Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Ajay Nair // 2.0 Prez. Living at the intersection of authenticity and the academy

In the season three premiere, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Ajay Nair, the 22nd President of Arcadia University about his recent journey into the presidency, as well as his thoughts on integrating family into his professional life and even his social media feed. This 2.0 President brings authenticity, diversity, personalization and a genuine approach to social media. While Ajay is a campus executive, he also loves to be a student – which is exactly how he stays attuned to technology changes from students and even his children.  

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Ajay Nair

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Notes from this Episode

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These kids are growing up too fast!

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Ajay’s Emory Campus Life Music Video

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More about Ajay

A nationally recognized expert in student affairs issues and an accomplished social justice, race, and ethnicity scholar, Dr. Ajay Nair assumed his role as Arcadia University’s 22nd President on April 2, 2018. There, he leads a University that is a national leader in study abroad and international education, with a community of 4,000 undergraduate and graduates students. Dr. Nair is the first person of color to be appointed President at Arcadia and among the first college or university Presidents in the U.S. of Indian-American descent. Prior to leading Arcadia, Dr. Nair served as senior vice president and dean of Campus Life at Emory University, where he led nearly 1,300 employees and provided strategic financial oversight for an annual budget of more than $79 million.

He has served on a wide range of university and civic boards and organizations, including as director of the Division for Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice for NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education). Dr. Nair also held executive leadership positions at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and the University of Virginia.

In his distinguished career in higher education, Dr. Nair has held faculty positions at each of the aforementioned universities, as well as the World Language Institute in Kwangju, South Korea. Dr. Nair’s current book project focuses on the state of multiculturalism in higher education and aims to present a new model for diversity and inclusion in higher education. His co-edited book, Desi Rap: Hip-Hop in South Asian America, focuses on the complexities of second-generation South Asian American identity. Dr. Nair earned a Doctor of Philosophy and a Bachelor of Science from Pennsylvania State University.

Connect with President Nair

Twitter: @PrezNair

Facebook: @PrezNair

Instagram @preznair

Snapchat: @preznair

LinkedIn: LinkedIn.com/in/preznair

About Josie and The Podcast

In each episode, Dr. Josie Ahlquist – digital leadership author, researcher, and speaker – connects tech and leadership in education. This podcast will bring you leaders on-campus and online. From Senior Vice Presidents on Snapchat, YouTubers receiving billions of views and new media professionals. All through the lens of social media and leadership. Josie hopes you will not only learn from these digital leaders but also laugh as we all explore how to be our best selves online and off.

Thanks for listening! Please subscribe to receive the latest episodes, share widely and let me know you’d checked it out!

Connect with Josie

Twitter: @josieahlquist 

LinkedIn: /JosieAhlquist

Instagram: @josieahlquist 

Facebook: Dr. Josie Ahlquist 

Email: josie@josieahlquist.com

Josie: What’s up, Josie and the Podcast listeners, and welcome to season three. I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist, and I am your host each and every episode. This show features leaders who share everything from their latest tweet to their leadership philosophy, and legacy they want to leave behind. My goal is to connect tech and leadership with heart, soul and lots of substance.

Josie and the Podcast is sponsored by Campus Sonar, who is more to me and the show than a sponsor. They have been a true partner, which is actually their approach to the campuses they support through social listening. See, social listening is a modern higher ed professional’s tool to inform strategic, authentic and consistent engagement efforts. Your campus will immediately see a difference, but the real value is over the long term. It supports the higher ed institution of the future, driving strategic efforts to help you reach your institutional goals.

Campus Sonar is setting the standard for higher educational social listening. Their new e-book, The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook is a go-to resource with tips to conduct social listening, a strategic model for higher education, key metrics, and over a dozen campus case studies related to crisis management, student engagement, brand management, influencer marketing, and audience reach. You can download it today at info.campussonar.com/podcast.

Now, on to what you’ve tuned in for, this week’s guest.

Ya’ll, I am really excited to share this chat I had with Dr. Ajay Nair. He is a nationally recognized expert in student affairs issues, and an accomplished social justice race and ethnicity scholar. Dr. Nair assumed his role as Arcadia University’s 22nd President on April 2nd, 2018. There, he leads a university that is a national leader in study abroad, and international education, with a community of 4,000 undergraduates, and graduate students.

Ajay is the first person of color to be appointed President at Arcadia, and among the first college or university presidents in the US of Indian-American descent. Prior to leading Arcadia, Ajay served as Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life at Emory University. He earned his doctorate of philosophy, and a bachelor of science from Pennsylvania State University, so he, basically, was coming home to serve in this presidency role.

We got into all kinds of great stuff, from social media for campus executives, the integration of family as a public leader, and leading with authenticity. It’s very clear that Ajay is very thoughtful when it comes to everything he does. Whether it is about the struggles of managing your email inbox, striving for work/life integration, or trying to figure out the new trends in social media and messenger apps. In this episode there is pretty much something for everyone.

I’m so glad Ajay also spent time talking about the big role his family plays in his professional life, and how that’s changed over time, and even how he’s brought religion and spirituality into the presidency. We also discuss further this 2.0 presidency. The episode is less nitty-gritty practical tools, and more philosophical, which I actually love. That’s usually the first place that I take leaders when we approach social media.

