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Higher Ed Digital Leaders: What we’ve learned in the age of COVID-19

What got you here, won’t get you there – Marshall Goldsmith

In the spring of 2020 the globe began to face unimaginable challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The industry of higher education was thrust fully into digital spaces to communicate, connect, deliver services and build community. An industry that traditionally has put far more value and resources into face-to-face interactions and the on-campus experience.

Higher education leaders already versed in the value of digital communication platforms, especially social media, found the pivot more possible and took to platforms with purpose. 

A cohort of campus presidents, chancellors, provosts, vice presidents, and associate VPs – found in all types of institutions – from large public to small private, community college to HBCU, integrated all kinds of digital communication tools. This post will feature some of those digital leaders, and the platforms and strategies that enabled them to carry out their values and connect with their people.

The Requirement of Digital Leadership 

As explained in my book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World, the act and intention of getting online to connect with your campus community is not just for bragging rights. Leaders who are more engaged online are actively working toward the outcomes of retention, recruitment, advancement, and much more.

However, the vast majority of higher education leaders continue to struggle with digital strategy, consistency and authenticity. Up until the pandemic, having a president on social media was totally optional. A VPSA or even AVP might be the only one in the cabinet tweeting or posting to Instagram. 

As the book title from Marshall Goldsmith spells out, What got you here, won’t get you there – the way higher education leaders “lead” is changing and will continue to be changed because of this pandemic.

To the pipeline of professionals preparing for the presidency or current executives across campus taking an honest look at your digital skills: Do not put this off any longer. 

Like a change to the core curriculum, the pandemic has confirmed a high-profile campus leader without the skills of digital leadership is a weakness to the organization. 

Let’s be honest, higher ed has some work to do and we need all hands on deck. Let’s just look at some realities related to admissions. According to research from the National Student Clearinghouse

  • Freshman enrollment in Fall 2020 declined by an unprecedented 13.1%. This led to an overall postsecondary enrollment dip of 2.5% according to the most recent data.
  • Enrollment declines vary by institution, but public two-year institutions have generally seen the largest declines in first-time student enrollment (-21.0%), followed by public colleges and universities (-8.1%). 
  • New international student enrollment dropped by 43%
  • Preliminary data found that new undergraduate enrollment was down 4.5% in spring 2021.

Overall, it’s clear that our higher ed leaders have higher stakes as we make our way through this next academic year. 

Digital Leadership Skills During COVID-19

In the summer of 2020, months into COVID-19 I wrote a blog titled, “Campus Leadership in the COVID-19 Era: 40 Digital Leaders to Follow.” Since then I have followed the ups and downs of these presidents, provosts, vice presidents, and associate vice presidents. These campus leaders were willing to show up for their communities, demonstrate humanity beyond their position, share the heartbreak of closing campuses, hold others accountable for posting racist remarks and hate speech, and share the small wins through video, podcasts, TikTok, blogging, and much more.

I’ve been taking notes along the way. Here’s what we all quickly learned from these leaders: 

Empathy

This is a word we can use to describe many scenarios but in particular, it seems as though higher ed leaders alike have a new appreciation for their campuses and support systems that helped get us where we are now over a year later. One example that I loved is a video of MSU-Denver staff thanking student workers and celebrating their hard work for Student Employee Appreciation Week. Check it out here.

Another great example is Joseph Castro, Chancellor, The California State University, who provided support to reduce stress of students and families: 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I used digital platforms to communicate directly by video with the Fresno State community. I also used it to answer questions or refer students to a colleague who could answer their question. This was very effective in reducing the stress of students and families, especially, during that pivotal time.”

Connection

I’ve seen firsthand how campus leaders understand the importance of building a connection with their on-campus and digital communities. In my book I talked about how the ROI of digital leadership is relationships. Connections can occur in your timeline or one-on-one in your direct messages. Mayra Urueta-Olivares, Vice President of Student Development Services at Tarrant County College Northeast Campus shared: 

“We must continue to utilize all of these new platforms to engage with our communities of prospective and current students. At my institution, we have reached and engaged many more students adding the virtual/digital pieces and we must continue to capitalize on that for students who, even after we return to in-person services, can’t come to campus due to other responsibilities. This will be particularly true for our adults, single parents, and many other students who are juggling so much life.”  

An example that brings this all together is from Gabe Willis, Dean of Students at Southeastern Louisiana University. Gabe says to make sure to pay attention to and commit to outreach online for relationship building. For many leaders in Student Affairs, these connections also include parents and families around the world. Seeing what happens behind and beyond the screen can be powerful and is happening every day for digital leaders.

For example, a mom from Pennsylvania has been following Gabe on Twitter for some time and told him, “I am comfortable having my son there because I feel as though I know what’s going on through your Tweets.” Later she sent this digital dean of students a big box of cookies after Gabe had raved about going to Insomnia Cookie. In response she sent him another “real cookie” to try instead.

