November 22, 2006

Is it "insane" for a college president to blog?

I don't know, but it is -- per the NYT -- front page news:
Veterans of campus public relations disasters warn that presidents blog at their peril; “an insane thing to do” is how Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who advises universities and their presidents in contract negotiations, describes it. But these presidents say blogs make their campuses seem cool and open a direct line, more or less, to students, alumni and the public.
Hey, coolness comes at a price. Blogging is risky. If you think it's an efficient PR tool, you deserve to screw up. You screwing up is important for maintaining the coolness of blogging.
“When I first started learning about blogs, I said, ‘Well, here I like to discourse on issues of the day, connect with the campus community,’ ” recalled [Trinity University president Patricia A.] McGuire, who said she wrote all her own entries. “Here’s a way I can talk a couple of times a week to everybody.”
"A couple of times a week"? That's not blogging.
And so she does: about Representative Nancy Pelosi, class of 1962, who will be the first female speaker of the House; about election results; about breaking ground for a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and about lesbian alumnae and the Roman Catholic Church, sensitive ground for a Catholic undergraduate college serving mostly minority and low-income women.
What drives me up the wall about the NYT online is that at this point in the article, there's still no link to the blog, but "Nancy Pelosi," "Martin Luther King Jr.," and "Roman Catholic Church" are all hotlinked to whatever old articles happen to be in the NYT archive. (Here's the missing link.)
Dr. McGuire wrote that the church’s rejection of same-sex unions did not mean that the “alma mater must shun her own daughters.” She added, “All alumnae are welcome at Trinity, always.”
Oh, come on. This is a PR outlet in blog form. Why is this front page news?
At Towson University, outside Baltimore, the president, Robert L. Caret, who writes Bob’s Blog, appears online in sunglasses, casually unshaven and smiling gamely alongside the Towson Tiger mascot. Dr. Caret’s blog, though, plays it safe, mostly praising particular programs like summer courses or studying abroad, or urging students to join clubs and to help spruce up the campus.
Sunglasses + blogging = ???
But that does not mean the students play it safe.

Dr. Caret’s post titled “Education vs. Training” prompted a graduate student to complain about what he called a language barrier with foreign-born teachers. To illustrate his point, the student reprinted a note in broken English from one of his professors, which ended: “Of course, some class(es) may not satisfy your thirsty in terms of your learning expectation. But even those classes will be a small stone to build your career.”

The student asked Dr. Caret, “Can students learning a new subject be expected to comprehend the new topic when they are too busy trying to comprehend what was just said?”

Though Dr. Caret’s site posted the letter, he did not answer the question on his blog. In an e-mail message, he said he forwarded the complaint to the provost.
If you can't talk directly to that student at that point, your blog is a dismal failure. It is revealed as only intended as a PR outlet, and then it's not even an effective PR outlet. You wanted to give off the vibe that you are available and casual, but you retreat behind a bureaucrat's wall as soon as anything real is about to happen. (And, NYT, you want to give off the vibe that you are connected to the blog world, but you don't link to the post you're talking about... or even to Caret's blog. Here's the link.)
It is this kind of exchange that prompts Mr. Cotton, the lawyer, to urge caution. If trustees are dissatisfied with a president, Mr. Cotton said, blogs offer a president’s adversaries ready ammunition. A casual comment taken out of context, a longstanding problem not addressed, or a politically controversial position can all torpedo a president, he said.

“In this day and age of political correctness,” Mr. Cotton said, “it exposes the president to all kinds of unfair and unwarranted criticism.”
Lawyers!
So perhaps it is no wonder that Dr. Caret is not live on the keyboard. An assistant posts the thoughts that Dr. Caret dictates, while an employee in the marketing department screens responses and posts them.

“When you’re fund-raising, a big part of that is creating an atmosphere of excitement, of a campus that’s going places,” Dr. Caret said. The blog, he said, “adds to that.”
And that detracts from the blog... to the point where it isn't even a blog. "An atmosphere of excitement"... bleh!

A much more serious matter is the way a university administrator may try to dictate correct thinking to students:
Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State University, ... condemned a conservative group’s plan to stage “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” on campus. The event would have involved finding a student to play the role of an illegal immigrant and turning the “immigrant” in. Dr. Simon derided the game as “a way to mock and demean, not to educate; a way to exclude, not include, voices.”

That posting won her praise from the student government and others, said Lindsey Poisson, a reporter for the campus newspaper. Though the president’s choice of subjects did not always resonate with students, in this instance, students wanted to know where the president stood, Ms. Poisson said.

“Her blogging is one of the things that changed the image of the president on campus,” she said. “A significant part of everything she’s trying to do to is to reach out to students.”

But the group that planned the event, Young Americans for Freedom, said that the blog inhibited free speech, and that no professor or administrator should express an opinion publicly about anything.