You can’t just go jumping into platforms and strategies, we have to first get clear with philosophy, values and intentions. Even as a president, Ajay, at the highest executive position on his campus, our conversation felt like just a good old coffee talk between colleagues. You’ll hear me say this at the end, that I feel like we could’ve talked for hours. Don’t worry, listeners, we didn’t, and I know you’ll feel the same way, though, after listening.

Don’t let this conversation, and the podcast end. Sent us a tweet, let us know that you checked it out, your reactions, your thoughts. You can find me on Twitter @josieahlquist. Ajay is at @preznair Of course, the podcast has a Twitter account too, @JosieATPodcast. If you’re worried about missing any resources we talk about in the show, of course we’ve got all those on my website at josieahlquist.com/podcast. Enjoy.

Josie: So, we’ve already learned lots about you with the introduction. Let’s dig right into it. This podcast is about connecting technology and leadership, especially social media, and how leaders integrate that into their lives, into the work that they do. What’s wonderful is we can learn realtime from you. I am putting you on the spot right away, so you may need access to your phone, or I might be able to offer some assistance, because this is a little warm-up question.

Ajay: All right.

Josie: What was your most recent post on Twitter or Instagram, and tell us a little bit more about why you posted it, or the story behind it.

Ajay: Okay, I am going to need to pull that one out. Let’s see.

Josie: Yeah.

Ajay: How about I go to Instagram and tell you what the most recent one was. All right, I’m on my @preznair Instagram account, and it’s a picture of my family, actually, at the Continental Midtown Philadelphia. That picture is actually from part of a listening tour I’m doing with our alumni. We had about a hundred alums visit with me at this hotspot in Philadelphia, and fortunately … It’s not always easy to do. My family was able to join me, and they were mixing and mingling, and I think this picture was towards the end of the program, after I’d given my talk, met all of the alums.

It’s a pretty good picture in that we’re all smiling, and we had a pretty good time. It’s always great when your family can be part of your lived experiences. Particularly related to your professional life. They can see, feel what you do, and that picture for me is a really special one, because we don’t have a ton of pictures yet for my new position as President of Arcadia. This will be one of the first. I think, a year from now I’ll look back on this and it’ll bring back some really special memories.

I think, what I wrote about it was, “These kids are growing up too fast.” It’s funny. Actually, nothing about Arcadia so much, other than I’m looking at the picture and I’m thinking, my gosh, I can’t believe my sister’s are getting older, and they’re already teenagers. It’s amazing.

Josie: Yeah, it is a fantastic photo. It seems like that caption that you wrote was just really in the moment, like, that’s really what you were thinking looking at that photos.

Ajay: It was. I started with the Arcadia stuff. The location says Continental Midtown. It takes me there, but as I really look at the picture, it’s all about family, and that bridge with my professional life, so it’s a special one for me. It was in the moment. I think the photographer that was there actually sent this picture to my email, and I put it up right away.

Josie: I think that’s come up a number of times with … Especially college presidents that I’ve had on the podcast. Not only are they integrating their family into posts, but the presidency is quite personal, and you have chosen throughout a number of different platforms, to share about your family. Why don’t we dig just right into that? What is your framework, or what do you hope it to be as you enter your full first year, knowing that you served as a vice president before, what that really means for the presidency and the family that you bring.

Ajay: Yeah, like you, most people, I think, as I was being mentored early on I was taught that you need to find work/life balance, right? We all talk about that balance, and I think the narrative is shifting a bit. I think people are realizing that it’s more of the integration, and that’s not a new concept, but I think that’s what I’m trying to really do in a better way. Especially if you work in higher education, many of us work in higher education because it’s part of who we are. The students, and the faculty, and staff and alumni are part of our community. They’re part of our family. They’re out extended family.

For me, I find balance by actually integrating those parts of my life, so I don’t try to compartmentalize what happens in my family life from my work life. Obviously, there are certain elements of it that should remain private, but the opportunities for my family to be part of this amazing experience that I’m having, higher education, and leading a higher ed institution, I think is special. I’ve chosen to really, to the extent possible, have them be part of that.

Now, because of my kids, their ages, 13 and 16, they also have busy lives, so it’s not always possible to do that. My wife is a working professional. She has a very busy life, so it’s not always possible, but we cherish those moment when we can do that. I think they really, truly enjoy it, but it’s just not always possible. More and more, when they were younger it was so much easier to do that, but I’m finding that the moments that it happens it’s just more and more special.

For me, it’s that, it’s the integration. It’s also about the mission of authenticity. It’s an important part of who I am, the fact that I have a family, the fact that I cherish my family. I want my students, and the faculty, the staff, the community to know that, that it’s work is important, but so is my family life. I hope in some way that also models for others that they can do both successfully. That’s important to me.

My objective in life is not to be the first and last one that leaves work so that I drive everybody insane by having to work as hard as I possibly can, right? For me, it’s, I’m going to work really hard, but I want them to know that if I’m leaving early one particular day, or if they see me in the … I’m spending time with my family, that that’s also a priority for me. I’ve heard from enough colleagues to know that that matters to them, that they also then are inspired to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

Josie: Absolutely. I think that’s so powerful, the role modeling, even calling it integration. I think listeners of this podcast are really going to appreciate that. Some may also, then, come to apply to work for you. A lot of individuals are trying to find a leader that can finally just give that permission, and not just say it, but actually live it.