Recognition

I’ve seen how leaders are relying on their marketing and communications teams now more than ever to help lead in crisis communication. This has increased the value of respect and appreciation for the work that these teams do across many campuses. Regina Young Hyatt, VP of Student Affairs at Mississippi State University, responded as the most valuable tool or practice during COVID-19 she’d encourage campus leaders to consider: 

“Grace – not a tool, but a practice for sure. Grace for others, grace for yourself. We are all doing the best we can. Sometimes the best right now doesn’t measure up to our previous/pre-COVID best but it’s OK.”

Another example of recognition is from Thom Chesney, President of Clarke University shared this Twitter example below stating, “It’s a great example of an unexpected opportunity to call out students doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. It caught the eyes of a business owner; then, after my post, students, parents, and community members—many of whom tracked me down by email later to thank me for sharing.”

https://twitter.com/ThomChesney/status/1381676312776077321

Well-being

Working from home while leading a campus has encouraged us to start discussing our mental well-being as well as that of our support teams. Our higher ed leaders have not only had to work through their normal at-home routines, but may have added in caregiving for children and other family members. In addition, it may be more challenging to “log off” of work, finding those boundaries, learning to take care of others, and most importantly learning how to take care of ourselves. Daria Willis, President of Everett Community College, shared insight on how to manage her well-being:

“Honestly, stepping away from social media on the weekends from time to time as we all need time to breathe, strategize, and think.”

Keith Curry, President of Compton College, provided advice for future campus leaders in regards to social media and digital wellness, “Figure out a way to manage your time with social media. I am usually on social media in the morning and the evening. Throughout the day, I am off social media to focus on my work.”

Strategy

Between managing multiple crises, leaders cannot afford to adopt platforms without an intentional strategy, time management, and well-skilled support systems. Walter Kimbrough, President of Dillard University, addressed strategy and crisis, and how having a campus executive online is a tool for relief in challenging times:

 “Managing is tough because there really is no way to control stories on social media. I think if you have a presence in advance of a crisis, the posts you make during a particular challenge can lessen the time a challenge runs hot.  But it has to run its course, and the president and leadership team that learns that will save themselves some heartburn.”

Heartburn is quite the descriptor for the stress and struggles many campuses and leaders have had to endure. The cure? Many leaders communicated means to ‘get in, and get out’ when it comes to logging into a platform but also allowing space to have longer conversations, for example in an ongoing Twitter thread or blog post. In addition, the remedy is devoting time. Keith Humprey, Vice President for Student Affairs at San Luis Obispo, offers the following advice: 

“I hear from many leaders that they are afraid of being publicly called out by students or others related to things that they are not happy about. But we should never be afraid of that in our work and we should view digital communications as a way of generating ideas, buy-in, and support for the work we are doing. I would also suggest that you devote time to it – like any relationship it needs to be nurtured to be successful. Finally, it can’t hurt to have a cadre of students to monitor your platforms and offer advice.”

From empathy to well-being and recognition, we’ve all had to adjust and shift our mindset in 2020. Now one year later and beyond, we must remember that it’s important to keep these values and skill sets in practice. It is important now more than ever that in whatever capacity you lead on campus, that you work and strive to adopt these values. But also more important than ever is a flexible but clear strategy.

Leading the Way Online

With these lessons and themes in mind, know that the decision and commitment to amplify your leadership online is a process and won’t happen overnight. Stepping into your own authentic approach and showing up consistently on social media starts by both looking inward and outward. 

This post focuses on the second because it’s honestly a bit simpler. If you are ready to do the inner work required to be a digital leader, check out my executive coaching program. For today, we are going to look across the landscape of campus executives to learn from your peers. 

Collectively they are redefining and solidifying the digital practices and skills leaders must have and carry out – even when we “go back to normal.” 

But then again, as one of the digital leaders featured remarked, “We will never go back to normal. It is up to you to remain relevant, and social media is the cheapest and most accessible way to get the job done.” Daria Willis, President at Everett Community College. Take it from one of the digital leaders, Gourjoine Wade, Interium VPSA at Grambling State University.

As you review this list, think about the following:

  • What about their digital practices and values would fit with my own?
  • How are they using their personality and position to reach people? 
  • Can I decipher some salient values they have based upon how they show up online? What about the priorities of their institution? 
  • Based on the leaders below, are there some strategies that immediately feel incongruent or not natural? What about the ones that you could see yourself genuinely enjoy and feel comfortable?
  • Am I already on the platform described in the example? What skills and resources do I have or need to seek out? 
  • How do you already enjoy communicating or documenting?
  • If you are hesitant about certain platforms or means of digital communication, where is that fear or concern coming from? Is it real, perceived, or something else?

Digital Leaders Status Update

As a reminder, all of these leaders were featured in my summer of 2020 post, Campus Leadership in the COVID-19 Era: 40 Digital Leaders to Follow – and we’ll see what they’ve been up to on social media and in their careers since.

