The disruption of COVID-19 has forced us to embrace digital communication platforms, but not every campus leader has seamlessly adapted. I’ve watched higher education executives who were previously very active on social media go quiet. Some have struggled with crisis communications, issuing chilly emails or statements that fell flat. I’ve also noticed leaders who have risen to the occasion throughout the organizational chart. In many campus cases, Vice Presidents (VPs), Associate VPs (AVPs), and Deans have been more nimble, more consistently, and authentically engaged than those with the title of President or Chancellor.
It is this authenticity and intentionality that captures my attention when I consider what it means to be a digital leader. I sat up and took note of the campus leaders who were willing to show up in their personhood, to demonstrate the humanity behind their position. Not hide behind their title. Those who shared the heartbreak of closing campuses, or held accountable admitted students (and others) posting racist remarks and hate speech. The celebrations they posted, with innovative approaches to using video, podcasts, TikTok, blogging and much more.
Gone are the days of robotic messages perfected behind closed boardroom doors. In the era of COVID-19, those that serve in campus leadership positions are beckoned to go beyond the prescription and well- branded posts. Digital leaders are relational, they lead online with values and their flexible strategy showcases how they change along this constant COVID rollercoaster.
We can point to the pandemic as a catalyst for disrupting leadership in higher education but I believe this type of online presence and integration of social media has been needed all along – that’s why I’ve been researching, speaking and coaching on it since 2013. How leaders will be asked to engage online will be forever changed – and this is a very good thing!
The ways in which campus leaders show up in digital spaces will have a lasting impact on the reputation of their institution, and more importantly, which students decide to enroll, whether current students decide to stay, which alumni will give back, and the list goes on.
Higher ed leaders: Your actions online matter – your inaction speaks volumes. Social media is not optional for you anymore. You are called to be Digital Leaders.
Digital Leadership in Higher Education
Digital leadership is a values-based approach to your presence and impact online. Those who ignore social media are making a choice to ignore their community.
So what are these digital leadership practices that are redefining what it means to lead a college or university? Here are a few I’ve observed since COVID.
- Honesty and imperfection. Executives are self-taught and not afraid to ask for help along the way. They quickly clarify and even apologize if needed.
- Authenticity and humanity. Blurring and integrating the lines between work and life, showcasing their home/families/hobbies.
- Facilitating and connecting. Leaders who gather people together, and then step away from the front of the stage or screen. Calling attention to challenges, issues, and injustices while giving power and voice to others.
- Changing and pivoting. Developing flexible strategies and relying on others for help.
- Consistency and visibility. Execs who show up on Twitter threads, Instagram stories, Facebook live streams – not just emails or big events.
Over the years I’ve presented lists of Higher Ed Presidents and VPs to follow on Instagram, and lists of VPs and Presidents to follow on Twitter. This blog is platform agnostic – actually, being active on multiple channels was one of the considerations for making the list! I’ve also factored in an individual’s ability to rise to the digital occasion during COVID-19, including being engaged prior to the pandemic and well-received by their community. In addition to having a variety of executive-level positions in one list, I strived to feature leaders from a variety of institutions and backgrounds. I see all these digital leaders actively redefining their role as an engaging, approachable, and accessible campus leader.
Digital Leaders to Follow
This list is presented in alphabetical order. My goal here was not to endorse, award or present a rubric. I aim to provide inspiration for types of platforms, content and experiences you can apply to your leadership online. I also realize the extremely difficult times we have experienced and will continue to experience. I hope this post offers inspiration and encouragement to campus leaders who many times face harsh criticism – many times outright hate from the Internet.
There’s something to learn from each and every one of these leaders and how they engage with their platforms and communities. If you are reading this as an executive on the list – thank you for your digital leadership!
Jon Boeckenstedt – Vice President of Enrollment, Oregon State University
Over the years Jon has been a steadfast contributor on Twitter and on his blog. You’ll find he’s got a clear take on admissions, from speaking out about College Board decisions, as well as being a long advocate for the test-optional movement. It’s not all data – which you’ll get plenty of – as Jon zaps in some timely humor. He is a definite follow for enrollment professionals and those that want to tap into the realities of the admissions world.
