During Chancellor James Schmidt’s first year at UW-Eau Claire, a number of students encouraged him to start a Twitter account.
Unfamiliar with the social media platform, Schmidt was hesitant. But in February 2014, after prodding from a student intern in the university communications office, he decided to give it a try. He chose the Twitter handle @ChancellorJim.
“I noticed this campus tended to be a little formal, and I wanted to seem approachable to students,” Schmidt said last week.
The strategy certainly worked, as students don’t hesitate to contact him about almost anything. Schmidt has more than 6,300 followers on a campus of nearly 11,000 students, and students regularly tweet messages to him about everything from problems with their dorm room and questions about food service menus to invitations to attend campus events and pleas to join them for selfies.
Schmidt acknowledged that he initially discussed having communications staff tweet for him but was advised that students easily would be able to tell it wasn’t him and then it wouldn’t have the desired effect.
So Schmidt learned how to tweet. His Twitter profile indicates that as of Friday afternoon he had posted 3,953 tweets — the last a joking response to a student seeking a Black Friday tuition discount that “All classes taught on Black Friday are #FREE!” (The university was not in session Friday because of the Thanksgiving break.)
Earlier last week he returned the holiday greeting of a student who tweeted this message to him: “Have an amazing thanksgiving @ChancellorJim thank you for making my school so cute and happy.”
Taking down the intimidation factor
The best part of Schmidt’s prominent Twitter presence, he said, is that it makes students comfortable talking to him on campus.
“Before I started using that handle, it was more of a “Hello, Chancellor Schmidt” kind of formal greeting,” said Schmidt, who is known to occasionally offer a glimpse of who he is as a person by tweeting, for example, that he can’t attend a university function because he is going to his son’s baseball game.
Schmidt believes the access gives students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and community members a greater sense of connection with the university.
“In the end, it makes for a better university, and that’s my job,” said Schmidt, who also has many serious posts announcing events on campus and congratulating students for athletic and academic achievements.
It’s clear from his Twitter feed that many students enjoy interacting with the chancellor via social media.
Paige Robling, a freshman from Chaska, Minn., tweeted a photo in October of @ChancellorJim with five grinning female students in a residence hall after Schmidt responded to a Twitter plea to show up for House Calls, a UW-Eau Claire program in which faculty and staff visit students in dorm rooms to see how the semester is going. Schmidt recalled returning to the university for the surprise visit after seeing a tweet from a roommate indicating Robling was sad when @ChancellorJim didn’t show up during House Calls.
“We were sad that he didn’t reply, and all of a sudden he walked in our dorm and my roommate, my friends and I were freaking out,” Robling said. “He is so nice and really cares about all his students. He wants us to have the best college experience we can have.”
Getting @ChancellorJim to pose for a photo has become a form of bragging rights for students, Robling said, calling Schmidt “basically a celebrity on campus.” Robling joked that she is lucky to have checked that item off her college to-do list as a freshman.
Variety of topics
Another student, Kamryn Butt, tweeted to Schmidt (complete with photo) about having lady bugs in her dorm room, and he responded, “They are everywhere! I think we need to pray for -30 weather.” While that didn’t bring an immediate fix, Butt said the chancellor did provide a solution via Twitter to a problem about how to get the lights turned on at some campus basketball courts.
“I love his tweets, and I love how active he is with his social media,” Butt said. “I tweeted at him because it’s such an amazing feeling when he tweets back at you!”
In the past month, Schmidt has responded to dozens of tweets ranging from the serious (why some campus buildings don’t have gender-neutral bathrooms) to the silly (“Can you come meet your snowman double and his creator?”)
When Schmidt doesn’t know the answer to a question or wants someone to look into a problem, he often tags a department in his response or contacts a staff member and then shares the answer with the person who raised the issue.
In the end, Schmidt’s Twitter presence requires a relatively small time commitment — he devotes an estimated 15 to 30 minutes a day reading and posting tweets — but appears to be paying big dividends in terms of nurturing a comfortable campus climate.
Times have changed, and it’s nice to see that Schmidt has found a fun way to meet students on their own turf, which, for good or for bad, increasingly is on social media.
Keep tweeting, @ChancellorJim.
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