Ajay: Yeah, I’m trying really hard to live it. I can’t say that I’m perfect, and that I get it right all the time, but there are moments when I’m here way too late, I’m working on the weekends. Either from home, or coming into the office. I’m really trying hard to model what I’m espousing about this integration. Work in progress, and I let people know that. I think that’s also another key part of … I’ll just put it out there. What I don’t do well, when it comes to this social media strategy, is the sort of vulnerability. When you screw up, if you don’t do something well, why isn’t that landing on social media, right?

Right now, it’s more of a presentation of this picture perfect, and I try different ways to be vulnerable, but that is something that I’m working hard to do too, because I think that’s also a way to model for folks that you don’t have to be perfect all the time, right? In fact, that’s impossible to do. Leaders should be vulnerable, and should be able to make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.

That’s not what I’m seeing right now on social media. I know my own kids are the victims of that, right? That everything has to be carefully curated on social media, and that you can’t be vulnerable. At least that’s my opinion, that it’s a sad thing. It’s especially sad from a leadership perspective. That’s another aspect of it that I think about, that I haven’t mastered yet, but I’m working on it.

Josie: I appreciate you even having it top of mind. I think a lot of society could look to the ages of your kids, as teens, and the way they use social, or they present themselves. We do the same things, so I think we always have to point the finger right back to us. I appreciate your saying, like, I have a role in this as well, because youth really are paying attention to how we use the tools. I think, for you as a parent to two teenagers, that also heightens things, right? You’re living that and seeing that from home to work?

Ajay: It’s amazing how much more they know about college and social media. I consider myself to be pretty savvy, but they just know so much more. That’s a kind of vulnerability, where I can sit down and they become the teacher and I become the student, right? I’m all ears when they start talking about it, because they’re masters. They’re wired in a completely different way than I am, and I appreciate who they are.

We tend to think about all the negatives associated with this next generation and technology, but I’m just in awe of how their brains work, and how they use technology, and how they’re smarter and more flexible than I ever will be.

Josie: Yeah, they’re phenomenal, and they are our teachers, if we only would allow them the space to be at that table.

Ajay: Exactly right.

Josie: I love that. Let’s scroll back to, probably at least a decade ago, if not more. If we were to think about early technology for you, if you could remember your earliest memory of using any kind of technology.

Ajay: My older brother … Well, it depends on how you define technology. If we start talking about Atari, or Intellivision. You remember Intellivision? It’s like a form of Atari. It was supposed to be a cooler form of Atari. That was my first sort of game console. It’s called Intellivision, and I played the stuff that our kids laugh about now, right? Pac-Man kind of thing. If you consider that as part of the problem with technology, that would be my entree into.

I remember my older brother was a … He’s seven years older than me, so when he was a student at Drexel University, and Drexel … I don’t know if they still do it, but they used to require all of their students to have Macs. This is in the ’80s, when the Macs were these square little pieces of … I think you know what I’m talking about, the tan colored little box, right?

Josie: Oh yeah, takes up the entire desk.

Ajay: I used to play on his Mac, games mostly, that now are kind of embarrassing, right? Then, I remember going off to college years later, and just using computer labs. This idea of a lab, where there’s a room full of computers. What I would do is, I would open up my email. It was through dial-up or whatever. I’d actually leave the room, and I’d come back an hour later when it was all loaded up.

Josie: Yeah.

Ajay: Emails were mostly junk, but it was stuff that I’d have to leave the room and come back, and then it would be there, and I wouldn’t even read most of it.

Josie: It was so slow.

Ajay: It was so slow. That’s when you didn’t have … I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t even have a cellphone. I would actually go to the computer lab to use technology. I don’t think it was until I graduated college, actually, my first job that I actually had a cellphone. It was one of those flip phones, I think. That was my earliest experience, was actually loading up emails and leaving and coming back to it.

Josie: Yeah, pretty wild, right? Now we can just … For good or for bad, just bring them up on our phone.

Ajay: Yeah, now I’ve got three different emails that are coming to my phone, getting pinged all the time. It’s amazing how much, and even email is something that I kind of dread using now. It was a way of life before, and now emails just, for business purposes I kind of have to use it, but I keep thinking, why? Why am I using email? Why are any of us using email when we have all these other means of communication. That’s been on my mind lately, so it’s funny to come from that, from computer lab days to this, where I’m even questioning the use of it.

Josie: I think that’s healthy, though too, having that moment. I could only imagine, if you could tell me right now how many emails do you have?

Ajay: Oh, just ridiculous numbers.

Josie: Yeah, and are you better served in responding to those, or being out with your …

Ajay: Not at all.

Josie: …You know.

Ajay: The vast majority of emails don’t even require a response, but you feel obligated to respond, right?

Josie: Yeah.

Ajay: That’s our business culture. Especially in higher ed I think of having to acknowledge it, and being polite, but most of them don’t require a response. I am finding, and I don’t know if you find this as well … I didn’t expect this as a college president, but I’m probably about 50% of students are communicating with me through Facebook messages, not email. I don’t know what that means, I don’t know if that’s a trend, and whether or not they’re going to … I still get 50% through email, but I wonder if that’s all going to just move into some kind of messaging platform. I am, by the way, finding that challenging to keep up with as well, because it’s not part of my routine to go to my Facebook messenger as much as it is my email, right?

Josie: Absolutely.

Ajay: Even though it’s on my phone, and it sort of gives me an indicator that I have a message, it’s still not part of my routine, so it’s interesting. I’m going to have to probably change my strategy there a bit in terms of response, and how I respond.

