Who's in Charge?

Despite social media and alumni magazine profiles, most college alumni don’t know the president of their alma mater. Does that matter?

April 12, 2013

Colleges and universities spend a lot making sure people know their presidents. They host fancy inauguration ceremonies; print glowing profiles in alumni magazines, send the president around the state, country and, increasingly, the world; and utilize every branch of social media.

Is that energy paying off?

A poll released earlier this week by Vanity Fair and “60 Minutes” found that 32 percent of respondents said they could name the current president of their alma mater. Several presidents and communications professionals said that 32 percent, if true, is a disappointing figure, particularly for their institutions.

“That seems low in light of all the outreach we do and now that that branches out more into the social media realm,” said Maggy Ralbovsky, a consultant with Morrison & Tyson Communications, a firm that works with colleges. “There’s more of an emphasis on getting out the useful information about an institution, and typically the president is the ideal ambassador to do that.”

About the Poll

The poll was conducted at the CBS News interviewing facility among a random sample of 861 adults nationwide, interviewed by telephone March 1–3, 2013.

See more here.

It should be noted that there are some problems with the poll question. It only asked whether people knew who the president was, rather than asking them to name the president and checking to see whether that answer was accurate. Respondents who said “yes” could have been thinking of a predecessor.

Some presidents interviewed for this article also said there is great diversity in higher education – from community colleges to prominent research universities – and different sectors place a different emphasis on presidential visibility. Presidents said they imagine there are likely large differences between the visibility of presidents of public and private universities and differences depending on the size and national prominence of an institution.

"I find the number high for publics, low for privates,” said Steven Poskanzer, president of Carleton College, in an e-mail. Poskanzer previously served as president of the State University of New York at New Paltz. “It's fascinating to me how much more intense the ‘presidential relationship’ is at a small private liberal arts college."

Higher education officials said that because of the question’s flaws it’s hard to read anything into the response. But multiple presidents said engaging with alumni on a regular basis is an increasingly important aspect of their jobs. They said alumni engagement is rising as a priority because philanthropy is becoming a larger revenue stream, because public universities need the support of the public to win over lawmakers, and because institutions are facing greater calls to demonstrate outcomes.

Several presidents said that while they had never done polls of their alumni to determine what percentage knew their name, they think that the number should be higher than 32 percent.

“We decided that it was an important strategic objective, for the first two years at least, to get out and be the face of the institution, to become known at least to the people who are willing to gather in alumni club-type groupings,” said Lyle D. Roelofs, who became Berea College’s ninth president in June and who was inaugurated this weekend. Roelofs and his communications team made it a priority to get him in front of alumni – both on campus and off. He even invites students, faculty members and alumni along on morning runs.

Berea, a liberal arts work college in Kentucky that provides a free education to all undergraduates, has about 19,000 living alumni.

Roelofs's predecessor, Larry D. Shinn, held the job for 18 years, and Berea has a history of long-serving and prominent presidents, meaning Roelofs had big shoes to fill.

“At smaller colleges, individual presidents have enough gravitas and presence to really leave a mark,” Roelofs said. “I’ll hear stories about personal interactions with presidents who came before me. That’s what people remember about the institution. So they approach me somewhat skeptically, they want to know, ‘Can you do for some student what President Stevenson did for me?’ " he said, referring to Shinn’s predecessor, John B. Stephenson, who was president from 1984 to 1994.

Getting a president’s name and image out quickly once he or she steps into the job has become a strategic priority at many institutions, consuming a chunk of communications officials’ time and creating a market for a large number of consultants. The challenge has grown as presidential turnover has increased. The average length of service of a president dropped from about eight years in 2006 to about six years in 2011, according to a survey released last year by the American Council on Education.

Presidents develop their profiles in different ways. Some, like Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, who previously served as Indiana’s governor, bring name recognition into the job with them.

Some, like President Gordon Gee of Ohio State University, attract attention because of their personalities. Gee, who has held six different presidencies since 1985, including a previous stint as president of Ohio State from 1990-7, is constantly in the news for appearing at different alumni and student events. He has also developed a trademark look -- always wearing a bow tie. Gee made news last week when police towed his car while he played darts with students.

Some presidents make use of social media, like President Kirk Schulz of Kansas State and Chancellor Harvey Perlman of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Others, like Roelofs's predecessors, become recognized through long service.

“By the time I stepped out of George Washington, I’d be in airports and hotel lobbies and would have people who had never met me come up and say, ‘Aren’t you Stephen Trachtenberg?’ because they had seen my picture in the alumni magazine,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who served as president of George Washington University from 1988 to 2007. Trachtenberg was also an outspoken president like Gee.

In general, higher education officials said a well-known president is likely a reflection of an engaged alumni body. “In normal times, I think it would say something good about the institution and the strength of the connection alumni feel toward the institution,” said Richard Kneedler, president emeritus of Franklin & Marshall College and former interim president of Rockford College. “I think it also says something about the individual alumni. If they are engaged enough to know that name, it’s probably a pretty good predictor of engagability.”

But Kneedler also said there are times when name recognition could be a bad sign. If an alumnus is unhappy with the direction his alma mater is going, he might make an effort to get to know the president’s name and reach out.

A president is also likely to become well-known through a controversy, since it puts his or her name in the news on a regular basis. For example, the current president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, is probably well-known among the institution’s alumni since she was at the center of a governance dispute last summer. When the chair of the university's governing board asked Sullivan to step down without providing a clear rationale for the decision, alumni rallied behind Sullivan.

There are several reasons why name recognition among alumni and interaction with alumni are important to a president’s success, presidents said. One of the most prominent is fund-raising, which has been taking up more and more of presidents' time in recent years.

In the American Council on Education survey of presidents, fund-raising and community relations were two of the top three uses of presidents’ time, and fund-raising topped the list for the presidents of private institutions.

While small donors might give to an institution regardless of the president, large donors – who give the bulk of the money given to higher education – like to have someone to engage with and want to be reassured that they are making a good investment. “People don’t give money to institutions exactly,” Trachtenberg said. “They give money to people.”

Because of the development of social media, alumni also have more ability to sound off on university decisions. In recent years, alumni have derailed attempts to change everything from the undergraduate curriculum to the look of mascots.

“Almost anything you do as president is going to involve a certain amount of change. And people do not inherently react real positive to change as an abstract,” Kneedler said. “They need a sense of trust, and feeling like you know the person who’s making decisions gives you that feeling of trust.”

Mary E. Hines, president of Carlow University since 2005, said getting to know alumni is also helpful in making the case for the institution. As prospective students and their parents become more concerned about whether it is worth it to pay high tuition prices, being able to point to successful alumni is important, she said. “I need to be able to tell a story or two about how our alums have been successful and how they attribute success to the education they got from Carlow,” she said.

As an outsider coming in to Carlow, Hines also said that in her first few years as a president, getting to know alumni helped her develop a better understanding of the institution, which helped her do her job.

David C. Hodge, president of Miami University of Ohio, echoed Hines’s sentiment. “When you talk with alumni – Miamians in our case – certain themes come through loud and clear, such as the enduring value of the university, and those themes are important to reinforcing the work we do on a daily basis.”

Hodge said making connections with alumni could potentially provide internships for Miami University students or jobs for graduates.

The presidents said that at the end of the day they care less whether people know their names than that people have some connection to the university. It's probably more important that students remember the faculty members they work closely with, what they learned in class and the connections and friendships they made while students, presidents said.

And in the case of Northwestern University -- whose location, according to the the Vanity Fair/"60 Minutes" poll, only 34 percent of people know -- it's probably important that students learn some geography, too.


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