As a nation, we’re three months into our second Twitter presidency.
It might not sound like much, but it’s a big deal because President Donald Trump’s winning campaign was the first to use social media as a primary tool to reach voters. His success was a signal to public figures that nontraditional outreach methods have a place in politics and leadership.
But he’s not on Lehigh President John Simon’s level. The face of our campus has connected even more personally with his constituents — granted on a more manageable scale than Trump’s — by becoming Lehigh’s first and only Instagram president.
Through Simon’s account, Lehigh students can see what he’s up to on a daily basis. In fact, anyone can keep up with his endeavors by joining his 3,087 followers, because it’s a public account.
That’s the beauty of his strategy: He’s embraced a level of transparency that has made him one with the Lehigh community. And he’s done it in such as way that not a single drop of doubt has poisoned the genuine nature of his outreach.
Why is it so important to achieve such connectivity with the campus community? The reason his persona is celebrated by Lehigh is we are assured he is invested in us. The irksome adage we’re all taught by parents and teachers tells it best: he doesn’t just hear us, he listens to us.
Student groups are regularly invited to the President’s House for dinner to share their experiences and discuss issues with him. He is always walking around campus with a tall, confident posture. He’s able to act as the closest thing to a campus celebrity Lehigh has, and, at the same time, a favorite uncle of each student — personable and easy to talk to.
It’s easy to forget his novelty because his celebrity status masks his early-stage presidency, which started in the 2015-16 school year. Current sophomores will continue to be his equal — experience-wise, at least — until they walk the stage and receive their diplomas.
His predecessor, Alice Gast, who had been serving for a sizable time period of eight years before she left the school, had nowhere near the same presence. Gast is not alone, as it doesn’t seem like any other administrators have been able to do what Simon has.
The natural follow-up becomes: Should all faculty and administrators attempt to emulate his success? To an extent, the answer is yes. However, there are some clear boundaries that need to be set.
First thing’s first, social media activity should be kept during relevant hours. It’s much easier to pull off as a president of the university because as the person in charge of external affairs, it’s your job to go out to network, travel and establish a reputation for yourself and Lehigh. But if you don’t have such a permissive position, it’s best to keep things confined to Lehigh-specific content.
Second of all, there should be no reason to suggest it will interfere with your job. Again, it is part of Simon’s job to get to know students, so he gets a free pass. But professors specifically cannot afford to create anything resembling a conflict of interest.
That’s why it’s important to keep your content public and make sure you don’t share anything you wouldn’t share in class. The best platforms for this dynamic are likely Instagram and Twitter, which can play host to a public profile that can be “followed” without a request needing to be sent.
Finally, it’s critical to be yourself. Not to be taken in a corny way, this idea is essential to creating a good dynamic with students. Trying too hard to connect with your community is not the same thing as transparency. College-aged people seem to have a knack for sniffing out fake appeal.
It’s not an easy balancing act to perform, but when done well, it can change everything.