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.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.)
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.
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.Lawyers!
“In this day and age of political correctness,” Mr. Cotton said, “it exposes the president to all kinds of unfair and unwarranted criticism.”
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.And that detracts from the blog... to the point where it isn't even a blog. "An atmosphere of excitement"... bleh!
“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.”
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.”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.
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.”
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.