Justin Peligri: Why President Knapp should join Twitter

Media Credit: Elise Apelian | Senior Staff Photographer

The heat is broken in City Hall. There’s a malfunctioning elevator in Ivory Tower. An incoming freshman is concerned that GW doesn’t have a quidditch team.

These small but important issues are sometimes difficult for a University with nearly 25,000 students to address quickly. Cue Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski, who has used his popular Twitter account – @GWPeterK – to promote campus events and answer student concerns, liberally applying the popular “Only at GW” hashtag in the process.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

“I think students want to know the administrators as real, authentic people,” Konwerski told me, describing his role on Twitter as an “ombudsman” for students.

Konwerski is right that GW Twitter accounts – his in particular – help students feel connected to the larger University bureaucracy. Other top administrators, including Tim Miller, director of the Center for Student Engagement, and Patrick Nero, the athletic director, have also used Twitter to connect with different sects of the community.

But the most important leader – University President Steven Knapp – remains notably absent from the online conversation. That hurts Knapp’s and the University’s brand. At a time when GW is about to embark on a $1 billion fundraising campaign – when it needs the world to know and love Knapp – he’s still an enigma to many who live even on the same block.

Unlike Konwerski, Knapp’s quirky sense of humor doesn’t always come through. And unlike former President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Knapp can’t bank on charisma or bravado. Admittedly, Knapp might need a coach before he crafts an online brand with the potential to thrive. (But then again, he does have an army of public relations officials at his service.)

By buying into Twitter, Knapp can refine his image – and snatch it away from @FakeStevenKnapp, the faux account. We have a parody, but students deserve to get to know the real Knapp.

The real Knapp explained to me that he connects with students and alumni through email correspondences, walking his dog around campus and holding office hours and dinner meetings at his house. “Those interactions, both online and in person, seem to me to be richer in content than would be possible through a 140-character message,” he said in an email.

For a busy campus leader, time is, of course, finite. But in the same way that college students build Twitter accounts to promote their individual “brand” and sell unique skills, personality and spunk to future employers, Knapp would do well to use a similar approach in his own work.

Knapp only needs look to other prominent schools for inspiration. Take the University of Cincinnati and Tulane University – both have leaders active online.

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Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski has set the bar for University administrators’ Twitter use.

University of Cincinnati President Santa J. Ono, who describes himself as a “quite prolific” tweeter, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in an interview earlier this month that he attributes numerous successes to connections that began on Twitter, including a partnership with a research laboratory at NASA.

After he meets with middle and high school students in person, he encourages them to follow him on Twitter, enabling them to receive a steady stream of information about the school, and enticing them to apply. “That feeling of connection with the president is something that differentiates the University of Cincinnati from other schools,” Ono said.

Ono has more than 30,000 followers on Twitter and it’ll take a while for Knapp to connect with such a large volume of people. But if he does, he’ll likely make bigger waves and build more significant connections than a dean of students ever could.

Collecting donations is already a crucial part of Knapp’s job. And despite record-breaking gifts, he still has a lot of work to do: Although the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall grows closer and closer to completion, fundraising for GW’s most expensive endeavor has fallen short of expectations, The Hatchet reported late last year. And after the University fired former GW School of Business Dean Doug Guthrie, fundraising from what is supposed to be one of GW’s most lucrative colleges dropped by about a third.

Knapp works on fundraising many times a week by schmoozing with potential donors at cocktail parties and making friendly phone calls to deep-pocketed connections.

But in the 21st century, Twitter is just one more way to make that appeal. It’s the right move to make if GW and Knapp wants to fall in lockstep with its competitors in today’s digital age.

Justin Peligri, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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