Being College President in 140 Characters or Less

Dr. Scott Miller’s prowess on social media has become legendary: Bethany’s president is on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and Flickr. He has a blog, publishes regular “Green Box” campus updates, is featured in the weekly Old Main Journal, publishes a monthly  President’s Letter (which is also webcast as “For the Record” on the Bethany Broadcasting Network), writes a monthly column for The Huffington Post and The State Journal, and contributes to numerous higher-education publications and conferences – making him one of the most active and visible social-media communicators among college or university presidents in the country. 

In a typical day, he regularly reaches out to over 20,000 “friends” via social media—in addition to sending special correspondence to dignitaries, donors and other special friends of the College. Those who follow his writings and postings say his style is beyond transparent.

From the President’s Office in Old Main, Dr. Miller talks openly about his communication strategy. Having such a plan is critical, he feels, for the modern higher-education president. With a 22-foot ceiling and “law office shelves,” which house his personal library of over 1,100 books and mementoes from his 24 years as a college president, he notes that visitors, including in June West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee, are drawn to his intriguing collection of objects. In addition to holding symbolic value for Dr. Miller, his souvenirs serve as good conversation starters for this communications-minded campus leader.

An Energizer Bunny and “Little Energizers” grace the top shelf behind his desk.  “That was given to me by the Wesley College staff on my 39th birthday,” he said.  “I was called ‘Doogie Houser’ (after the television wonder boy) when I was first named president of Lincoln Memorial University, at age 31.  The Energizers reflected on what staff called my non-stop energy.”

Photos prompt more memories. He recalls meetings with United States presidents, Senators, and other officials, as well as Commissioner of Baseball “Bud” Selig which reflects his lifelong passion for baseball, also captured in his Roberto Clemente collection of artifacts (a native of western Pennsylvania, Dr. Miller grew up a Pirates fan). A picture of the dedication of Scott D. Miller Stadium at Wesley College in Dover, Delaware, joins other items from a celebrated higher-education career. Photos of his family, including recent grandchild Addie, hold the center spot on his desk.

Achieving senior administrative positions only a few years after graduating from West Virginia Wesleyan, Dr. Miller said that identifying and communicating with students has always been a priority of his career.  Just 25 when he first became a college vice president, Dr. Miller emphasizes how overcoming age obstacles with hard work and a focus on building his career led to his identifying a personal “brand.” 

“As an undergraduate at West Virginia Wesleyan, I was a communication major and worked as a reporter for the local paper,” he recalls. “I learned a lot, and communicating well has driven my entire career in higher education. 

“My goal – as president of Bethany College – is to have the most effective communications strategy among liberal arts college presidents in the country. Reaching students via the social media that they use most often is central to that goal.”

Despite his visibility through social media, Dr. Miller notes that he “can’t physically be ‘center stage’ with all of Bethany’s constituents all the time.” Bethany has thousands of alumni and other “friends,” and even the most active president, he says, cannot communicate personally with everyone. But, he says, “social media give me an opportunity to ‘personalize’ communication to Bethany’s constituencies on a regular basis.”

An effective social-media platform demonstrates that he is always engaged in the life of the College.  “Being a college president is a 24/7 commitment anyway,” he points out, “but as a way of marketing the entire campus, I truly believe that in the future this kind of communications approach will be vital to the success of all college presidents and their efforts to promote their institutions.”   

“Developing communications strategies has always interested me,” he says.  “I love to get in the classroom with the students and talk about the latest trends. It reminds me to be student-focused, and hopefully underscores to all our audiences the importance of a student-centered college.” 

It’s a topic that attracted the interest of The Chronicle of Higher Education this past summer. Bethany was featured in that publication for its investment of resources in student-centered facilities and programs—something that President Miller himself personifies each day that his busy travel schedule finds him back on campus.

On any given day or night, Dr. Miller can be spotted  running at Bison Stadium before sunrise, eating with students or staff in the cafeteria, cheering on Bison teams at multiple athletic events, lining up campus speakers, attending Greek events, or making visits to residence halls. The president who promises incoming students that they will see him often is indeed famous for having coffee at Boomer’s or the Beanery, sitting in on a late-night student gathering, or even posing with a “selfie” with students while walking across campus. He knows almost everyone on a first-name basis.