“We’re here to be educated, to get our degrees,” said Kyle Bristow, chairman of the group, which dropped its plans in favor of a forum on immigration later this semester. “They’re here to provide an atmosphere where we can be educated. We should be able to think for ourselves and not have people like Lou Anna Simon thinking for us.”
I'd like to see the quote that got paraphrased "no professor or administrator should express an opinion publicly about anything." If professors and administrators are going to blog -- really blog, not just do PR in blog form -- they need to express opinions. But the decision to be censorious about student speech activities is a profound one. It's a bad opinion, and it ought to be criticized. Blogging facilitates that. People like Bristow should blog back at the administration.

Any time a professor or an administrator puts something up on the web, you have a ripe opportunity to quote and link and critique and mock. Don't let them get away with their phony PR and their bland ideology. It's not enough to tell them to shut up -- as Bristow does -- you've got the power of more speech, and they are handing you the material to cut and paste in to you own incisive, scathing blog.... and I mean a real blog.

16 comments:

Seven Machos said...

Do most college presidents really have much of anything interesting to say? Is'n that about the ultimate destination job for an ambitious but non-feisty and not really interesting academic?

Except the guy from Bard College. He should be blogging.

Seven Machos said...

P.S.: My post sound a lot like foreign teacher in article. Apology.

MadisonMan said...

People like Kyle Bristow would rather complain about their rights being denied than doing anything about it. IMO. The culture of the put upon. Woe is me.

Some UW Presidents would be more readable than others. John Wiley? Pass. I'd definitely read a ShalalaBlog.

David said...

The construct of a college president's blogging would be first and foremost;

PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY!

The lack thereof would make it an extremely short endeavor. Utilizing plausible deniability would taint it with the label of politically correct.

I would have enjoyed reading Larry Summers' blog but we all know how that turned out.

kettle said...

I don't have time to make a long comment on this, but I have to say that the NYTimes online lack of linkitude blows my mind. They almost never link to anything. In fact, the first time I ever came to take a look at this blog was after a google search for 'althouse', after reading a NYTimes article mentioning this place without a link!

I'm not surprised at the lack of true commitment to the idea of blogging on the part of the president, or the unresponsiveness.

I am a little bit surprised that you still think that the 'news' is newsworthy.

You might take a look at 'Fooled by Randomness' by (Nassim?) Taleb.

hdhouse said...

an open question would be to the taxpayers of wisconsin is how much time does ann need to prep for classes and do her research and how much of that time is frittered away running a blog.

i doubt that she learns anything from the responses here.

when does the state or a hiring authority have a right to regulate free time or down time or wasted time?

Ron said...

When it's about men in shorts or squirrels, there's clearly an atmosphere of excitement here at Althouse!

The solution to this problem is to let Ann be Head Badger! Go for it, Ann!

Ann Althouse said...

I don't want to be head Badger. I just want to badger your head and mess with your mind.

George said...

These badgers...up there in the North Country...are they, like, all over peoples' yards like squirrels here Down South? Do people leave cheese outdoors at night for them? Are they good companions for shut-ins and children?

Just curious.

Seven Machos said...

hd house -- Agreed. Most law professors put in 80 to 100 hours each week and I don't see how any of them have the time to write anything on the Internet.

It's generally known to be a real grind, which is why there is such little competition for the jobs. I myself have been offered jobs teaching Contracts, Constitutional Law, and Land Use just this week. I'm holding out for something a little more leisurely. But if Skadden Arps doesn't call soon, I just might take the leap.

On the plus side, as much money as Althouse is throwing away by blogging, at least she isn't a shrill ninny like you. So that's something.

Goesh said...

I can't imagine any college president's blog being other than boring.

Zach said...

“In this day and age of political correctness,” Mr. Cotton said, “it exposes the president to all kinds of unfair and unwarranted criticism.”

Read any criticism.

What irks me here is the tonal dissonance between the informal observer and the ex-cathedra one-who-must-not-be-questioned:

Dr. Simon derided the game as “a way to mock and demean, not to educate; a way to exclude, not include, voices.”

Is this someone who is participating in the debate as an equal, or is this someone who is pulling rank at the first sign of disagreement? Simon isn't arguing, she's setting herself up as judge.

the pooka said...

Sunglasses + blogging = ???

Of course, the answer is:

1. Sunglasses
2. Blogging
3. Profit!

Jim Hu said...

"A couple of times a week"? That's not blogging. So...is there a threshold?

Feh, by that standard some of my favorite bloggers aren't bloggers.

Coincidentally, Animal Planet had a nice special on badgers last night.

hdhouse said...

ahh seven nachos...

you had to go and blow it. just when you agreed with me and were actually talking some sense (for a change) you had to hurl your usual bag of crap.

however, now that you confess to being a lawyer ..well so much is explained and i'll cut you some slack.

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