Follow these digital leaders. Reach out to them to ask about their digital strategy. But also evaluate them. Their online practices and lessons may or may not apply to your campus or platform best suited for your community. 

So who are these higher ed digital leaders continuing to lead the way through this challenging time? Scroll on to get a status update.

Jon Boeckenstedt – Vice President of Enrollment, Oregon State University

Before the start of the pandemic, Jon was an active user on Twitter and he continues to be engaged to this day. It was also interesting to find that Jon has outlined his own ground rules on his website for his Twitter account. He spells out what he shares on Twitter and what his followers can expect from his account. This VP is also a writer, recently contributing an article to The Chronicle of Higher Education about the future outlook of higher education and particularly the impact on admissions from large universities to smaller, private colleges, titled: “Enrollment Managers are Flying Blind.” This recent thread is also pretty telling for what is to come in the next in higher ed:

Mordecai I. Brownlee – Vice President for Student Affairs, St. Phillip’s College

Mordecai is the MVP of content creation as a VP. It’s consistent, engaging, and gets you reflecting. A through-line is always advocating for educators and community colleges. Check out one of his latest articles featured in EdSurge titled, “Are You a Digital Threat to Your College,” the latest podcast on Student Affairs NOW titled, “Digital Leadership” and of course, follow along with his Twitter account where he provides inspiring tweets for those working in higher ed:

When asked what advice he has for future campus leaders, Mordecai shared: “Research shows that society will progress more towards an altrocentric leadership approach, essentially motivated by social and emotional strengths. Digital leadership opens the door to social engagement and if performed authentically, such engagement humanizes the person behind the title. More and more students will be seeking to understand “who” is teaching and supporting their academic and career aspirations.”

As of July 15th, 2021 Mordecai will be serving as the president at the Community College of Aurora! Congrats President Brownlee!! 

Angel Cabrera – President, Georgia Tech

Angel continues to be an engaged leader on social media at Georgia Tech. On Twitter his feed lights up with on-the-go pics, as well as clearly branded content. This president consistently celebrates the campus achievements, and can be found not just posting, but participating in student life – as seen in this post with the basketball team:

Recently, he shared a video on LinkedIn that sums up the year in review of online learning and it was featured on the Times Higher Education. In the panel, Angel shared his thoughts on the past year such as how technology will help mitigate lack of connectivity and how it will help keep our communities going. He discussed how this past year has also highlighted the resilience of our universities which will help long-term.

Keith Carver – Chancellor, University of Tennessee at Martin

When you see Keith Carver’s online presence, you are greeted with delightful selfies with his provost, dancing outside with students, and the occasional photobomb around campus. No matter the situation, this is a photogenic and photo-taking president. Through his feed on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and even his president’s Facebook business page, we get to follow along the adventures with him and first lady Hollianne – who Keith clearly adores.

During such a difficult year for our students, staff, faculty, and the entire campus community – the role modeling and positivity that this president shares is contagious – in a good way. I always find myself smiling a bit more after scrolling through his posts. Even his latest graduation advice blog to his students hit me in the feels. I mean how can you not feel better when a president and a mascot get dancing during finals week?!?

Joseph I. Castro – Chancellor, California State University System

Since we last shared the blog featuring higher ed leaders, Joe has transitioned from the position of President of Fresno State to the Chancellor of the entire CSU System. Congrats!!! Quickly in the Chancellor’s office, he began to host virtual tours and meetings with every campus in the system – a total of 23. System-wide education also includes personal health advocacy, for example posting on Twitter urging students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to get their COVID-19 vaccines.  

Chancellor Castro shared, “I invest time engaging on digital communication platforms because it is an effective way for me to stay connected with students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected officials and friends.” This sentiment is also shared by a near majority of the presidents within the CSU System – a few that I love to feature include: Adela de la Torr (San Diego State), Cathay Sandeen (East Bay), Ellen Junn (Stanislaus State) and, featured in this list, Framroze Virjee (Fullerton). When many presidents may question or be concerned about time, quality or posting something that will create controversy, Joe encourages leaders to get guidance from professional staff so that “campus presidents can align the messaging of their personal platforms with the campus or system they represent as a professional.”

Ana Mari Cauce – President, University of Washington

Advocacy and education. That is President Ana Mari Cauce. From immediately speaking out against anti-Asian violence, championing Husky Giving Day, or echoing education about getting vaccinated, Ana knows how to use a digital communication platform to reach and teach her community. Twitter is her primary social vehicle. But especially during COVID-19, she integrates an in-house blog that consistently shows up on Twitter, providing longer form storytelling and statements. 

Thom Chesney – President, Clarke University

Call him Thom. No seriously, that’s the first statement in his Twitter bio. This approach is one example of how I find this president one of the most relational online. You can also find him using emojis to express emotion and energy – many times on brand with Clarke colors 💛 💙.

