round to incorporating a new piece of technology into their daily lives can be an incredibly tricky process.
Now let me be clear on this point, it is not that they find it difficult, my view is that the least cited yet most important excuse for not tweeting is ‘danger of exposure’. The examples above show three distinct styles for academics using social media:
1) Personal approach, vocal and frequent (@DMUVC)
2) Office approach, depersonalised and corporate messages (@Soton_VC_office)
3) A mixture of the above (@vcsalford)
Is one approached better than the other? I genuinely believe that Professor Hall has nailed it. A VC shouldn’t have the time to send dozens of tweets a day; a recent article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that constant use of social media reshapes our brains ‘and makes our thinking shallower’. Even if this isn’t the case, the amount of time spent online tweeting is akin to someone texting during a presentation – highlights a priority on PR of the self or the institution, rather than governance and executive management.
And for the hundreds of VC’s that aren’t on Twitter? It can’t hurt to give it a go. Provided that you aren’t spewing tripe about what you had for breakfast and use your podium to promote official messages and interact with your audience, it shouldn’t be incredibly daunting.
Yes it can open you up to attack, but it also creates a level of interaction and transparency that I feel is strongly needed in the sector. In the era of staff reductions and budget cuts, the sector must unify to a greater or lesser extent to promote its successes and apologise for its failures on a public platform, together. Only then can the public at large truly understand the incalculable benefits of investing in a higher education sector.
Communication is key. Having university executives on Twitter is just one way of attacking the issue.
Interesting to note that since my blog went out that @Soton_VC_Office has been disabled. Still exists in Google though.