With 9,000 followers, Dillard University’s president, Walter Kimbrough, or @HipHopPrez, has the most Twitter followers of any historically black college or university chieftain.
He likes the results his Twitter usage generates for the school, which has 1,200 students, but now he is considering how his social media brand will mature.
“My wife says when I become 50, I can’t be the hip-hop president anymore,” said Dr. Kimbrough, now 47. Even so, he said, “I will always be the first president from the hip-hop generation; that will always be a part of my bio.”
Dr. Kimbrough will mark his 10th anniversary as a college president this December, with roughly two years at Dillard and seven at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. The milestone, he said, seems like a great chance to make the switch.
But his new preferred handle, @Kimbrough, is claimed by someone who has hardly used it. He hopes the Twitter staff can help him get it.
Dr. Kimbrough’s total followers beat those of the Spelman College president, Beverly Tatum, @BDTSpelman, who has more than 8,000 followers and 2,200 students.
The American college president with the most followers is West Virginia University’s Elwood Gordon Gee, @gordongee, who has more than 55,300 followers — nearly double the number of students at his school. Dr. John Maeda, @johnmaeda, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, may have one of the most effective Twitter handles for a college president. He has 372,000 followers — 169 times the number of students enrolled at the school.
Social media is a great way to communicate with students, parents, faculty, the community and media outlets, said Dr. Kimbrough, who started using Facebook “as an opportunity to document events that were happening on campus, as a way to get information out.” He also blogged but was hesitant at first to join Twitter.
But in 2008, on the advice of a social media consultant, Dr. Kimbrough said he decided to try Twitter and bought into it “hook, line and sinker.”
Spelman’s Dr. Tatum said: “Using Twitter is an easy way to let students share in my travel experiences and educate them about the daily responsibilities of a college president. I found Twitter to be a great way to highlight Spelman news and student accomplishments.”
Howard University’s president, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, @WFrederickMD, has been slower to adopt Twitter, where he has attracted 800 followers. He says he prefers Facebook to communicate with the 10,000 students on Howard’s campus. Regardless, he understands Twitter as “a platform where you can reach students more readily.”
In the spring semester, he began using #FundraisingFridays to raise money for specific university departments. “People have been responsive to it,” Dr. Frederick said.
While some are social media savvy, in general, presidents of historically black colleges and universities use Twitter and Facebook less than presidents at majority institutions, said Marybeth Gasman, a higher-education professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She has researched the social media habits of HBCU presidents and said they are typically older and as such “more resistant” to social media because they don’t see it as valuable.
But Dr. Kimbrough has found it a good way not only to promote positive news on campus, but also to relay information in emergencies and keep tabs on the pulse of the student community.
For example, Dr. Kimbrough followed up when a Dillard student tweeted that a professor “is late to class again.” He asked the vice president of academic affairs to find the teacher and handle the situation.
The student was “mortified” her tweet was used, but Dr. Kimbrough said if students “put that out there, I am going to check on it.”
During Hurricane Isaac in 2012, Dr. Kimbrough said Twitter was essential in communicating with students and parents about storm updates. “For emergencies, it’s a great tool,” he said.
Some of his peers said they are seeking proactive ways to merge social media into academic operations. The University of Cincinnati, for instance, incorporated social media into its April commencement ceremony with the hashtag #UCgrad14, with messages displayed on a live screen.
Cincinnati’s president, Dr. Santa Ono, @PrezOno, said he hoped his social media use will encourage a more “student-centered” environment at the university. Through Twitter, he said, he receives concerns from 31,000 followers about “everything from empty vending machines to concerns about lighting on campus.” With 42,000 students, he said his purpose is to “build connections and community and try to keep the students at the center of all.”