Why are university presidents so rare in blogosphere?

Jim Horton made a provocative statement the other day on his “On Line Public Relations Thoughts.” He was discussing how the Internet “forces transparency” on hidebound institutions, then he pointed to one of them.

“There is nothing more hidebound than academia,” he said. “It is no secret that US colleges and universities run badly. Their tuitions skyrocket beyond the inflation rate. There is little effort to rein in costs. So far, parents continue to empty their bank accounts, but how much longer can it go on? It appears to be a PR crisis in the making.”

Maybe Jim has answered the question I pose in the headline. Could it be that university presidents don’t blog because they can’t withstand the “glare” of transparency?

If true, it’s also terribly ironic. Aren’t the nation’s universities supposed to be places of free-flowing ideas? Places where creativity and risk-taking are nurtured? Places where tolerance and open-mindedness are virtues?

Clearly that isn’t the case. If it were, academe would be perfect place for an executive blog. Imagine a venue where administration and faculty could have those “naked conversations” about issues that affect their lives. Imagine a forum where legitimate student concerns could be aired and all those interested would have access–and a voice. I don’t know if students would respond, but you can bet the parents who pay the tuition would. And so far, their voices have been muted.

Run a Google search and you’ll find few college chieftains sharing their ideas in the blogosphere. Here are the first five to pop us with these search words: blogging university presidents.

Cedarville University’s Bill Brown let’s his personality and faith shine through on his blog. He gets tons of polite comments from students and well-wishers, perhaps a reflection of the civil tone he sets at this devoutly Christian school. You won’t find anything resembling disagreement on this blog. Nor will you find any real discussion.

University of Washington President Mark Emmert has a relatively new blog that features postings in June, then it picks up again in October. Most of the content is a travelogue of his trips to China and Korea. Apparently neither student, nor faculty, nor alumni are interested. Not a single comment on any post.

Colgate President Rebecca Chopp gave us a travelogue on the order of Emmert’s, but she was fortunate enough to get three fluffy comments. But let’s face it, a chronicle of her China trip is hardly the place to discuss student government issues or bad cafeteria food. Her blog isn’t taking on the “domestic” issues. Posting stopped when she returned to New York.

The next Google entry points to the blog of Jack Calareso, president of Ohio Dominican University. The blog touches on some meaty issues, addressing student concerns about professors who espouse political views in the classroom. Calareso also writes several posts about his frequent conversations with students and his efforts to get out among them. But his blog doesn’t enable comments, so make sure you catch him face to face if you want to converse.

Michael Crowe of Arizona State hasn’t posted since Sept. 6, but he’s not shy about addressing hot topics. Back in March, he opened himself to discussion of the most explosive of all university issues: parking permits. The kids let him have it with both barrels, and to his credit, Crowe posted the comments.

Maybe Crowe’s parking post answers my question. Can university presidents, busy with fundraising and lobbying, actually spend the time to blog with any sincerity? Or must they delegate it to staff already bogged down with administrative minutia?

As one who made a good living ghostwriting in a past life, I’d have no problem using PR writers to craft messages, so long as those messages genuinely reflect the views of top management. But if you open too many avenues for conversations, you have no time left to manage the problems at hand, and no time to make any of those conversations truly meaningful.

So maybe the answer is to open the universities’ blogging door one issue at a time. What if a university president set up a blog to address just one major issue? The PR staff could promote the blog to all key constituencies. It could even report the blog’s results using more traditional means, e.g., mainstream media and face-to-face meetings. If the blog helped solve one problem, the blog and its author would gain credibility. All parties would benefit.

Call me Pollyanna, but I believe there may be a few university presidents with the vision — and the patience — to make this work. But as my wife is fond of saying: “You have blogging on the brain.” And I can’t argue with that.

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