College Presidents' Blogs Open Door to Controversy

At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., President Dick Celeste has joined the legions of campus bloggers with periodic postings he calls "The Flow of Ideas."

Celeste, the former governor of Ohio, says that like a growing number of college and university leaders, he uses the blog to connect in a personal way with the students he doesn't see regularly.

Often, Celeste uses a light tone, as when he recently wrote about leaving a cell phone on the roof of his car and then speeding off.

He says it may be time to talk to the neuroscientists on the faculty to understand "that set of brain cells that tells me exactly what is going to happen when I do something. But then is incapable of helping me avert that very consequence."

Many university presidents have embraced blogging as a way of bridging the gap between the administration and the student body.

That is particularly true at large universities with tens of thousands of students, like Michigan State, where personal contact is all but impossible. And the use of the campus Intranet is a way of communicating that is second nature to many students.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon, for example, has used her blog to underscore the university's mission by recommitting it to diversity.

But in many other cases, blogging college presidents can end up in a confrontation with other bloggers -- both students and faculty -- raising questions about whether this undermines one of the basic tenets of a liberal education: the open and accountable discussion of ideas.

For example, The New York Times reported today that in response to her blog, President Patricia McGuire of Trinity University in Washington recently faced what the Times described as a digital age dilemma.

McGuire was asked to respond to a student identified only by her screen name who turned in another student for using profanity on her personal Web page.

What disturbed McGuire was that the accusations were made anonymously. But since the message was sent to her blog, it was an issue she then had to deal with.

A starker example occurred two years ago at Alfred State College in New York, where it is widely acknowledged that a blog was used by faculty members to bring down the school's president, Uma G. Gupta.

Faculty members, anonymous except for their screen names, wrote, among other things:

"The woman is suffering from borderline personality disorder."

"The college will be, in essence, punished for Gupta's bizarre behavior."

"She has systematically destroyed the institution through her incompetence, her unwillingness to compromise and her inability to see any view but her own."

Gupta left her job after the blog sparked an investigation by statewide officials into tensions between her and the faculty.

She later told the Chronicle of Higher Education about the blog and its anonymous contributors.

"In the hands of those who put personal interests before the welfare of the institution, at its best it is a bullying tool and at its worst it is electronic terrorism," she says.

Gupta did not address, but should have, how anonymity can cloak false accusations and inaccurate information.

In contrast, last year at Harvard, when the faculty demanded that President Lawrence Summers resign because of a number of grievances, including comments about women and their ability in science and math and his effort to take greater control from the faculty, the faculty had an open discussion where his accusers and supporters spoke openly in person. Summers later resigned.

That controversy played out with names attached to the critics, and was not carried out anonymously on the web.

An equally large problem may be what's contained in presidential blogs.

Some college leaders feel compelled to address subjects such as gay marriage and other political issues that don't necessarily connect with students but which can bring public relations problems, particularly among alumni.

Some consultants in higher education say presidential blogs are often a disaster waiting to happen because they often put down in digital form what is better discussed face to face with students, faculty and alumni. A blog creates a record, but not necessarily a reason.

Roger Taylor, president of Knox College in Illinois, does not blog.

"Presidents have more important things to do," he says. And Taylor worries that blogs by their very nature tend to be too free flowing and lack editing.

"Time is better spent connecting personally with students, faculty and alumni," he says.

But even the Chronicle of Higher Education, the gold standard publication for college and university administrators, now has a blog, inviting comments.

It recently reported on a trip to China, Japan and South Korea organized by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, which featured a delegation of 12 university and college presidents.

At a time when most schools are financially hard-pressed and increasing tuition, the first comment posted was: "Who is paying for this trip? The government or the individual colleges?"

It was a safe, uncontroversial comment but delivered in anonymity by someone who signed it "Alumnus of one of the 12 colleges."

At least it saved the price of a phone call to ask that question in person of the college and its president.