“President Miller definitely represents the personal connections that Bethany is famous for,” says Lynsie Mandt, a senior Early Education major and Special Education minor from Columbus, Ohio. “My friends who attend large universities say they never even see their president, let alone have a chance to get to know them.” Other students point out that despite  multiple commitments and demands on his time, Dr. Miller always takes an interest in Bethany students’ well being and their career and life goals.

“He has encouraged me to accept many leadership opportunities I wouldn’t have had at another college,” says senior Anne Taylor, a Communications and Media Arts major from Buffalo, New York. “When I graduate, I will have had internships, mentoring by alumni, and a lot of doors opened for me, all influenced or supported in some way by Dr. Miller.” 

Bethany students point to him as a brand:  experienced in the profession, approachable on campus, highly visible at campus events.  He looks the part, too, with a wardrobe of Bethany attire, ranging from exercise gear to business casual.  

While his communications and brand identity generally serve the broader marketing strategies of Bethany College, some reveal a deeper look at his personality:  his love of writing, running, college sports and the Atlanta Braves, his commitment to his family, and the satisfaction of having served three dynamic liberal arts colleges for nearly a quarter century. Often, however, they reflect the grueling work and travel schedule of a highly visible and fully engaged college chief executive officer, one who clearly loves his work.

“To a certain extent, because communications is my field, social media is a hobby,” he said. “I work on it mostly in the early morning, while unwinding in the evenings, and in between meetings.”

His strategy is so effective that students from some other colleges follow him, tracking and responding to his commentaries. Graduate students from other institutions write about his social-media strategy. And he regularly hears from Bethany alumni from around the country who are grateful to be connected to their alma mater through the President’s Office.

The Approach

Dr. Miller’s social network practices support the brand.  He is everywhere connecting with every possible group. He has spoken on the topic at the national level including The Lawlor Symposium and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities annual meeting. 

In a recent Bethany class on media writing, he shared the method behind the strategy.  

“Social media is about talking and listening,” he said. “It’s about having a strategy to spread Bethany’s story. If you could find a cost-effective way to expand your visibility to targeted audiences while promoting your institutional brand, would you take advantage of it?  Of course, you would.”

Yet only about 100 of some 3,500 college presidents nationwide actively use Twitter or Facebook, Dr. Miller’s research has revealed; approximately 700 use LinkedIn, YouTube and other tools.  Those who not employ social media are missing out on opportunities to enhance their message, he feels.

Notable exceptions who are very active on social media include E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University; Santo Ono, the University of Cincinnati; Christopher Kimball, California Lutheran University; David Rowe, Centenary College; Jeff Abernathy, Alma College; John Maeda, the Rhode Island School of Design; Angel Cabrera, George Mason University (who tweets and blogs in both English and Spanish); and Walter Kimbrough, Dillard University. 

 When Dr. Miller was appointed president of Bethany College in 2007, he worked with longtime publishing colleague and former college president Marylouise Fennell at creating and testing a long-term social-media strategy. The strategy focused on reinforcing the brand of a nationally ranked residential liberal arts college in a rural section of West Virginia, and further engaging an already loyal base of alumni and friends.

The results have been astonishing.  In just seven years, with minimal cost, start-up and maintenance, Dr. Miller can now connect with anywhere from 20,000 to 250,000 followers per day.  This is in addition to visibility through regular e-cards, e-blasts, blogs, opinion pieces, monthly presidential e-letters, a weekly online newsletter, and the monthly online commentaries for The Huffington Post and The State Journal business newspaper.

Bethany’s audience continues to grow with interaction by those connected through social media. For example, a recent post to 1,750 people on Facebook was quickly viewed by more than 7,000 followers as a result of the “share” function. Entire new audiences have become instant constituents.

Here’s what he has learned from Bethany College’s social-media strategy:

Social media quickly and effectively allow you to send disparate, relevant messages to diverse audiences.  As an active college president who is closely identified with the Bethany brand, Dr. Miller controls eight different platforms from his desktop, iPhone, iPad or Netbook.  All content reinforces the branding message of Bethany. LinkedIn allows him to advertise position openings to colleagues and to repost College media releases, while Twitter allows the president to reach alumni and students personally. 