His pride carries over to advocating and celebrating digital communication and marketing pros at his campus, as well as in the great field of higher ed (thank you Thom!). As an educator, you’ll also see his feed full of two-way messaging, such as integrating Twitter polls, timely info about vaccinations, as well as an interactive series called “Thom’s Tab” where he gives away coffee to students.

He also makes himself accessible 45 minutes a week with his marketing and communications team where they review the calendar, ideate on opportunities (e.g., awards, honors, news) that have emerged, and discuss social media and other communications plans. 


When I interviewed Thom for my book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, he shared if social media should be required of presidents and those on the executive path. He advised, “Expect it to be expected of you. Even better, be asking now how it can be embedded in the formal learning and professional development you’re receiving.”

Keith Curry – President, Compton College 

Keith is an equity advocate and an amazing resource for students, marketing/communications pros in the industry, and many others alike. He understands the power of the internet, which sometimes means putting out a call or question. As seen in the tweet below to filmmaker Ava Duvernay, asking her to be the Compton College virtual commencement keynote speaker. And guess what – she said yes

P.S. If you haven’t checked out the weekly Twitter chat #EquityAvengers yet then you are missing out! Keith leads these with another feature, Pamela Luster. They have also featured numerous other leaders included in this blog – including me! 

Kelly Damphousse – Chancellor, Arkansas State University

Want to know the play-by-play of the campus president? Well, Kelly (yes he wants you to just call him Kelly) documents it all. His feed is full of joy, and one could say he’s playfully active in all parts of campus life. He’s got the group selfie photography skill down pat – with the ability to document, celebrate and remain connected on and offline. I enjoyed discovering in his website bio that he lists both his social accounts, as well as his cell phone on his business card – which he hands out to everyone he meets. 

Kelly recently celebrated the success of his college bowling team via Zoom. He’s done a great job highlighting the success and celebrations of all sports at his university – from bowling to basketball.

https://twitter.com/kdamp/status/1380300414986293248

Carine M. Feyten – Chancellor and President, Texas Woman’s University 

Carine has continued to contribute meaningful messages and moments on social media, for example this Women’s History Month post on Instagram. Her captivating and storytelling-based captions on Instagram touch on other important issues and her commitment to students and higher education. And I can’t help but rave about this amazing #TWUTakeover where she participates in a dance routine with her Chief of Staff! I think this president is ready for TikTok!! 

Paige Francis – Vice President of IT/CIO, University of Tulsa

Since this first version of this post July 2020, Paige has been actively contributing as a writer on Forbes. Recent posts include One Year Later: Are Higher Ed Pandemic Tech Investments Here To Stay? And 2 Truths And A Lie, The Technology Leadership Pandemic Edition. No surprise, these articles show up on her Twitter and LinkedIn. Paige takes on the role of leader, educator and mentor in many of her posts, so it’s no surprise she advocates and participates in a Twitter chat called #CIOChat. Paige doesn’t hide that leadership is challenging, but that is why getting a message like this one can sure make someone’s day. 

W. Kent Fuchs – President, University of Florida 

President Fuchs is no stranger to engaging with his digital community across multiple social media platforms or getting right in front of the camera to show his personality on his latest endeavor, the UF TikTok account welcoming new students. He even went as far as sharing an April Fool’s Day video this year

And when I mentioned “showing his personality,” I think this video from graduation sums him up perfectly: 

On a more presidential note, President Fuchs was featured on the University of Florida’s Instagram account, with a well-captioned video as we approached the one-year mark since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Joe Gilgour – President, Mineral Area College 

Last spring and summer of 2020 Joe carried out a video interview series that featured other community college leaders, casual convos that will also serve as time capsules for the age of COVID. Joe Gilgour is one of those college presidents who uploads both informational content on his social platforms as well as humorous content on Twitter and YouTube. Seriously his recent YouTube videos, like Mac is Back, and tweets like the one below, are like comedy sketches:

Ronnie D. Green – Chancellor, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

When you take a look through Ronnie Green’s Twitter, you get a true sense of his passion and pride for his university and his community. Especially from this tweet here regarding graduation and even his Twitter profile photo wearing his university branded mask. He consistently shares celebratory tweets for his faculty, alumni, and students who are excelling and uplifting messages such as these tweets below: 

James Herbert – President, University of New England

James Herbert understands how to share both his work and personal lives on his social media channels. His dedication to wellness, running and vaccine promotion is apparent in his Instagram feed. Alongside the First Lady, he shared a great video regarding campus winter break with his digital community. Videos continue to be a strategic and humanizing way for campus leaders to communicate to their community. Check out the video below!

