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Social Media and the College President
A recent snapshot of President Daniel Porterfield's Facebook page
Standing before a room full of students in Brooks College House on his first day as president of Franklin & Marshall, Daniel Porterfield reaches for his phone. The College’s new leader is delivering remarks in a meet-and-greet with students in Brooks—the first of four stops in his tour of College Houses in March—and pauses to capture the moment.
“I took a picture of the crowd from the stage while I was speaking,” Porterfield says. “I posted the picture on Facebook, and said, ‘start tagging.’ Over the next few days, dozens of students in the crowd tagged (identified) themselves in the photo. It allowed all of us who were in the room that night to relive the experience and feel the bond of community. It’s a small story, but an example of how incorporating social media into our daily lives can allow us to experience community in an even more inviting way.”
In his first few weeks as president, Porterfield has forged connections with scores of F&M students, faculty members, professional staff and alumni through various forms of social media. He is a regular user of Facebook, the popular social networking site that allows him to share news about the College with thousands of people with whom he is connected. He also has a Twitter account, where he “tweets” short messages about his experiences at F&M and shares news links with others. And, beginning this week, Porterfield is also venturing into the world of blogging.
President Daniel Porterfield poses with members of Schnader College House on March 23. Porterfield posted the image on his Facebook page and Twitter account later that evening, giving students an opportunity to "tag" themselves and interact with the College's new president through social media.
“I’m wading in and learning how to use new media as an educator,” Porterfield says. “I believe that high-impact educators are constantly adapting to the needs of the next generation of students. I also think it’s important for us to position Franklin & Marshall in the public eye as an institution on the leading edge of liberal arts education. That means being adaptive to the needs and interests of students at the same time that we recommit to the traditions of academic distinction that define us.”
Sitting in his office over spring break, Porterfield recalled his first experience with new media in the mid-1990s. It occurred during his time as a senior aide in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, when he helped federal agencies deploy their resources to help parents and other caring adults steer children through adolescence.
“When we started reading and building websites, you could immediately sense the power of presenting accurate and compelling information to the broader public through a media platform they could access from their own homes,” Porterfield says. “Even at the beginning, you could see much more user control. That has now proliferated exponentially.”
Porterfield says each form of social media serves a distinct role. He thinks of Facebook as an extension of his teaching mode, allowing him to interact with current students, former students and colleagues. It also gives him a chance to assess the rhythms and moods of campus life, and to share information that has educational value.
With Twitter, Porterfield says he is in “experimentation mode.” One experiment went quite smoothly in early March, when he announced on Twitter that he was heading to Jazzman’s for coffee. More than a dozen students and employees of the College joined him for an impromptu chat after reading the tweet.
“I’m still learning, and I’m using it as much as a listener as a communicator,” he says. “As an educator, I want to be approachable to my students, I want them to feel comfortable sharing what’s on their mind, and I want them to feel that I’m respectful and appreciative of the cultures they inhabit. Twitter allows me to do that.”
The president has more experience with Facebook. As he scrolls down his Facebook page, he notes the power of social media to help create new friendships and strengthen existing ones. He points to a photo of 11 incoming Posse Scholars he met in New York a few weeks ago. “Through Facebook, they’re experiencing Franklin & Marshall as a close community six months before they arrive as first-year students,” he says.
Then Porterfield scrolls to a photo of students taken four years ago, during his time as a senior administrator at Georgetown University. And soon he arrives at the group photo he took at Brooks House on March 1, the image tagged by dozens of F&M students.
How many college presidents have become so social-media friendly?
“More will,” Porterfield says. “I guarantee it.”