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Queen's University principal Daniel Woolf. (Harrison Smith for The Globe and Mail)
Queen's University principal Daniel Woolf. (Harrison Smith for The Globe and Mail)

From the ivory tower to the Facebook wall Add to ...

Queen's University principal Daniel Woolf recently met with New Zealand's high commissioner, went to the dentist and played trivia with dons - and he told more than 800 people about it.

Since taking office a year ago, Dr. Woolf has become a devotee of Twitter, posting comments from his BlackBerry to the social media site on everything from the health of his cat to campus meetings. The constant updates - save for holiday blackouts - are part of his efforts to stay in touch with students, faculty and staff. And they represent a degree of intimacy few university presidents would have dreamed of just a decade ago. As students return to campuses, many will encounter university leaders whose use of social media reveals them not just as academics but as people.

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Responding to a growing demand from students and parents in an increasingly competitive market, campus leaders like Dr. Woolf are starting Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, creating blogs and using old-fashioned face-to-face meetings to become more visible and help forge a greater bond with students.

"It's very easy for a university president or principal to look a little disconnected," explained Dr. Woolf, whose predecessor was criticized for being out of touch.

Social media are also a useful recruitment tool. On visits to high schools, Laurentian University president Dominc Giroux invites parents and students to become his Facebook friend. By the time he gets to his car, he has at least one request and always accepts. To him, such media are a key part of his ever-changing job.

"Here's a list of what I do. You can keep it," Mr. Giroux said, pushing a small piece of notepaper across the table. On it are a dozen duties that begin with team leader and end with scholarly work, and also include advocate for students and faculty, cheerleader - and recruiter.

At 35, Mr. Giroux is the youngest university leader in Canada and is at ease in the digital world. He has a blog aimed at the university community, as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts. At the recent opening of the Ontario Summer Games at Laurentian's Sudbury campus, he asked the chairman of the university's board of governors, former Ontario finance minister Floyd Laughren, to hold his things while he took pictures with his BlackBerry to post on his Facebook page.

Such open access is a reflection of the changing role of university leaders and the kinds of people being selected for the post, says consultant Ken Steele, a specialist in marketing in higher education. "The job has become a lot more politicized and a lot more precarious. There are a lot more opportunities to get ousted," he said. As a result, he suspects people taking the job are generally more gregarious and outward-looking. "When I think about when I went through university, the president didn't talk to students," he said. "I'd have to look at my degree to check who it was."

Still, Mr. Steele says not all campus leaders should be expected to act this way. "Every institution has a different brand and every president is different. Some belong in the social media sphere, some aren't comfortable there."

For Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, talking to students on Facebook or Twitter seems silly on a small campus. But he does have strong ties with undergraduates, who are welcome to drop by his house on Saturday mornings to watch English Premier League football.

"Getting to know students is part of me doing my job," he said. "If I am going to travel the country proselytizing about the university, the only way to do it is to build relationships with students and learn about their personal experience - not as a buddy, that would be creepy, but as an interested leader."

Student leader Sam Gregg-Wallace, who was part of a book group for freshmen run by the president, says getting to know university leaders and faculty is part of the character of the close-knit New Brunswick campus. Still, he is mindful of the potential conflict between such a relationship and his role representing the interests of undergraduates. "It does raise questions of autonomy," he said. "At a small university the lines can sometimes get blurred."

For Alastair Summerlee, president of the University of Guelph, getting to know students is one way to make the growing school feel small. Nearly all students call him by his first name, says Dr. Summerlee, who regularly teaches an undergraduate seminar and is fond of going barefoot - a fact known widely around campus. Most members of his Facebook group are students and alumni, and his contact list includes many former students.

"It's part of the culture here," he said of the access he gives students, faculty and staff. "It makes it easier for everyone to feel like they are part of a community."

Follow on Twitter: @lizchurchto

 

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