Keith Humphrey – Vice President for Student Affairs, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Keith is leading and role modeling the way a Vice President of Student Affairs can have a serious impact using a Facebook business page. With 7.3k followers, he is a must-follow for best practices for those considering starting a page or those looking to revamp their current page. His feed includes timely interactions with parents, streamlined and amplified communication from the university president, and features of new and current student affairs staff. Keith also shared he was proud of the series, Mustang Monday because, “They allow me to connect each week with things that are going on for students on campus, post reminders, cheer them on, and often make commentary on challenging situations that impact our humanity. This allows my community to see the person – not just the administrator.”

Regina Hyatt – Vice President of Student Affairs, Mississippi State University 

Regina has continued to share her aaaaaaadorable basset hounds throughout her social feeds. Her latest endeavor is her podcast, The Positive Sip – which I am a big fan of. It features campus and student leaders, and tells the story of the people of Mississippi State – and also gives a peak into Regina’s personality, values and life. 

Beyond the audio waves, this VPSA also has personalized ways to communicate and connect – for example, this video with warm wishes to graduates and excitement for students returning in the fall. The video is a simple setup, most likely shot on her computer – probably between meetings. No matter the production value, it’s the meaning and emotion behind the message that resonates. 

While both of these examples include some advanced digital communication strategies, it doesn’t mean she is jumping into every tool. Regina’s advice to campus leaders is to invest meaningful time daily to engage but to be strategic about where. She says,

“I want to be on TikTok but I haven’t figured out yet how to create content that would be beneficial to the kinds of engagement I am interested in. So if you are going to be in a digital space, make sure it’s meaningful.”

Renu Khator – President, University of Houston

Should we crown a Homecoming Queen of Twitter? I’d vote for President Khator, and based on her high engagement rates – I know I’m not alone. Her content is fun, inspiring, and authentic to her such as this video of her playing basketball with her family and dog or this video after a basketball win. She’s also sharing academic and research content in simple Twitter formats that result in high engagement like this tweet here

Walter M. Kimbrough – President, Dillard University

Walter Kimbrough has continued to have a strong presence across his social media platforms. You can say that he tells it how it really is. In September, Walter was featured amongst a group of panelists on MSNBC discussing how more COVID-19 vaccine trials need black participants. On a more personal note, Walter also discusses the hesitancy of producing vaccines as he reflects on his brother’s life after passing away from COVID-19. Sending good thoughts and care your way during this difficult time, President Kimbrough. 

Over time, @HipHopPrez has role-modeled and lifted up the level of digital leadership of HBCU presidents and vice presidents – where nearly every single campus has a cabinet-level leader with a solid impact online.

TJ Logan – Associate Vice President for Residential Experience, Ohio State University

Since my last leader’s blog, TJ Logan has embarked on a new position as the Associate Vice President for Residential Experience at Ohio State University. His Twitter bio indicates his curious and forward-thinking leadership in higher ed: “Grinding to bring #relevance back to #highered * #MBA, #EDTech Doctor, #Innovator & #Changemaker.” TJ is also the host of the popular podcast The Placemakers that asks the question, “Will the traditional college campus be relevant in the future?”

Russell Lowery-Hart – President, Amarillo College 

This president continues to be a joy to follow and to get to know online. He’s been featured in my #DigLead Book Club, which you can watch here. During shelter in place last year, President Lowery-Hart supported his campus community by working in the student commons to ensure students had access to technology and shared his thoughts in this Twitter thread:

Russell shared with me, “This post captured my observations on the anniversary of shutting down the college and moving my desk to the Ware Student Commons and serving students with computers, food, emergency aid, financial aid and advising.”

Russell also reflected on why digital communication is important and effective.

“In a pandemic, digital communication is an absolute necessity. I continue to invest in it because the “corporate” ways of communicating are not as effective as they once were and usually seem inauthentic. Digital communication is a way to personalize my leadership and have more open and free conversations. 

Our students are already telling us our emails are not an effective communication tool. Even our employee open rate for emails is decreasing. Social media and digital communication provide a personal, easy, and inclusive tool to connect with people.”

Pamela Luster – President, San Diego Mesa College

Pamela’s Twitter bio quickly communicates her values as a community college president: “San Diego Mesa College President-warrior for community colleges, unapologetically committed to student success, equity, radical inclusivity and justice.” While President Luster is a CEO fully invested and engaged online, she recognizes some others may not – so Pam directs campuses to have a clear plan. “I think at the very least colleges and universities need to have a plan for what and how they will use these platforms. Even if the CEO isn’t personally utilizing them.” 

The means of digital communication extend beyond social media. For example, early in the pandemic, Pam created twice-monthly campus online forums that became very successful, which now include professional development on topics such as student engagement and success. Once per semester she also hosts a virtual president’s breakfast that builds relationships with the local community and stakeholders – as found below.

Bonus – alongside Keith Curry, also featured in this post, they’ve continued to produce the Twitter chat called #EquityAvengers. I recommend adding this to your summer networking and pro devo list!