Josie: Sure, I think that’s a debate of, do you evolve to where they’re naturally going to communicate with us, or do we educate them on the proper process to communicate to someone in a “professional” way. Whereas, the tipping point for us versus them … I know for my students, teach at Florida State, I do set limits, because it’s an academic course. I ask them, don’t DM me on Twitter, because we use Twitter for the course. I just need that documented in email. Yeah, I think that’s a interesting …

Ajay: I just keep thinking, who is now determining what professional etiquette should look like, and are we following the right standards? I’m not talking about … I mean, obviously writing in complete sentences is a great thing. I enjoy that. I understanding somebody’s writing to me. I’m not suggesting that, but the platform which students are using, I wonder.

I obviously argued the other side of this, and that is, an institution needs to push out policy, and it needs to make sure that every student has received policy. That becomes a little challenging without email, or maybe not. Maybe that’s an outdated way of looking at it. At least that’s on my mind. I don’t have the solution again, but at least in my personal practice, I don’t think I’m going to discourage students. Obviously, this is not a classroom setting.

For my professional practice, I don’t think I’m going to discourage students from messaging me on Facebook, because I think if it makes them feel like they can access me, and they’re more likely to do that than through email, then I’m going to allow for that. As long as they recognize that I’m not the one to answer every question that they have. I may make a referral, and most of the time that’s what it’s going to be, because if they have a financial aid question … I’m glad they’re reaching out to me if they don’t know who else to go to, but I’m going to send them, probably somewhere else, and they probably will end up having an email conversation with that person, right?

Josie: Right, right.

Ajay: Or, a phone conversation. It’s an interesting situation, but I do wonder, will the standards change, right?

Josie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Ajay: Will the culture evolve, and will our current generation of students be setting that standard soon enough?

Josie: Well, I appreciate your open-ness, honestly, to even field those, and to pay attention when your community’s interacting with you, and then answering my email to invite you on the podcast. Again, I can only imagine.

Ajay: I do answer my emails. It’s just-

Josie: I know, absolutely, I-

Ajay: Just because of the volume.

Josie: Yeah, absolutely.

Ajay: I used to feel proud that I’d be able to respond to emails very quickly, and I still sort of take some pride in that, but I have to flag emails now that require immediate response, versus emails that can wait a little bit. My challenge has been, the ones that I flag to do a little bit later, it turns out to be too late, probably. It’s also a function of being a new president, and I think the volume is probably a lot more than … I hope a lot more than it will be maybe in six months.

Josie: Sure, sure. Let’s take it a little bit about those logistics. Especially with social media. You’re on Instagram, you have a Facebook … They’re called business pages, but it’s a Like page. Then, you obviously have your own personal page. You have a Twitter account. Are you on Snapchat?

Ajay: I am. I’m on Snapchat too.

Josie: Okay, Linkedin. Anything else?

Ajay: No, but I’m really thinking hard about what it would mean to start a video blog. Perhaps a YouTube channel, something along those lines. Just as another means of communication, so more to come there. I’m just at the very early stages of thinking about strategy there. I think you named all the places that I can very easily be found.

Josie: Awesome. We’ll include all those in the show notes, but how would you describe your use of those, or if there’s one particular you’d like to go more in-depth with of, especially that transition from, you were a vice president, or senior vice president of Student Affairs, and then into the presidency if anything changed to you on social.

Ajay: Yeah, the main change has been that I started the business page, the page that people could like, a public figure page. Not realizing that when I did that, apparently I think it changes your Instagram account to a public page too. Somehow, now my Instagram account and my Facebook account are public figure pages. I still have my personal Facebook page, and that is also a work in progress. I’m trying to find the appropriate distinction between the business page and my personal Facebook page.

What my strategy right now is, that posts that have really nothing at all to do with the university, which is hard to do because, again, I’m about integration, right? When that happens I tend to post on my personal page. If there’s a direct link to the university it’s going to land, maybe both on my personal page and my business page. That’s how I’ve been operating. Then, I’ll repost university things on my business page, unless I think my friends that would be on my personal page would benefit from it, or find it interesting.

That’s been my strategy, but the business page is the newest thing, and I kind of like it. I think it’s fun to have a “professional” page, and put your professional pictures. I’ve been thinking about this idea that you talked about a little bit in the professional etiquette piece. Since it still does matter in our society and our world, I think it’s a way for me, in that space, to model students. Of how maybe you could do it well. I hope I’m doing it well. On the personal page, I still try to do that. Yeah, I’m enjoying exploring the business, the public figure Facebook piece of it.

Josie: Yeah, I think that’s a great tool that I think will be the problem solver that a lot of executives struggle with on. Facebook’s still wanting to have that access point to their community, but not figuring out how to open that up on their “personal” page. I know there’s a few out there, and I’m keeping my eyes on you all to see what you do with them.

Ajay: I’m excited about exploring it, but I really think if I can do the video work, it’ll help that page come alive by putting some of those videos potentially on that page, and also having sort of a separate YouTube channel. I’ll see. The reason I keep bringing that up is, as much as I’m interested and excited about the Facebook work, my children claim they will never join Facebook. Keep in mind, they’re 13 and 16 years old. I don’t know if that’s true. I wonder, when they get to college, if they’ll change their mind. That’s what I keep insisting.

