One university president doesn’t feel colleges adequately prepare students to join the workforce in today’s digital era but cites one way his institution is helping its student body.
MIT Sloan Management Review: As a leader of a large public organization, how are digital tools, such as social media, changing the way you do your job?
Santa Ono: I have an integrated communications strategy, which includes traditional face-to-face meetings as well as town hall meetings and communications through media, television, newspapers, magazines, and interviews on regional and national news media. In addition, I have an extensive and robust digital strategy that includes a presence on most social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, occasionally Snapchat, and Reddit, as well as a regular blog and Facebook Live communications around topical areas.
What have you noticed has been an impact of that strategy? How has that affected how you do your job?
Having a digital strategy, in addition to the more traditional means of communication employed by university presidents, allows me to have more of a global reach. It also allows me to connect with digital natives and the younger generation much more effectively than if I stuck to face-to-face meetings, town hall meetings, and communications through traditional media. Increasingly, the younger generations are looking at the world through a digital lens. In many cases, it’s much more effective for me to use social media.
The other thing that is very attractive and powerful about communicating through social media is that it’s a dialogue; many of these platforms allow individuals to communicate directly with the communicator. That can be done either in the open or by a direct message. People, especially the younger generation, are increasingly comfortable in communicating in that way. They’re also, in some cases, much more comfortable communicating through digital media in direct messaging as opposed to out in the open.
Do you do this entirely yourself, or do you have a team that helps you with this digital strategy?
The digital strategy is almost exclusively my own activity. It’s something I started when I was at Emory University, when students demanded that I have some sort of a social media presence. At that time, I really didn’t even know how to text. Students felt that it was important for me to have a Facebook presence, so it started with that. Then I moved to the University of Cincinnati as provost, and the communications team said that as a relatively youthful senior academic leader, I might be a good person to move into these relatively uncharted waters of digital strategy, and they asked me to set up a Twitter handle.
So, it’s not completely on my own in that I’ve been encouraged to do this by communication teams, but I try as much as possible in digital communications for it to truly be myself. People can tell whether it’s an institutional tweet or if it’s something authentically coming from the leader. People who follow me can see that, in addition to retweeting messages from the university website, I tweet out highly personal things. They know that it’s really coming from me, and I think people crave a glimpse into what I’m thinking and doing and what I’m passionate about. People like to see the idiosyncrasies that make me a human being.
How many hours per week or per day does it usually take you, and do you find it to be worth your time, and how?
Tweeting and Facebook messaging is really quite efficient. It doesn’t take that long to type out 140 (or 280) characters and push send. Even though I am very scheduled, I do have time in the morning, the evening, and when I’m in transit. If I’m at a layover at an airport, it’s really not that difficult to spend 10 or 20 minutes sending out a couple of tweets.
When it comes to things like Facebook Live, I am assisted in terms of technology, because we use high-quality cameras and lighting. In the case of Reddit, I work with students to manage an AMA (Ask Me Anything). In many cases, I collaborate with student reporters or with a campus radio station.
Those sorts of things take quite a bit more time, because Reddit has quite a few questions, and my responses are relatively comprehensive. But it’s incredibly important, and faculty, students, staff, and alumni really enjoy and appreciate the transparency of comprehensive responses to questions they give me on Reddit or Facebook Live.
Have there been any drawbacks to your use of social media? Any downsides that you’ve encountered?
I think that I’m getting better over the years. As a new adopter of a digital strategy, you will discover that the immediacy and ease of response are risks. If you say something inadvertently, or something that can be misinterpreted, you’ll find out very quickly. People will point it out on social media, and everyone will see that you’re being criticized for that misstep. If you try to fix it by deleting the retweet or editing the tweet or the post, people will criticize you for that, too. You are quite exposed. But if you embrace that and admit that you are human and make mistakes, typically people do forgive you.
There are also situations where you simply cannot respond, such as when you might be embroiled in a potential lawsuit. Sometimes you just have to be silent, even if there’s a chorus of individuals out there tweeting or messaging that they want to hear from you. There are moments when you simply have to, for the good of the institution, remain silent. That’s probably a downside of it, as well.
Have digital trends over the past several years impacted the culture at universities from what you can tell, and maybe University of British Columbia [UBC] more specifically? And if so, how?
Social media definitely has had an impact on campus culture and on the tenor and mechanism of communication. Since the largest stakeholder group at universities is young adults, and they’re digital natives, it’s almost necessary now for a leader in higher education to have a digital strategy. Not that long ago, in 2010 or earlier, it wasn’t.