Tim Miller – Vice President for Student Affairs, James Madison University 

If you are looking for a VP that has a strategy on (nearly) all social media platforms, then Tim is one to follow and learn from. He’s a reliable, accessible resource who is genuinely ready to help and lift up his campus community in whichever platform that they utilize. Yes, Tim understands where his audience is – whether it’s students on Instagram or parents in a Facebook group. This is probably why Tim just hit a new milestone on IG with 5,000 followers after only two years! From reviewing his Instagram comments,  students and alumni are more than excited to engage with this VP in this platform. His Facebook Page is also a great resource – and has a distinct strategy from IG. Considering a unique strategy and audiences during COVID, just this spring Tim kicked off a podcast series called JMU Alumni Rebound that features alumni from James Madison who share their challenges and successes since graduating.

For those curious about lessons and tactics that Tim has learned over time, he shared a few: “I’ve found that since I share both positive, uplifting content as well as guidance and concerns, people are engaging with both regularly. Video posts get between 3 and 4 times the interaction than pictures. I have also learned to keep all my videos below 1 minute if I can so they will post normally and not through IGTV.”

Ajay Nair – President, Arcadia University

I have a theory. Executives who have pre-teens, teens and young adults in their immediate circles (kids, nieces/nephews, etc.) are not only the earliest higher ed exec adopters to new platforms, but are quick to pick up and apply internet culture. They have their own informants – and this is true for this President. Ajay has two such informants, who can be found throughout his feed, like this one where his son is holding him up or this one of his daughter driving him on her 16th birthday. Collectively his Arcadia University first family have purpose and personality – from TikTok to Twitter.

Santa J. Ono – President & Vice Chancellor, University of British Columbia

Found mostly on Twitter and Instagram, Santa J. Ono utilizes both platforms well and shares out the most relevant and timely content that represents all pockets of campus. From his #SongsofComfort series on Instagram or sharing industry and campus-related content on Twitter, Ono is one to follow. Recently he has been documenting some coyotes who live in his backyard – one he has named Kip. These pops of perspective and pause are so refreshing in a feed for a campus leader. For those looking to utilize additional features of Instagram, check out the organized Highlights section of his Instagram, which are saved IG Stories in categories such as Cello, 2020 and Vancouver. 

Finally, one additional strategy to highlight is the President’s Newsletter. These longer messages housed on the university website are set up to be shareable on social media.

Darryll J. Pines – President, University of Maryland

When I first featured President Pines last year, he was fairly new in the role. Fast forward one year and we know navigating a global pandemic for any college president is no easy feat. That didn’t stop Darryll from leading in digital communications and contributing intentionally online. Whether it was on his Twitter account or his Instagram account, Darryll was transparent, resourceful, and personal. We got to see him receive the COVID-19 vaccine, hand out goodies to students before spring break, and all the festivities of his recent president’s inauguration highlighted below.

Donde Plowman – Chancellor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

It’s Orange, all day every day, for Chancellor Plowman. This Vols pride seeps throughout Twitter and Instagram, where Donde shows up as a president on the move featuring students, future students, and campus community. Every campus in 2020/2021 has had to think out of the box for commencement ceremonies, and UT Knoxville tapped into their stadium as a once in a 100 year experience for the Class of 2021. It will continue to be an interesting dance for public leaders this next year – as social distancing guidelines and mask mandates evolve, along with what those with vaccinations are allowed to do. In nearly every single post Donde wears a very well branded mask. In this post she decided to add clarification, not just in a reply but in a retweet to clearly communicate why. 

Steve Robinson – President, Lansing Community College

In the midst of all that has happened this year, Steve transitioned as the new Lansing Community College President. While at his previous post at Owens Community College, Steve started the campaign #EndCCStigma – which gained national attention and continues to gain attention and traction. You can find Steve sharing updates across many digital platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, his presidential podcast titled, “Teachable Moment” and also on his blog. In addition to advocating for community colleges, Steve remains vigilant of best practices – including on social media. For example, he is educating himself, as well as his president peers, colleagues, and followers on the importance of accessibility on social media – in teachable moments on Twitter like below:

Terisa Riley – Chancellor, The University of Arkansas Fort Smith

Chancellor Riley is no stranger to engaging on multiple social media platforms with lots of heart, soul, and sass. Not only does she create timely and meaningful content, Terisa leans into the playful nature of each platform – rather than being held back by a position. Catch her featured on the campus TikTok, using fun filters on Snapchat and Instagram, and imparting a much-needed mental health message for students on Twitter. She’s always sharing academic and athletic content along with some fun Snapchat filter selfies along the way (like the one below!)

P.S. A very special congratulations to Terisa and 1st gentlemen Ricardo on your recent nuptials!