When they say that to me I say, “When you get to college I think you’re going to use it.” But, what if they’re right? What if they absolutely never join Facebook? What does that mean for the platform that I have. It’s really to reach students, at the end of the day. Not just students, but that’s a primary audience for me. If you watch my children, and I don’t think they’re the exception here, they’re watching videos. They’re on YouTube. They’re exploring different YouTube channels. They’re using Snapchat. Looking at videos, pictures. It’s not Facebook.

I’m wondering what that means for what I need to be thinking about in the short term, actually. My son’s going to be in college just a short three years, so again, maybe they are anomalies, but I don’t think so.

Josie: No, I think you’re spot-on, and what a wonderful advantage, an incubator that you have, just watching your own children, and obviously, as you had mentioned, they may or may not be the norm. We definitely are seeing new students adding Facebook that first year, like they didn’t have it in the past. They do have to adopt platforms that we’re on, or using them in different ways. Yeah, I think that’s so interesting. You’re just so ahead of the curve, just realizing.

Ajay: I don’t feel like it, that’s the thing. I mean, I’m trying to just keep up, actually.

Josie: I think it’s just so powerful that you’re aware. You’re observing, you’re just paying attention. You’re like, “Huh, okay, I’ll just keep an eye on that.” That’s okay too.

Ajay: Yeah, that’s really what I’m trying to do, and obviously, I’d love the next podcast that we do together, I hope I can say I’m ahead of it, and here’s what I figured out, but not quite there yet. It may be in part because I’m new to the presidency, and the way I’m thinking about social media is evolving too, so I hope I can have some more.

I’ve got a lot of people now too, who are advising me and helping me think through it, who I think know a lot more than I do about it. It’s great to have a team of people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and explore what this could mean. I don’t think any of us really have the answers, but I’m excited to talk to someone like you, who is actively thinking about this all the time, who is a kind of industry leader in all of this, and can offer us solutions down the road.

Josie: Sure. Yeah, I would say social media’s definitely not a solo endeavor for a public figure, executives. I mean, even for students, they need support. I think we’ve left our society to figure out a lot of things through trial and error. I love this idea for videos for you, and you actually … Well, at least one I saw from Emory, you were at least in a video that was, I think, a competition for something with school spirit. You sang.

Ajay: Yeah. That’s right. We had a competition around, they could do any kind of genre they wanted, but they had to sing our alma mater. Like most schools, people don’t really know the alma mater, so they were rapping it, they were doing acapella, it was just awesome. We had fun with it, and I was sort of hosting it, in a sense, and it was all about … I took my professional hat off for a moment, and just wanted to humanize myself, and just had fun with it.

That’s what I’m thinking about with this video, that I can strike a balance between humor, advocacy work, and just information sharing, so how to do all three of those things. Humor maybe being part of both of those things in some way, but really thinking about how to use video to reach different audiences. Also, for some entertainment value, when appropriate, right?

Josie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Ajay: Everything doesn’t need to be dry and boring all the time. In fact, I learned that from my kids. That’s why they’re on YouTube watching videos, because it’s entertaining too, right?

Josie: Yup.

Ajay: They’re learning sometime. Not always good stuff, but they’re learning stuff, right?

Josie: Right, well, YouTube is where they search for help with their papers, or where things are across campus. It’s either going to be your office that provides that direction, or some vlogger than happened to tour your campus once.

Ajay: Exactly, exactly.

Josie: You had mentioned, you’re starting to pull people around you to help with social. You’ve got this intent to connect with students or community, lots of different stakeholders. With that personality piece you wanted to also be advocacy, and community-building, but it also sounds like you still always want to be pretty hands-on. Would you describe your support systems with social more as advisory, or do you put any processes in place to logistically help you stay active on these different platforms? Especially come Fall.

Ajay: Yeah, I knew the team is working on a sort of social media engagement strategy. It’s broader than social media. Obviously, it’s a larger engagement strategy. I am really hands-on, so I do all my own posts on every platform. I’ll give you an example. Actually, this happened the other day. I was driving into our parking lot after a lunch meeting off-campus, and right in the middle of the parking lot were two deer. It’s really unusual, because we’re somewhat urban. It’s kind of an unusual thing to see deer in a parking lot.

I rolled down my window. I was a little nervous that they were going to come right to my car, but I took a picture, and got back to the office, and I texted the picture to my marketing communications VP and said, “Isn’t this cool?” I think that was actually the language I used, “Isn’t this cool?” She said, “Did you post it on Twitter yet, or on any platforms?” I had actually thought about it.

That’s usually what I would do, but I was actually just running from a meeting to another meeting, and part of my thinking too, is, this would actually be great for the university to put out and have fun with it. I thought, the university team is probably going to be more clever with a caption than I ever would be. If fact, I was right. They did. She texted me back and she said, “Do you mind if we post it, then, if you haven’t done anything with it?” I said, “Go for it.”

The next thing I know, it’s up, in a matter of seconds with some tagline about … It says something like, “Guys, we know you’re excited about orientation, but we’re not ready yet,” or something like that. I wouldn’t have come up with something like that. I would’ve just said something. I don’t know what I would’ve said, but I think it’s a collaborative effort. I think they know that I value it, and actually love it, and they also appreciate and love it, and we’re partners in doing the work. I would guess that they think it’s pretty cool that they have a president who’s into this stuff.