Mordecai I. Brownlee – Vice President for Student Affairs, St. Phillip’s College
Mordecai clearly understands the meaning of personal branding and is visible on all the major social platforms. He produces a Leadership in Education video series with straight talk and a motivational tone and is an advocate for community colleges. Throughout his platforms, you’ll get a peek into his life, like featuring his family and quick messages of inspiration.
Angel Cabrera – President, Georgia Tech
Angel is a long-time engaged leader on social media who built an established audience from George Mason University that he’s carried with him to his new home at Georgia Tech. His Instagram feed is filled with reminders to mask up, and he regularly tweets celebratory messages to other higher ed leaders.
Keith Carver – Chancellor, University of Tennessee at Martin
Following Keith Carver is a breath of fresh air. His Facebook (business) page, Twitter and Instagram document his community-centered approach to leadership. He uploads beautiful, high-quality photos that evoke the emotions along with his heartfelt messages. His Chancellor’s Corner blog is a strategic way to deliver institutional, but still personalized and timely messages.
Joseph I. Castro – President, California State University, Fresno
This president defines the practice of social listening – he is tapped into conversations, students know that he’ll respond when tagged, and he often uses retweet replies to openly answer questions – even when he’s getting called out. His consistent celebratory content is balanced by his outspoken advocacy on issues like Dreamers (DACA), racial injustices, and the ability for international students to remain in the U.S. while learning online.
Ana Mari Cauce – President, University of Washington
Ana Mari understands who needs to hear her message and adapts, like this video about wearing a mask, presented in both English and Spanish. She’s been consistently engaged over the years online and her Twitter feed is a go-to for industry resources, as well as important info for her community.
Thom Chesney – President, Clarke University
His Twitter bio says it all: “In the story of my life I am not the main character.” I love that he publicly acknowledges the great relationships he has built, including the marketers and social media managers on his team – as well as in the post below recognizing the work of his admissions pros. He’s spot on with seamless consistency, emojis, post formatting, and his approachable day-in-the-life content.
Keith has teamed up with Pamela Luster (@SDMesaPrez) for weekly #EquityAvengers chats, demonstrating his purpose through intentional conversations and his ability to build community throughout higher education. Keith continually puts himself out there as a resource, sharing articles, panels and webinars he’s featured on – and of course all things Compton College.
Kelly Damphousse – Chancellor, Arkansas State University
A chancellor’s work is serious, but I appreciate that this one doesn’t always take himself too seriously. His daily life content celebrates fun and family – with a whole lot of Red Wolf pride. Meanwhile, he doesn’t shy away from sharing lessons learned from challenging situations and histories, like the very necessary transition of Arkansas State mascot story below.
Miles Davis – President, Linfield University
Overtime Miles has taken to Twitter and Instagram, most notably in his inspirational and encouraging quotes. He understands the power of language and is conscientious of how he speaks to others. On social media and otherwise, he is a transparent digital leader who embraces social platforms to amplify institutional messages and strengthen his community, as seen in the medium blog post below.
Carine M. Feyten – Chancellor and President, Texas Woman’s University
Carine often uses her platform to celebrate others’ achievements, encourage others to share their stories, and she is one of few presidents who has taken advantage of Instagram stories. As seen in her post below, the importance of rest (and naps!) is such a powerful message coming directly from the president – one that we all need to hear from leadership.
Paige Francis – Vice President of IT/CIO, University of Tulsa
This Chief Information Officer (CIO) is leading on LinkedIn, actively posting and responding to comments and earning solid engagement. She’s also showing family adventures on Twitter and consistently being tapped into the #CIO conversation. She was recently recognized as a top 10 CIO influencer on Twitter.
W. Kent Fuchs – President, University of Florida
This president was one of the earliest voices to speak out using video about the killing of George Floyd. He is not afraid to show up, he is ready and willing to engage if the strategy is right – from TikTok to Snapchat. This is definitely a president with a solid team behind his strategy, especially videos, which shows on the screen!
Joe Gilgour – President, Mineral Area College
Joe has expanded his president title to YouTuber, kicking off the series Community College Presidents talking about Community College. He jumped on the opportunity to tell stories of other presidents, even if the production isn’t always perfect. His Twitter feed is also upbeat and celebratory, always the community college champion.