Melissa Shivers – Vice President of Student Life, The Ohio State University

The O-hio State VPSA is living and breathing scarlet – even on her own front door! One sustainable strategy tool for busy executives is to create templated on-brand graphics to use throughout the year. Check out Melissa’s inspirational quote graphics that are sized just for Twitter and Instagram. Beyond these quotes, Melissa personally lifts up others whether it be a Tweet or a comment, or an ongoing meetings series called #WednesdayWalkAndTalk. She’s always recognizing the staff that has helped with student life this past year. 

P.S. Get you a wall in your office like this – what a great background wall for photos and videos!!

Michael J. Sorrell – President, Paul Quinn College

If you are ready to use your voice beyond campus promotions and celebrations, Michael Sorrell can be your vocal coach. Twitter especially is a tool that Michael has calibrated with calls to action, reactions, news, and more. Watch how he uses Twitter threads for storytelling, for example, this Proud Prez post sharing about a student success. You’ll also be sure to find a consistent hashtag for Paul Quinn #nationbuilding. On Instagram, his profile lights up with #FamilyLove, #GirlDad and #AdventuresInManCamp – and his own presidential adventures. Just because it’s a pandemic, doesn’t mean we don’t need a touch up sometimes:

Janet N. Spriggs – President, Forsyth Technical Community College

Connect with President Spriggs and she’ll be consistently sprinkling your feed with campus life, community college advocacy, and some behind the scenes of life as a president. Because of her solid and stable strategy on Twitter and LinkedIn, her digital leadership communicates trust and reliability. In 2020 she also blogged, allowing her voice and philosophy to come to life. In November, she shared a post on her blog, Leading to Make a Difference, titled: “Waiting for the Storm to Run Out of Rain.” In this blog post, she sums up the year of 2020-2021 and what it means for the future. Her commitment and love to her students come through in posts like this one: 

Arthur (AW) Sunleaf – Vice President of Student Development & Dean of Students, Loras College

Looking for a trendsetting VP and Dean? Art has been not just an early adopter to platforms, but an early innovator – such as on Instagram and TikTok. In his series The Other Dean’s List, Art uses humor, inspiration and education to reach students. He is also active on Twitter and Instagram, sharing news, relatable quotes, and lifting up others on campus. Need a good laugh? I didn’t realize how much I did until I saw this TIkTok from Valentine’s Day: 

@awsunleaf

Little hands, big heart – Happy Valentine’s Day Duhawks!! The Other Dean’s List has dropped. Vol. 4 Ep. 4 #TheODL

♬ Blinding Lights on Glass – The Steven Padilla

Mayra Olivares-Urueta – Vice President of Student Development Services, Tarrant County College

Mayra continues to shine on LinkedIn, recently flooding the feed with #JobOpprotunity posts especially for those looking to lead/work within community colleges. She’s always sharing content that highlights the work of her colleagues, industry-related articles, and Tarrant County College updates through pictures and graphics. Mayra is an active voice and advocate for women and mothers. Since the pandemic, she started a blog with a colleague, Dr. Taryn Ozuna Allen, called Mamis on the Move. Talking about motherhood and leadership, this is one of my favorite posts from Mayra :

Fram Virjee – President, California State University, Fullerton

This first-generation student turned Cal State Fullerton President wasn’t going to allow a pandemic or virtual-only delivery to disrupt his connection with the campus. From his personalized Twitter bio to timely and personality-filled content in his feed, Fram is communicating approachability. His consistency in sharing content and engaging in unique content makes it easy to see what he’s up to. 

Don’t forget to tune in to this Fam & Friends podcast in which he has conversations with other campus leaders, professors, students, coaches and department chairs. But especially, don’t miss this series on Twitter, where he has conversations with graduating seniors:

Gourjoine M. Wade – Interim Vice President for Student Affairs, Grambling State University

For many years I referred to Gourjoine as one of the most engaging AVP/Dean of Students who is on-brand representing: #GramFam, #FirstGenAdvocate, #HBCUsMatter. Now with a vice president title, I may just have to refer to him as the All-Access VPSA, as he continues to be innovative, accessible, and real on Twitter – especially showing up for his students, and yes, even parents. Gourjoine shares why, 

“I hear from so many students and parents that having access to Administrators and staff by way of social media was a saving grace. We have to maintain the connectedness and value of social media well into and beyond the current environment.”

Don’t get the all-access title confused; he clearly communicates boundaries whether in his feed, DMs, or offline strategies to unplug. When he is logged on he is all in. In the feed, you’re going to find him posting videos with campus updates, championing and advocating for HBCUs, celebrating student final grades, and dropping bars like this one:

Daria J. Willis – President, Everett Community College 

“Social media is the way our students communicate with each other and the world, so start small and work your way up to a point where you are comfortable sharing. It is okay to share about who you are, as this may be the only way you can control your own narrative.” Starting out as a new community college president, Daria took her own advice – documenting her first year through a blog, building up a consistent strategy on Twitter, and sharing highlights on Instagram. As many have struggled this last year with physical and mental health, Daria joined the Peloton family and has been sharing her ride and even health milestones. President Willis is also role modeling the juggle and realities of family care – as seen below where her daughter joins a board meeting. 

