Research Insight

The Power’s Not In the Tower Any Longer

The Inversion of Influence on College Campuses



Campus protests, sit-ins in administration buildings and student demands for change are not new, but the hallmark actions of the 60’s and 70’s have a new outcome in 2016, they are working. Fifty years ago, college leaders could often isolate and wait out protests and thanks to the short attention span of mass media, move on from a controversy or crisis. The rise of social media, self-publishing and the 24-hour news cycle has changed things. The old playbook of measured, scholarly and delayed response does not hold up against a sustained barrage of content by engaged students and requires today’s administrators to interact, integrate and identify with students if they want to survive and be successful.

This change is indicative of an inversion of influence on college campuses that mirrors a larger trend identified in the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer. Traditionally, those in authority were seen as having better access to education and information, and were given the license to lead by a public that believed leaders had the best interests of the public in mind. The democratization of information has inverted that equation and influence is driven by the mass population toward authority.

Inversion of Influence

The perception of authority or respect for the office of chancellor, president or provost on a campus is no longer enough to move student opinion. This necessitates a significant shift in how administrations interact with students.

The traditional relationship between many university leaders and students has been one of visible distance. There have always been administrators that were comfortable working with all groups on campus and moving seamlessly between structured and unstructured communication. However, there are also those university leaders that would only be seen at events, and students did not expect to talk with them, interact with them directly or most significantly, did not expect administrators to have to respond to their input.

Social changes have led to dramatic changes in student expectations. Administrators are learning they should be engaged on a regular basis. It is no longer enough to “have a listening tour,” or a “town hall,” where student questions are submitted. Students expect to be able to send questions via email to the president or chancellor and have them answered. This was the expectation when they were in high school and it hasn’t changed, with administration expected to be integrated into the daily lives of students.

There is a perception that highly paid administrators are too far removed from student issues such as the escalating cost of education and the continuing shift from “four years and a degree,” to lifelong learning that may include several breaks along the way.

Communication with campus leadership has changed and students now expect access beyond the traditional channels of governance and administrators should continue to look at how to increase their interaction, integration and identification with students and student groups. This can include:

  • Understanding why students are communicating the way they do on social media and other forums, even if the administrators are not using the channels themselves;
  • Empathizing with students and being viewed as a “person like the students,” rather than a disconnected leader;
  • Recognizing that the college experience is different for most students than it was 20-30 years ago; and
  • Preparing for radical transparency in communication.

Josh Morgan is a senior vice president in Edelman’s Sacramento office.

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