During a 2009 leadership conference, I conducted a session about social media. Memories still swirl in my mind from my audience’s warnings about the inability to control student postings, the abundance of policy questions, and most of all, the deeply seeded fear of how social media’s very existence would disrupt college life. There were examples from almost every participant of some negative event on their campus tied to social media. I was most surprised by arguments to block Facebook from servers and networks, notions to dissuade student use of social media forums, and the overall negative tone about the topic.
Fear of the Unknown
Even more troubling for the attendees that day than the unknown elements of social media, were cases such as Murakowski vs. University of Delaware in which a student was suspended for posting violent & sexually graphic materials. Murakowski was also responsible for a slew of postings that were anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic, all on a website hosted by university servers. The resulting lawsuit centered on first and fourteenth amendment rights violations and stoked much fear about the potential pitfalls of social media being allowed on campus networks.
Another fear inducing social media issue that was tossed about during that discussion did not rise to legal proceedings, but generated lots of attention in the Fall of 2007 and much of 2008. At Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, a Facebook page was created that alleged a student had sexually assaulted another student off campus. The victim, whose complaint may have never been officially registered with the campus until the creation of the Facebook page, later formally reported the incident. This led to the suspension of the accused student. Contentious debate raged about the Facebook page itself and created a firestorm of arguments regarding the facts of the case, as well as the very presence and perceived influence of social media in judicial proceedings on college campuses.
Discussing the Potential
After hearing these cases used as examples of why social media was dangerous, threatening, and something to be feared, I attempted to shift the conversation by introducing ideas about social media’s potential as a viable tool. The backlash was quite strong against me and three or four attendees in the session who stood as a vocal minority by advocating on behalf of social media. On that day, and even now, I submit that social media compels many “risk vs. reward” arguments and requires responsibility and thoughtfulness by any student, university, or campus stakeholder who wishes to use it consistently and effectively. While keeping the responsibility component in mind, it is still quite rewarding five years later to know that my stance that day was not foolish, but actually predictive of today’s social media reality.
In spite of the concerns and fears described above, college campuses have seen the opportunity to connect with their students and alumni, engage potential students, and tell their respective stories to the world all through social media. Social media has even become so prevalent that some forums are used as communication tools during campus emergencies.
A Campus Star is Rises
Among the universities who saw beyond those early fears are many examples of creative and insightful social media strategies. College campuses that embrace social media demonstrate that operating within the social media world far outweighs settling for fear and opposition. Here are few highlights:
- Johns Hopkins University’s Hub is an awesome demonstration of how social media can branch into many different avenues and share the campus message through a plethora of forums;
- Indiana University will open a new Media School in 2014 which will include a certificate in digital media and robust degree offerings such as advertising and strategic communications, international/global media and communication, and media industry and management among many others;
- The University of Wisconsin-Madison engaged in the Bucky Challenge where a generous family pledged a $1 donation to UW–Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Association for every new Facebook and Twitter follower they could obtain. This unique social media strategy yielded nearly $20,000 in scholarship funds;
- UCLA used Vine & Instagram to allow a live feed to watch a brain surgery, while capitalizing on Twitter as well. By using a hashtag called #UCLAORLive to chronicle the work of their Deep Brain Stimulation Team, UCLA has broadened access to this facet of medicine using social media;
- The University of California Berkeley has a dynamic YouTube page that has been viewed millions of times while chronicling a myriad of elements of their campus experience;
- The University of Miami offers a Social Media Professional Certificate and a Social Media Strategist Certificate through their School of Education. The University even cites a Bureau of Labor Statistics projection that social media related careers will increase 24% by 2018, which is fodder for a future blog post; and
- One of the best online venues to demonstrate how effective social media can be for universities is the com Top 100 Social Media Colleges list. This annual ranking has become so valuable that some campuses direct resources and strategy toward new initiatives that will move them up the list each year.
Social media has proven to be a viable element of marketing and branding the college experience that can’t be ignored. The reward of capitalizing on social media is obvious to the dozens of other universities found on the aforementioned Top 100 list and has even led to several new social media initiatives that my own campus is undertaking. The potential to enhance learning, celebrate success stories, link with potential students, raise money, and capacity to grow the respective university brand far outweighs the angst and lamenting I heard in that 2009 conference session. My point of view remains strong that social media is not a foe to college campuses. With such expansive reach and potential, social media has evolved into an entity that is quite a good friend to our universities indeed.