Gabe Willis – Dean of Students, Southeastern Louisiana University

Gabe Willis is a Digital Dean of Students – taking to various platforms to teach, preach, celebrate and inspire. He invests in digital communications as a leader because “Those campus leaders who strive to acquire a front-facing position must be committed to engaging in the digital space. I stand behind that 100%. The feedback from students, colleagues, and family members from out of state also keeps me engaged. It simply works.”

One day you’ll find him going live on IGTV, inviting professionals from departments that he wants his student followers to learn from – like career services, academic advising and health. Gabe shares that IGTV has been a go-to lately, “The immediate engagement is something you would get in a live (face to face) forum. Those who cannot watch the live session have the ability to watch a recording. It’s a win all the way around.”

The next week you might find a blog he’s written on LinkedIn, like one from last spring fittingly related to this post: If you build the Username, They will come: Using Social Media to Ignite Campus-Wide Engagement as a Dean of Students. Another recent LinkedIn blog documents Dean Willis’s storytelling skills and ability to translate a past setback as a teachable moment called I would not hire you : A mentorship story

Considering strategy, Gabe recently has been repurposing Twitter content to both Instagram and LinkedIn, literally taking screenshots of tweets. As long as Alt Text is added, so far it looks like the engagement has been impressive with this practice! 

Melissa Woo – Senior Vice President for Information Technology & Chief Information Officer, Michigan State University

Melissa Woo continues to be an example on Twitter of how to sincerely engage and check in on your campus community. She’s frequently sharing well wishes, retweeting important information from different campus accounts and posting wellness reminders, such as the one below:

When asked “what is on your mind as higher education prepares to re-enter campus life in person, while still staying connected online?” Melissa responded by saying: 

“Leaders will need to stay connected because our reality at work is that our workforce will be a hybrid of people working on-premise and off-premise. Even if our own workforce is primarily on-premise, many, perhaps even most, of our external partners won’t be.”

J. Luke Wood – Vice President of Student Affairs & Campus Diversity, San Diego State University

While scrolling through J. Luke Wood’s Twitter feed, you’ll notice one common theme: he is a vocal advocate for justice and equity. After the Chauvin verdict on the murder of George Floyd, J. Luke penned an opinion piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune, The Chauvin verdict left me with an overwhelming sense of contentment, but also sadness, and conflictHis LinkedIn feed shares the potential for industry-wide reach and education, for example with the series Black Minds Matter. In his feed, you can also find a recent publication and webinar, Racelighting in the Normal Realities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. He brings his research to life, not by just sharing the finished publication but by walking us through the results and important takeaways.

I couldn’t help myself, because every day there are more and more leaders to learn from in higher ed digital leadership practices. Add these ten to your list. Who else would add and why?? Tweet at me @josieahlquist or send me a message at josie@josieahlquist.com

Makola Abdullah – President, Virginia State Univeristy

Kathryn Kay Coquemont – Associate Vice President for Student Success, Salt Lake Community College

Jill Creighton – Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, Washington State

Jeff DeFranco – President, Lake Tahoe Community College

Jaime Hunt – Vice President and Chief Communications and Marketing Officer, Miami University

Lamar Hylton – Vice President for Student Affairs, Kent State University

Erika James – Dean at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Eloy Ortiz Oakley – Chancellor of California Community Colleges 

DeRionne Pollard – President, Montgomery College

David Surratt – Vice President for Student Affairs & Dean of Students, University of Oklahoma 

The New Normal is Digital Leadership

Each person in this list displays authenticity in their own way, embodying their interpretation of the digital leadership skills of empathy, connection, recognition, well-being, and strategy. They have put on full display why celebrating our roles and integrating self into our digital presence creates impact and visibility far beyond what a title carries. It is the work. It is the new normal.

What got you here, won’t get you there.

A number of people featured on this list have taken on new campus leadership roles since it was first published, but Digital Leadership isn’t about career advancement, it’s connecting with and showing up for the students and staff that we serve consistently – especially during challenging times. No leader is perfect, nor is Digital Leadership. But I expect these dynamic professionals to continue to role-model and define Digital Leadership. They have proven to be nimble, adaptive, and strategic in their approaches, and I can’t wait to see how they continue to lead the way moving forward.

How I Can Help

I’m here to support current and future executives to create a sustainable and values-based digital strategy. For the last five years, there are a few ways I do this. First, I am 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. I also provide group coaching and consultations to cabinets, management leaders, and other pockets of campus leadership. Learn more about my services for executives and reach out to get started. 

Second, 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 once a month on Fridays at noon EST educating members on different digital tools and practices. 

Keep Learning

Finally, below are many of the resources I’ve built over the years especially for higher education leaders.  

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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