We have a really interesting partnership. I don’t ask them to monitor my stuff. I think they kind of do, they look out for stuff, but I don’t ask them to do that, because I’m actually monitoring it pretty actively. I’m doing my own posts, and there are times when I will seek their advice. If it’s an advocacy issue, or a political issue, and I’m about to post something, if my spidey senses are going off I’ll text my VP and say, “What do you think, is this okay? Am I getting this right?” They usually have really good advice for me. Yeah, it’s a partnership more than anything else.

Josie: That’s great. Would that be your advice for presidents that have been in place for years, and now are exploring social, or they’re new into their presidency? What should be those first steps when you know you’d like to embrace social?

Ajay: Well, if you’re new to social media, I wouldn’t move into partnership mode. I would move into learning mode. I would probably ask your social media folks, your communications folks to really help hold your hand through it in the early stages of it. I think, because, it could go terribly wrong. Because I come in with … I made my share of, I guess, mistakes or whatever, and I’ve learned through experience, at times when it didn’t matter as much, I guess. Now I’ve come into the presidency with some significant knowledge. I wouldn’t call myself expert, but I have significant knowledge.

I think it could be more of a partnership, but if you’re new to social media and you’re an executive, I would be okay with somebody holding your hand through it. Although, I would never recommend, and maybe this isn’t the right approach. I would never recommend that somebody have somebody else do their tweets for them, or their posts for them. I think you lose that authenticity in that process, and I think that’s the value of social media. People can read through that stuff, right?

Josie: Absolutely. Especially students.

Ajay: Especially students. I know, when I read presidential tweets and things, I know when it’s from a president or not. Especially if you know the person. You can just tell. There’s something about it that just doesn’t seem authentic, right?

Josie: Right.

Ajay: That just rubs everybody the wrong way. I would really recommend that they embrace it, they make it part of their daily lives, that it’s not an add-on, that it’s not an extra thing they have to do, that it is part of their presidency, or vice presidency. That it’s part of who they are, and their routine, and it becomes ingrained within their job and their life in important ways. That would be my advice.

I think, also, to surround yourself with the right people. Not just staff members, but also students. I have the privilege of having children who can teach me. If you don’t have that, then making sure your communications folks are employing students, and learning from students by seeing how they’re posting and using it. Not that you have to do it exactly the same way, but I look at all my Facebook feeds and Twitter feeds every day.

I’m always fascinated by how people are using it, and I’m always surprised as to how little I know about the lingo that’s being used now. The acronyms and all of that. It’s a constant learning process for me, but for me, it puts me in the seat of a student, which I love. I love being a student, and I think most college presidents do as well. That’s why we do the work that we do.

Josie: Right, absolutely. I feel like this word that keeps coming up, or coming back too, is integration. Almost evolution too, and navigating those waters in what used to be clearly established positions. Like, this is what the president does, but that’s changing. You’ve also used the terminology, like presidency 2.0, and social is part of that in having that integration.

Ajay: Yeah, I think the 2.0, it’s wasn’t my … I didn’t come up with that. One of my team members did, from our communications team, and they were describing me as the 2.0 president. When we started talking about what that meant, it really did come down to use of technology, but also the next generation of presidents. We’re going to see, in the next decade, an enormous amount of retirements among college presidents, so the Gen X’ers are going to be … I’m just on the early wave of it.

The Gen X’ers are going to start assuming college presidencies. It is going to change the face of higher education. You’re going to see, I hope, greater levels of diversity, more presidents are social media savvy, who integrate it, as we discussed, into their daily practice. Also, importantly, that are part of the community. Presidents who will move away from established hierarchies, and really become embedded within communities, and will value personal conversations with students, with alumni, with faculty, staff. Who will be highly visible.

I’m not suggesting that current college presidents aren’t doing that, but I think it’ll be heightened for sure with this next generation. Yeah, again, social media has a lot to do with that. That’s the 2.0 piece for me.

Josie: What I also wanted to recognize, so you’re the first Indian-American university president, and the first at Arcadia.

Ajay: Definitely the first at Arcadia. The first person of color, actually, at Arcadia to be president. The first, if not one of the first Indian heritage American college presidents born in America.

Josie: Oh, okay.

Ajay: There are other Indian college presidents who were born in India who became college presidents, but I think I may be the … You know, I’d always be careful to say first, because there could be somebody of Indian heritage who was born in America, but we haven’t found that other person yet, so we say among the first, right?

Josie: Yeah, I like that. That’s a good terminology.

Ajay: Yeah, among the first, because there may be somebody that came before me. I hope so, actually. I’d love to meet that person and learn from them for sure. It’s an exciting time for higher education. My parents came to this country in the ’60s as immigrants. I don’t think they would’ve ever imagined one of their children would become president of an American college or university.

That weighs pretty heavy on me when I think about that, and what it could mean for other people who maybe have never considered a career in higher education, because it’s not a stereotypical path. They may actually consider other career opportunities just by virtue of me doing this. I take that responsibility seriously, and want to do my very best as a result in this job, and to model that for others. To me, it’s a really big deal. I don’t want my presidency to be defined by the color of my skin, or my heritage or anything like that, but it’s a part of it for sure.

Josie: Just to have another tool to be able to amplify the work that you’re doing. I mean, even your president’s Facebook page. You held a ceremony at your president’s house, called, is it Puja?

Ajay: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Josie: Which I had never seen a ceremony like that, so it was like a educational process to your community of who you are.