Ronnie D. Green – Chancellor, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
This chancellor regularly engages sharing university accomplishments, campus happenings, and the Husker experience almost daily. He is another university leader that probably is fortunate to have the support of campus social media managers, and he is starting to tweet more behind the scenes of the full life of a university chancellor.
James Herbert – President, University of New England
James Herbert embraces an integrated approach to his online presence. On Instagram, he shares the Return to Campus plan directly in his bio, while also sharing a touching personal post on the importance of wearing a mask. He also takes advantage of Facebook live streams to connect with students.
Keith Humphrey – Vice President for Student Affairs, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Keith is an inspiring Vice President intentionally taking to Facebook with impressive engagement numbers, connecting with parents, students, and alumni. His platforms amplify messages from the president – but also sneaks in a video or two of his dogs playing. It’s clear he’s part of a leadership team that prioritizes social media and that Keith has invested a great deal of time to connect with every comment, message, and post he receives.
Regina Hyatt – Vice President of Student Affairs, Mississippi State University
This lover of basset hounds shares pictures of her pups to entertain the internet while using Instagram stories to spread need-to-know details on the university’s plan for a safe return in fall 2020. Her Twitter feed is also student-centered, with lots of infographics for visual learners and a variety of social justice and student support resources. Even on her facebook profile this VP is showing up with grace and honesty, as seen in a message I think many higher ed professionals reading this will need to hear.
Renu Khator – President, University of Houston
Renu has a jaw-dropping presence on Twitter. She’s drawn in a community of connections that allows her to be extremely conversational and provides her a space to speak to timely issues such as COVID and the issues that international students face. She has a well-rounded approach to her social strategy, but also appears not to take the amount of followers or influence she has too seriously.
Walter M. Kimbrough – President, Dillard University
Hip Hop Prez aka Walter Kimbrough has a long history with having an impact online – that is unmistakably him. He’s tapped into local conversations within Dillard University and New Orleans, as well as national and global issues. You can also find him advocating to other HBCU presidents and campus leaders to join him, in amplifying their voices on social media, as well as writing opinion pieces like in this medium blog.
TJ Logan – Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, Temple University
While it’s not part of his AVP role at Temple, TJ’s podcast is a must-listen for higher education professionals. Created at the time when COVID hit, he brings in guests across the industry to unpack, debate, and dream about the future of higher education. The Collective Good Place Makers pod explores the future of the college campus in a very uncertain world. Beyond the pod, TJ can be found pushing for innovation on Twitter.
Russell Lowery-Hart – President, Amarillo College
This president is one of the heart-centered leaders who is a joy to follow and to know. His real-life dedication to helping students and amplifying community colleges carries into his social channels. Even in his twitter profile he states, “I fight for students and those that fight for students as @amarillocollege president.” He’s also very engaged on Facebook – but also understands the importance of logging off while taking needed time off.
Pamela Luster – President, San Diego Mesa College
Prez Pam is a self-proclaimed President-warrior for community colleges, unapologetically committed to student success, equity, radical inclusivity and justice. She co-hosts the weekly Twitter chat, Equity Avengers, with Keith Curry. Her Twitter feed is full of celebrations for students, graduates, and other higher ed leaders.
Tim Miller – Vice President for Student Affairs, James Madison University
Tim is a great example, for many reasons, of an accessible, relatable and on-the-ready Vice President of Student Affairs. He’ll use all the capabilities of platforms – for example, with Facebook he built a business page, but also uses his profile for student and parent engagement. He also intentionally has a presence in important JMU Facebook groups, such as one for parents. Finally, you’ll find him going live on Facebook in a Tuesday Night Live series that evolved from a pre-COVID live production to help students stay engaged in a meaningful way.
Ajay Nair – President, Arcadia University
Self-described as a president 2.0, Ajay is intentionally setting out to redefine the presidency. This especially is seen on social media, as Ajay took to TikTok to create a video series that reflected on White Supremacy. Whether it’s long-form posts on Facebook or videos on Instagram – Ajay is ready and willing to show up. Not just in public statements, but publicly doing the work. You can also learn some skills in cooking and dancing for this prez.
Santa J. Ono – President & Vice Chancellor, University of British Columbia
This president was one of the early voices on social media in higher education, who continues to post frequently. Lately his use of Instagram keeps him accessible, relevant and familiar, whether it’s gorgeous landscapes or video from his #SongsofComfort series. Twitter is a place to inform on UBC news, from faculty appointments to grant awards to public health updates.
