College presidents leverage social media

An audience member asks college presidents (seated from left) Daria Willis, Leigh Goodson and Tonjua Williams about how they use social media. (Photo: AACC/Matthew Dembicki)

NEW YORK — Most community college presidents have dabbled on social media in their role as CEO, but a growing number of those leaders are using them as strategic tools, whether to connect more with students or with businesses and funders.

Three community college presidents shared their approaches to using social media during a session on Sunday at the 2022 AACC Annual. Their methods are different from each other based on their personalities as well as their intended audience and goals, but they are effective.

Before Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College (SPC) in Florida, started tweeting, she thought about who she wanted to be on social media. The self-described “selfie queen” said she wanted to show via her posts a “community of care” after a few hard years at the college before she became president six years ago.

“I had to find a way to make sure they [students and employees] knew that we created a community of care, where people felt like they belonged, and that they were with me, and I was with them,” she said.

Williams started by taking selfies with faculty at graduations and posting on the college’s Facebook page. Including herself in the posts around the college and the community shows social media users that she is proud of the college and that she is approachable, Williams said.

A sampling of St. Petersburg President Tonjua Williams’ posts on social media. (Source: session presentation)

A growing number of social media followers now are eager to take a selfie with her, which they in turn share on social media. So much so that the requests become overwhelming at times. But Williams said that it is personally and professionally rewarding to see when students share a photo saying they took a selfie with the president or when faculty members repost a photo, thankful that she visit their class.

Williams noted that SPC has its graduation on Saturday.

“Trust me, I have my selfie stick and I’m ready,” she said.

Hot pink sofa

Daria Willis, the new president of Howard Community College (HCC) in Maryland who previously led Everett Community College in Washington, wants to convey that she is approachable and that she too has her own challenges, just like the students at her college. The idea to use social media to do that had its start when she spoke at an event in Washington, D.C., where she noted that she was a single parent at age 19. That event’s organizers pushed that on social media, and students at her college immediately contacted her about it, Willis said.

If you have followed Willis on social media, you know about the hot-pink, velvet sofa in her office at Everett that occasionally made it into her posts. The sofa was a hit with her viewers. The sofa is now at her new college in Maryland, where it has caught everyone’s curiosity.

“When they carried the pink sofa across the college to get to the office, some folks were like ‘Where is that going?” she related, drawing a few laughs from the audience.

Social media posts by Daria Willis, president of Howard Community College. (Source: Session presentation)

But including the sofa in posts shows her offbeat side, and that she is approachable.

“Some people act like they never had someone to help them,” she said. “I want our students to know that I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I got my T-shirt. If I can make it, so can you.”

Williams, who has served SPC for more than 30 years, said she wanted to convey the same message when she become president at a time when employee morale was low. She said being authentic, honest and stepping outside of her comfort zone to talk about her own challenges has helped employees to connect with her better.

Buy-in from business

Although many presidents bring their personalities to social media, they also have to know their potential audience and the community. Leigh Goodson, president of Tulsa Community College in Oklahoma, is more traditional in how she uses social media, with LinkedIn being her preferred platform. Her posts are mainly of students, businesses and other local partners in the Tulsa community.

“My goal with social media is to get the buy-in of the business community,” she said. “I want the business community to want to invest in us.”

And they are. The George Kaiser Family Foundation is supporting the college’s partnership in the Tulsa Innovation Labs, and the posts, reposts, shares and likes grab the attention of other local funders who are eager to contribute.

Various social media posts by Leigh Goodson, president of Tulsa Community College. (Source: Session presentation)

Williams has seen the same thing at her college. She frequently tags local employers when she is at events to celebrate student success so they can see the story of the college and its students, from shrinking the achievement gap of African American males, to helping place more graduates in local jobs, to graduation photos. She also posts words of encouragement directly to her students, 80% of whom receive Pell grants. That messaging has helped to recently secure million-dollar grants from Bank of America and the Helios Education Foundation.

“With Bank of America, it was a shock,” she said. “They just came to me and said ‘We want to give you this money because you are trying to close the achievement gap. And we want you to help us fill 500 positions. We’re going to give you $1.2 million to do it.”

The bank then invited its network of companies to give toward the effort, which they did.

Although securing funds and other help from local business and industry is crucial, so is their political clout, noted Goodson. The Oklahoma legislature is mulling how to dismantle parts of public education, she said. If companies understand the value of TCC, they can help to advocate for the college and higher education, she explained.

A new message

Willis noted that the county where her college is located is fairly wealthy, and it has strong success in working to help its students transfer to local four-year institutions. But it still serves many low-income students who don’t plan to attend a four-year college. Willis wants to focus on helping that population, and it starts by raising local awareness about their needs and their potential, she said. Social media can help tell that story.

“What I’m working on is how I’m going to transform my social media profile to start educating our community about who we really serve at HCC,” Willis said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.