Ajay: One of my former students who is a scholar of religion now, reacted to that picture and said something to the effect of, “How cool is it that the President is using their platform to promote religious literacy?” Now, there was an element of that. He put it in more sophisticated terms than I ever would have, but there was that. There were a couple of things going through my mind as we were having the ceremony, and I decided to post pictures. I mean, I did think through it a bit.

It was a first. I’m absolutely sure that nothing like that has ever happened in the president’s house at Arcadia University, that by the way, does have religious roots. It has a Methodist, and then years later Presbyterian roots. It doesn’t now, but still there are religious elements to this institution that matter in terms of its culture, and it’s history. Even with that, I know there’s never been a religious ceremony in that house.

By the way, this was a private ceremony. I didn’t invite the community to the Puja. This is really just our family, but I thought it was important, because it was at a university-owned property that we now call our home. We shared that experience with folks so that they know that I’m a person of faith, and that that matters to me.

Also, it was a ceremony to bless our family and the house, which then, we hope, also means something for the Arcadia community, no matter what faith … Even if you don’t have a faith, that we care that much about the community that we want to offer blessings to everyone. The house, the university and our family, because it’s all one and the same now.

Yes, there’s this component of faith matters, that religion matters, that literacy matters. Sure, I’m a Hindu president, but I appreciate all faiths. That’s part of Hinduism, by the way, that we appreciate all faiths, and that I welcome that. That’s an important aspect of diversity on a college campus today, spirituality. I want my students to be comfortable practicing their faith.

Josie: The identity exploration of spirituality, religion, however you define that for our students, is woven into the type of work that we do. How better to document that from one of their campus leaders to see what that can look like?

Ajay: Yeah, yeah.

Josie: I just have a handful of questions left. This has been an amazing conversation. I feel like we could chat all day. Maybe I’ll just follow you around Arcadia one day. We’ll find some deer.

Ajay: You’re always welcome.

Josie: Well, I actually did. It was a number of years ago. It must have been 2015, I spoke to your freshman class as one of their speakers, so I have a photos at your castle.

Ajay: You’ll have to come back. Yeah, the castle is a pretty neat … Talk about photo ops.

Josie: Yeah, totally. They’re like, “You have to get a photo here.” I was like, “Okay.”

Ajay: Yeah, pretty cool.

Josie: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll list all of your social media applications and things, but if someone did want to reach out to you, you had mentioned Facebook Messenger, you might reply, but what are ways that people can find you to connect?

Ajay: Yeah, the most common ways that people use it to reach out to me is definitely through Linkedin, by messaging me on Linkedin, Facebook Messenger for sure, Twitter occasionally people will DM me, but not so much, surprisingly. I would respond. I have responded. Snapchat, you know, through messaging, I would. I have to say, one of my goals this year is to integrate Snapchat into my daily practice.

I’ll raise an issue with you that I’m struggling with. That is, in these moment where we’re with the community, I find it challenging to post immediately, or use platforms like Snapchat when I’m with an older generation. In other words … I’ll give you an example. When I was at this Philly event that I talked about earlier, even though there were young alums, there were alums from 1959 all the way to 2018.

To take a selfie in that moment with somebody from the class of ’59 … I don’t know, there’s something awkward about it. Maybe that’s my own hangup, but I’m finding it difficult in certain spaces to be able to do that. In some spaces it’s just kind of inappropriate. I’m in my cabinet meeting, I’m not going to take a selfie, probably, and post it. Maybe that’s not the right way to think of it, and it’s okay to do that. I struggle.

As opposed to, when I’m in a athletic event, absolutely, why wouldn’t I take a picture with the soccer player after their match or whatever, and then post it. I think that … I struggle with the appropriate time to do that on different platforms.

Josie: Well, I would say, most likely if you’re debating that, most likely there are hundreds of other campus leaders trying to navigate that. You want to stay connected. I was feeling the same thing. I just had my niece and nephew out here, and wanting to stay present with them, and role model, don’t always be on your phone, but excited to share it, right?

Ajay: Yeah, just to get back to your question, the contact piece, I think any of those platforms I receive messages through, but Snapchat came to mind because, as a goal, I’d love to be able to interact more readily with folks through Snapchat down the road, but I struggle with that one.

Josie: Okay, so my last two questions, we go a little bit more philosophical.

Ajay: Sure.

Josie: I have a human development background, so I think about, and that’s why I ask questions about your early technology with Atari, and then in the future, who knows how social media and technology is going to evolve, but most likely some iteration of Facebook or Twitter is going to exist.

Ajay: Right.

Josie: If you knew, any time in the future, whatever you posted on your favorite platform was going to be your last post, what would you want it to be about?

Ajay: It would definitely have to be something related to … Something similar to what my, actually, my last post. Around my family and the university, because in many ways … I talked about this a little bit, my family has sacrificed a lot for me to be where I am professionally, and they’ve given up … But, they’ve also gained quite a bit too, as a result, so it’s been a give and take.

Like I said before, they’re really a beautiful part of who I am, and they’ve become part of the institutions that I’ve represented in the past. In the same way, I really think that my family, part of Arcadia University, that they are part of Arcadia’s extended family in so many ways. I think my last post would be something related to their engagement with the university. That would be a beautiful last memory on social media.

Josie: For now, you’re active on all kinds of platforms, from what’s on your feed to interacting, and comments, and DMs, and just being present out into your community. How do you hope your digital presence is currently impacting the world?