There are situations where social media can pretty dramatically affect the campus climate. We are in the midst of a situation where controversial speakers are being invited to or are inviting themselves to public universities. There’s potential for civil unrest on campuses, and even in surrounding communities, as we witnessed this summer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. And a lot of that mobilization of people and challenging situations is driven by social media.
All of us are seeing the impact of social media on campus climate. It’s important for university leaders and universities in general to monitor what’s happening on social media as we manage these difficult conversations and situations that really are at the crux of the intersection of academic freedom, freedom of speech, the First Amendment (or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada), and also respectful dialogue.
Work is changing as a result of digital technologies. How are universities helping prepare students for this new, digital workforce, and how could they do it better? What steps are universities taking to get students up to speed on these things?
There’s no uniform strategy at most institutions to prepare students to work in a digital age. There are pockets of activity. For example, there are courses here at UBC, as well as at my former institution, the University of Cincinnati, where professors give assignments to students to actually look at social media as a means of communication. A professor in Cincinnati had a course where one assignment was to follow my tweets over a period of a month during the semester.
Did they give you a critique?
Yes, and they even gave me a copy of their study, which looked at the frequency of my tweeting about different topics. As you know, companies are creating digital profiles of people based on data analytics of tweets or Facebook posts. You could learn quite a bit about somebody from that. It’s a real communication platform, and increasingly it’s finding its way into curricula and Ph.D. dissertations.
There is more and more of this going on. It’s a relatively new communications platform, and eventually it will become mainstream in terms of scholarship at universities. Universities are, in many ways, slow to change, and it’ll take a bit of time for it to become more integrated. But I predict in the future you will see more open scholarship and open communication that leverages digital platforms in mainstream communication of scholarship and research findings.
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I’ve read about you being the adviser to an innovation network and a supercluster on digital technology. I was wondering if you could talk about that, and how can and should universities partner with the private sector to drive innovation?
The previous premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, appointed me as the chief adviser of innovation for British Columbia. We worked with the state of Washington and Microsoft Corp. to develop the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, starting in Vancouver and going down to Seattle, probably also including other cities in Washington and Oregon. The idea is to create something like Silicon Valley or Research Triangle Park, in the Pacific Northwest by leveraging institutions such as the University of Washington and UBC, as well as a growing tech sector.
Amazon.com Inc. has a growing presence here, as does SAP and Hootsuite Inc., a homegrown digital media platform. There are now hundreds of companies in Vancouver and the Okanagan that are focused on high-tech digital communication. One of the outgrowths of my being appointed chief innovation adviser was a strategy to build a network involving academics at UBC, Simon Fraser University, and British Columbia Institute of Technology working together with these companies to develop a supercluster strategy.
There is a Canadian federal competition where about $950 million will be doled out to three to five superclusters. We have just learned that UBC is a key part of three of the final proposals being considered. The digital supercluster is probably our top proposal to the federal government, and it includes not only Microsoft but also Telus Corp. in Vancouver, and it brings together leading expertise at our universities around the internet of things, quantum computing, and virtual and augmented reality to focus a digital strategy in several different sectors, including biomedicine and health, advanced manufacturing, and the resource industry.
The supercluster proposal is, in my view, a remarkable network of universities; large, multinational companies; and subject-matter experts and startups that are coming together to leverage digital technology in almost everything that happens in human endeavor.
How is the university going to benefit as a result of this supercluster?
The university will benefit, but it also has a responsibility. In terms of scientific output, UBC is among the top 10 comprehensive research universities in North America. We also have 64,000 students and almost 16,000 faculty and staff, so we’re one of the larger universities in the world. And we also are at the cutting edge of a number of different technologies.
One thing that isn’t widely known, for example, is that image stitching, which is behind the panorama function of the iPhone and other phones, was invented at UBC. We contribute fundamental research and knowledge that is really at the core of digital technology. We’re a world leader in quantum matter and quantum computing. We have a lot of responsibility in terms of providing new knowledge that will underpin the digital strategy, not only in Canada but globally.
We also have the responsibility to meet the talent needs of this burgeoning high-tech economy here in British Columbia. We are the largest university by far here, and companies that have started here, like Hootsuite, or companies that are moving here, such as Microsoft R&D, need our graduates to be able to grow.
In terms of benefit, the supercluster proposal, if funded, will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of collaborative research funding from the federal government and the companies in these different sectors. They will be collaborating with our scholars and students on projects that will make them globally competitive.
We just signed a several-million-dollar agreement with Huawei Investment Holdings Ltd., the Chinese mobile phone company. We’ll get money to support our fundamental research in computer science, which will most likely be utilized in new technologies, just as the image stitching technology is now being utilized by most cellphone companies.