Darryll J. Pines – President, University of Maryland
Brand-new to his role as campus president, he was immediately ready to engage, acquiring about 2,000 Instagram followers in his first month (and even more on Twitter). Darryll listens, responds, and clearly communicates his values – and was even ready to give the Internet more pictures of his pup when they kept asking.
Donde Plowman – Chancellor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
This chancellor doesn’t shy away from video content, and she is a strong role model for COVID-era education like physical distancing and wearing a mask. She also is a champion for local businesses and restaurants, in a series on Instagram that shows her stopping into establishments for support, like the one below.
Steve Robinson – President Lansing Community College
After serving as president of Owens Community College, actively engaging on Twitter, a president’s blog, and a podcast – just recently Steve seamlessly transitioned his digital presence as the new Lancing Community College President. While at Owens, this president kicked off the campaign #EndCCStigma – which gained national attention and continued usage. Catch his kick off youtube message to his new colleagues at Lansing below.
Terisa Riley – Chancellor, The University of Arkansas Fort Smith
Terisa has been a consistent and transparent leader on Twitter, sharing updates about the campus response to COVID-19 with lots of UAFS Lion pride. She is an active listener, always replying to help students with concerns and sharing encouragement. Terisa comes into her Chancellorship after years of active online engagement as a VPSA, where she would actively use tools like Snapchat. On Twitter, she’s also quick to use wit and a little humor – and openly declares how much she loves (and misses) her students.
Melissa Shivers – Vice President of Student Life, The Ohio State University
Melissa is a great case study in a successful social media transition from one campus to the next and who started over. Her Instagram and Twitter accounts were launched when she started at Ohio State in January and have been well-received since. Clearly on brand, with an impressive consistency that makes it clear she has a strategy as a VP, such as her inspirational quote series on Instagram.
Michael J. Sorrell – President, Paul Quinn College
This president is completely redefining leadership in higher education, not just for HBCUs or small colleges. Pay attention. Michael Sorrell is tapped in to his audience as an innovator and advocate. Whether it is national press, other peer presidents or his very own Paul Quinn students – he is showing up. He’s gone live on Instagram countless times since the pandemic, answering questions on the fly or simply sharing his reflections that day. He also proudly shares elements of his family life: one ongoing series with his son on Instagram is called #AdventuresinManCamp.
Janet N. Spriggs – President, Forsyth Technical Community College
Janet takes advantage of platforms like LinkedIn and blogging to connect with her community, while also serving as an advocate for community colleges. On LinkedIn she is a conversation starter who responds to comments, engages with others, and provides context for the news she shares. Her blog called, Leading to Make a Difference, she describes as: “Being Bold, Being Courageous, Being a Leader who builds a legacy instead of a resume, and who leaves the world a better place because of the Difference You Made!”
Arthur (AW) Sunleaf – Vice President of Student Development & Dean of Students, Loras College
Arthur is engaging on every platform, jumping on pop culture sensations from Tiger King to Star Wars. His personhood shines in self-deprecating tweets and the many instances of his family life on screen. This VP is also taking to TikTok – all the time! He gets what it takes to connect with students to build trust overtime.
Mayra Olivares-Urueta – Vice President of Student Development Services, Tarrant County College
Mayra turns to LinkedIn as her platform of choice and chooses to share the many facets of her authentic personality (rather than portraying a sleek facade). I love how visual she is on the platform, posting pictures, and graphics where so many others rely on text. She is extremely active, regularly celebrating others, sharing resources, and contributing to conversations. She also started blogging during COVID with a colleague, Taryn Ozuna Allen, called Mamis on the Move – building a community of mothers leading in higher education.
Fram Virjee – President, California State University, Fullerton
Fram Virjee is a fun and consistently informative one to follow, showing personality and perspective from his family life to help the community know and trust him. He sometimes appears alongside his partner in videos, which are a delight. You can also tune in to his Fram & Friends podcast on Titan radio.
Gourjoine M. Wade – Associate Vice President & Dean of Students, Grambling State University
This Dean leads with a full heart and added humor, doing whatever it takes to connect messages to students. He has a good mix of accountability and relatability, and the #gramfam signals that are included in his posts say “I’m here for you.” Check out Trivia Tuesdays and his many celebration posts.
