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Listening and Learning Through the Twitterverse

As a new president, Hank Bounds found that Twitter offered an unprecedented opportunity for him to gain insights from a wide range of constituents.

August 2, 2016
 
 
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As educators, we often assume that we have the answers. In some cases, we also expect that we can -- and should -- anticipate the questions. Yet I can one thing say with absolute certainty: our listening and learning never stops.

Last April, I was welcomed as the seventh president of the University of Nebraska. New to the university and the state, I embarked on a 20-stop, statewide listening tour, Getting to Know Nebraska, augmented by additional community visits over the summer. I had the opportunity to meet and converse with hundreds of Nebraskans and hear firsthand how deeply they care about their public university.

It was insightful and inspirational. And it was just the beginning.

Today’s university presidents are required to be thought leaders and cheerleaders, professional spokespersons and personal ambassadors for their university brand. We must navigate innovations in information technology, shifts in student and faculty needs due to the internationalization of academe, changing rules around college athletics, state and federal politics, and more.

For me, carrying out those roles effectively meant committing to continued listening and informed leadership.

So my communications team and I brainstormed a 21st stop on my statewide listening tour -- one that transcended geographic boundaries and provided continuing opportunities for engagement, conversation and connection. We launched a Twitter listening tour from my new personal handle, @hankbounds, as a way to encourage dialogue about higher education in Nebraska and nationally.

Many of my peers have shied away from the Twitterverse. According to a 2013 study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, just over half of university presidents have a presence on Twitter. And industry experts say that, among those early adopters, even fewer use the full potential of Twitter to listen and learn, engage with stakeholders, and articulate a differentiating vision.

Not surprisingly, then, a Twitter listening tour concept raised several challenging questions for us.

Is the Twitterverse too uncertain? The platform has inherent risks: being held under the microscope of public scrutiny in a high-traffic digital arena, exposed to not-so-positive or even negative comments and questions, and potentially losing control of the message when conversations are opened up to the masses.

Too constraining? My communications team debated how thoughtful of a question could be asked in 140 characters, and how meaningful of an answer could be delivered in return. But as Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter, asserts, “Constraint inspires creativity.”

Do university presidents have any business being on Twitter? Removing ego from the equation entirely, would tweeters -- especially students -- have enough of a vested interest in higher education in the state of Nebraska that they’d actually pose questions?

We mulled over all of these things. We couldn’t deny social media’s potential to personalize the presidential role, open up lines of communication, promote leadership transparency and meet stakeholders where they’re at. We recognized the importance of fielding questions and fueling conversation.

So at the start of the 2015-16 academic year, I embarked on Nebraska Talks: A Digital Listening Tour. Over the course of two and a half weeks, and with the support of NU campuses and the local news media (which announced the launch of the tour while select reporters encouraged participation through their own tweets), the Twitter-based tour reached more than 150,000 stakeholders: current and prospective students, faculty and staff members, educators, business and civic leaders, policy makers, alumni and donors.

My Twitter follower numbers saw a healthy spike. But more important, engagement soared.

Questions and conversations -- threaded with #PrezUnplugged -- spanned access and affordability, global education, outreach to first-generation students, the recruitment of out-of-state and international students, the production of more graduates to meet Nebraska’s workforce needs, and the need to increase lifelong learning and alumni engagement, among others.

Outside of the questions, we saw a steady stream of what can only be classed as “affirmation” tweets. People -- some within the university or the state of Nebraska, others completely unaffiliated -- took to Twitter to say how refreshing it was to see a university president using social media as a listening tool and a way to drive engagement and dialogue.

I share this not to pat my communications team on the back. Rather, I share it to challenge my peers to rethink -- and even embrace -- social media as an opportunity to connect with stakeholders in real time, to listen and engage on real topics, and to be accessible. For new and established presidents alike, Twitter is an underused tool for gathering information, understanding the evolving educational landscape, and hearing and recognizing the needs of key audiences.

For me, it’s become a way to continually hear from stakeholders about how we can work together to shape a stronger future and position the University of Nebraska as a leader in higher education. The university has four campuses, with a one- to two-hour drive in between them, so Twitter is also a way to keep a finger on the pulse of multiple campuses and be accessible to faculty, staff and students in an ongoing way.

Twitter can help establish meaningful connections and build trust among key audiences. In my experience, the platform can even facilitate off-line, more traditional relationships. Based on the thoughtfulness, creativity and relevance of the Twitter listening tour questions that came in, I selected two Nebraskans -- one a junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the other the president of the Nebraska Educational Technology Association -- to continue conversations with me in person.

Twitter is a prime space for sharing university success narratives and engaging a wide range of people in them. And if approached strategically, it’s also an excellent forum for commenting on trends, highlighting the varied expertise the university can provide and articulating institutional messages and presidential passion points. Early childhood and youth education, for example, is very important to me, since I began my career as a high school teacher and principal. Twitter has opened new doors to talk about the University of Nebraska’s world-class work in that space.

But Twitter is not for the weary. It’s a demanding platform that requires time and cultivation. The listening never stops, and patience is key, as success cannot be measured overnight or simply in quantitative terms. Twitter’s potential expands beyond numbers of followers or the volume of posts or retweets -- it can be a powerful driver for long-term goals such as relationship and reputation building.

Even after a year in my role as president of the University of Nebraska, my listening tour is, in a way, just beginning. To sum up this lesson in 140 characters or less: “Listening has made me a better leader, and social media has allowed me to lend an ear to more people. #PrezUnplugged.”

Bio

Hank Bounds is the president of the University of Nebraska.

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