Dr. Miller notes that although he posts “100 percent,” he also utilizes support staff and other members of the Bethany community to forward to him items that he might want to use on his platform.  At a recent Greek event on campus, multiple students approached him to “re-tweet” one of their messages and get a “selfie,” for which he is happy to pose.

Social media also permit you to control the frequency and distribution of your message.  Electronic distribution services at nominal cost allow Dr. Miller to time-deliver messages to balance distribution.  These might include campus news, reports and interesting articles from outside organizations that reinforce Bethany’s message and image. Messages can be scheduled at ideal times in the day, and can be as frequent as Dr. Miller likes.

Finally, in times of crisis, social media are essential in distributing timely alerts, messages and updates, he points out.

While social media reinforce that the administration is focusing on communications 24-7, it’s also important to keep content fresh and concise. The impact of this strategy has far outweighed the time needed to create and implement it, Dr. Miller says.  The social-media initiative for Bethany College has been an unqualified success, exceeding expectations and widening the reach of Bethany’s marketing strategy.

The Story

Dr. Miller tells what he calls “a recurring” story utilizing social media.  The common theme is the value of a private residential liberal arts education – more particularly, the education that is offered at Bethany College.

“We strive to be a classical, residential, liberal arts college committed to teaching and student success, a place where academics and student life complement each other, for we recognize that learning takes many forms, both inside and outside the classroom,” he said. “Social media allow us to stay on message on a very frequent basis.”

Dr. Miller said that as he crafts his social-media strategy, he focuses on Bethany’s prominence as a national liberal arts college, the only such institution so categorized in West Virginia. The College is one of just five National Liberal Arts Colleges in its peer group, the 35-member Appalachian College Association, to earn the national title.  According to comparative IPEDS data provided by the ACA, Bethany is second in graduation rates and third in retention among the private colleges in West Virginia.  Bethany is in the Top Tier of ACA members in retention and graduation rates, Dr. Miller said, and has received national recognition for quality and cost from U.S. News and World Report, Barron’s, Washington Monthly, Forbes, Princeton Review and Colleges of Distinction. Last year, the College was ranked seventh in the nation by U.S. News and World Report in the percentage of graduates to attend graduate school within one year of graduation.

He also focuses on service learning and community service as key elements of the College’s signature Bethany Plan, which aids students in identifying with and becoming a part of academic, co-curricular and extracurricular activities. As a part of The Bethany Plan, students can take advantage of global study-abroad trips, career-focused internships and research opportunities. Senior capstone projects and comprehensive examinations round out a student’s education at Bethany. 

“We all have 168 hours in a week,” he said.  “A typical student will devote 18 hours per week to classroom activities and sleep between 42 and 50 hours per week.  At a residential liberal arts college, we partner with students for learning activities for the remaining 100 hours.  This might be service learning, or it could be athletics and recreation, a campus job, or a fraternity or sorority.”

He said that employers value students who can adapt to a team environment, meet deadlines and goals, and advance organizational initiatives by thinking globally, not just in a specialized way—all skills that can be attained at liberal arts colleges. Dr. Miller said they want “well-rounded” individuals who will be active in their communities, too.

 “Building on 175 years of rich tradition, classical, liberal arts programs, innovative partnerships, and a supportive residential environment, Bethany College continues to be extremely attractive to a national constituency. “

Bethany traces its origins to the founding of Buffalo Seminary at what was then Bethany, Virginia, in 1818, Dr. Miller said. The institution records 1840 as its establishment as a degree-granting college.  Bethany is located on a beautiful, historic, 1,300-acre campus of 45 buildings in the wooded foothills of the Allegheny Mountains 39 miles from Pittsburgh. Students once arrived at the mountaintop campus by stagecoach. Now social media and other technological innovations bring them to Bethany even before they enroll.

As a selective, residential, national liberal arts college, Bethany anticipates maintaining an annual headcount of 1,100 and a residential community of just over 800 this fall. Dr. Miller said that the longer-range goal is to selectively increase the residential population to 925. Social media will continue to be central to achieving that goal, he says.

“The days of sending out a college catalogue as a recruitment device are long gone,” he notes. “Now we reach the audience we want, when we want, with the message we want instantly and interactively. We have to be where our students are—and that’s through every technological means we have, along with the all-important personal touch. That, of course, never goes out of style.”