Daria J. Willis – President, Everett Community College
One year into her role as a community college president, Daria Willis has returned to her blog to reflect on where she stands. Her blog is clearly for higher education professionals, in a series called “So you want to be a community college president?” Daria is also willing to go where her students are, whether that’s on Instagram or TikTok.
Gabe Willis – Dean of Students, Southeastern Louisiana University
Especially on Instagram and Twitter, Gabe Willis is finding creative and personalized ways to connect with students in real-time. He’ll go live, start a challenge, posts shout-outs, whatever it takes to engage – even if that includes sometimes challenging students on their online behavior. He is part of an active leadership team on social media who also are stellar examples of digital leadership, including Southeastern Lousiana president, John L. Crain, and VP, Eric Summers.
Melissa Woo – Senior Vice President for Information Technology & Chief Information Officer, Michigan State University
This CIO shows the person behind her position, often wishing her campus, MSU, good morning, or a reflection before the weekend. Melissa has used a variety of digital communication tools to amplify her values and mission of advocating for and mentoring women and increasing diversity in IT.
J. Luke Wood – Vice President of Student Affairs & Campus Diversity, San Diego State University
As a well-known diversity scholar, Luke has accumulated quite the following as he recently transitioned into a new role at SDSU as the VPSA. His platform is a tool for education and advocacy, especially with the series of Black Minds Matter series.
Who Are Your Digital Leadership Role Models?
Each of these campus leaders embodies the concept that leading online is not optional. Based on this list and others you follow, what themes did you find that presidents to AVPs were employing over the past six months? What about six years?
Which digital communication platforms, online practices and people are you inspired and informed by right now in higher ed?
Finally, who would you add to this list? What have they done that has made a significant impact?
Let me know in the comments, or find me @josieahlquist and email@example.com.
Owning Digital Leadership in Your Daily Practice
Digital leadership is about amplifying your leadership capacity to live out your values online and “on” campus.
Social media is not perfect, your students aren’t perfect – and neither are you. I know that may seem quite scary and intimidating to take in. But leaders must be able to navigate and sit with change, imperfection, and lack of control – and that’s not just on social media!
Campus leaders are overdue not just for support, but for a clear strategy. As executives, you play a major role in that institutional voice. So create goals, set a realistic strategy, and track data to measure your impact along the way.
The good news – You don’t have to go at this alone. Get support: from me as an executive coach, from your campus marketing professionals, heck even from your kids or friends with kids! But please do get support. Social media for public leaders is not a solo job.
Social media is not simply selfies and hashtags. Social media is the face, the voice of your institution – and it is also part of your legacy. In your position, but also as part of your life.
Resources for Campus Executives Ready to Lead Online
Over the years I’ve created a number of formal and informal ways I support and build a community for campus leaders. First, I created a private community on Facebook to support current and aspiring higher education executives, who want to engage, influence, and lead online, on campus and in life. Join us today in The Connected Exec! I’m currently going live every Thursday at Noon EST educating members on different digital tools and practices.
I am also available for one-on-one coaching and consultation. I will help clarify your purpose online and develop a clear strategy for consistent connection and communication with your community – all while you share your story and magnify your impact. Learn more about my services for executives and reach out to get started. Finally, below is many of the resources I’ve built over the years especially for higher ed leaders.
- My BOOK: Digital Leadership in Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World, coming this fall!
- Secret Sauce of Social Media for Campus Executives
- Thought Leadership 2.0: The Relational Leadership Update
- 4 Missteps CEOs Make on Social Media
- Examining Twitter Influence of Campus Executives: A Campus Sonar Social Listening Report
- Leading Online webinar series
- Is Social Media Sustainable for Campus Executives? on Josie and the Podcast
- Get Connected: The Social Media Guide for Campus Leaders
- Presidential Podcasting: College & University Edition
- Authentic Branding for Real People
- Terisa Riley // From First Gen to First Fem
- Mordecai I. Brownlee // It’s Dr. Mordecai
- Ajay Nair // 2.0 Prez. Living at the intersection of authenticity and the academy
- Melissa Woo // Social Higher Ed CIO
- Walter M. Kimbrough // Hip Hop President