Ajay: Yeah, in a couple different ways. One, I talked about authenticity. I hope it’s helping folks understand that they can be vulnerable. That’s a goal of mine through social media to do that. Especially for young people. They don’t have to be perfect to make them still be wonderful human beings. I think the second piece or goal would be around advocacy, to take on the issues that nobody else wants to take on, and to use my platform on social media to educate and influence.

I know a lot of presidents sort of shy away from that, but that’s not at all who I am. I made that clear at Arcadia when I took this job on, that I have strong opinions on things. It’s not that I expect everybody at Arcadia to agree with me. In fact, I want them to disagree with me so that I can learn. We can all learn together, but advocacy is an important piece of it.

Connectivity is also another important aspect of why I’m on and what I hope to achieve through social media. The opportunity to build new relationships, and build upon existing relationships. Importantly, I also want to have a lot of fun using social media. If I’m not enjoying it, what’s the point? I want it to be an enjoyable experience, and I am having a lot of fun with it. With reading, learning from those posts and also posting myself.

A fifth idea is just creativity. You know, it pushes my brain to just function in a different way, and it explores a part of my personality and self that I don’t get to explore in my personal life or work. The creative nature of using technology, using social media, has been really exhilarating in some ways. That’s why I keep talking about the vlog, the use of video, potentially. That’s going to tap my brain, I think, in a different way, in terms of creativity, and I’m excited to be a student in that realm, and learn even more about myself, and also technology.

Josie: Awesome. Well, this was an amazing conversation. I just want to thank you for jumping onto the show. More than that, just your willingness to ask questions, to explore, to be that student constantly, whether if it’s on social or just understanding your community. I can’t wait to see you start a YouTube channel, or whatever, that video content, or what Snapchat’s going to look like.

Ajay: Oh, yes.

Josie: I am here for it. I think, going back to that president 2.0, the learning to be comfortable with not being the expert or having all of the answers, or knowing the expertise of the platforms, because we come, in higher education, from places where we have PhDs, and we’re experts in everything. But, this is an area where, even for myself I will never have it figured out. I just love to be able to support and shine lights on individuals that I think are willing to step out, for the right reasons, and I think you’re a really great example of that.

Ajay: You’re doing a great job of doing that, and thank you for all the education you’re giving executives like myself, and actually, the world. I look forward to working with you some more on all these project, and learning from you.

Josie: Like I said, this was such a great conversation. We could have gone on for so much longer. There is often never clear answers when it comes to the digital world. Especially how quickly the tools change and who are using them. Whether it is figuring out the best method of communication, from email, to Facebook Messenger, or Snapchat. Either way, Ajay’s working to figure it out, and at least keeping to ask questions along the way. I dig that he’s thinking about getting into doing videos, since these can be highly engaged with. And, if created with the audience and tone in mind, from platforms, from Facebook, Instagram, to YouTube, your options in cross-posting are endless.

Something else that resonated a lot with me was how Ajay spoke about his family. He’s mindful about his time with his children, especially limited as they grow up, and they’re starting their own lives. He stated, “The opportunity for my family to be part of this amazing experience I’m having is special. I’ve chosen to make them part of that. It’s an important part of who I am, that I have a family. I want my community to know that.”

Here, he’s really showcasing his family values all over his social media feeds, but also how he’s showing up as a president. We’ve definitely talked about in past podcast episodes, with campus executives, how those roles are quite personal, which should also translate into your social media feed.

See, this value, this family values is also documented with the approach of integration. Not just this “work/life balance.” That means not working 24/7, that role modeling at the top. I noticed a theme in our interview, that Ajay is an expert of self-awareness, as well as observation. The fact that he’s so mindful, and asks more questions than assumption is a huge win, no matter if you’re approaching social media, Greek life, fundraising, personnel issues and more.

Ajay is even doing listening sessions since he started his presidency, just to listen to his campus community face-to-face. Keep your eyes on this president for the impact he’ll have for the years to come at Arcadia, from his presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and soon YouTube. Maybe even he’ll catch a selfie with a campus deer or two.

A big thank you to Ajay for his time, and for all that he shared. I really appreciate how honest he was about his family, his job, his struggles to integrate, and to manage everything into that life together. Working towards balance is a process, and we really do have to role model the behavior we want from others. It’s a pretty loud role modeling when it comes from the university President.

If you are a current or aspiring campus executive, and are looking to learn more about how to approach social media, just like this president, authenticity that fits into the academy, well come on over and join a community I created called The Connected Exec Community on Facebook. All you have to search is The Connected Exec Community. It’s totally free, lots of resources, like live trainings from yours truly, and plenty of peer-to-peer learning.

Please subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss a single future episode, and share it with your colleagues, friends, family and more. Join the conversation online by tweeting at me, @josieahlquist, or the podcast, @JosieATPodcast. Remember, the show notes can be found at josieahlquist.com/podcast. I would also be thrilled if you enjoyed the episode to leave a review on iTunes or any of your favorite podcasting platforms.

If you’re interested in learning more about my speaking, consulting or coaching work about digital leadership and higher ed, you can check me out at josieahlquist.com. Thank you again to our podcast sponsor, Campus Sonar. Make sure to go check them out at campussonar.com. Sending digital hugs, loves and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from, this has been Josie and the Podcast.


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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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