I’m pursuing a new passion at work, advocating for increased use of social networking at Western. As I see it there are three phases to what I have to do in order to bring about change around here:
- Identify the organic condition of WMU’s position in the social networking sphere.
- Identify and recommend avenues of future development and arguments for increased activity in social networking spheres.
- Educate and encourage management to see the value in the arguments and endorse pursuit of our goal of increased social networking involvement.
So far I’ve looked at a batch of social networking services and one thing is crystal clear to me. WMU has as an organization done very little to take ownership of its social networking “Voice”. The current Voice is being controlled by students, a mish-mash of staff and faculty, and various organizations in Kalamazoo such as the Kalamazoo Gazette. I myself was contributing to the not-WMU Voice wrangling before I clenched up my privacy and online security, so that my Facebook and Twitter streams are private now. The only still-public wrangling I give the Voice is here on my WordPress blog.
I would like to say I was shocked, but I am not. I’ve known for a very long time and I’ve been agitated with the knowledge that everyone else but WMU is actually in control of the “social message” of this University. This “social message” should be firmly in-hand here at WMU. We should be leading the discourse, guiding the “social message”. It’s not only that we don’t control our “social message” but we are also inexplicably ignoring a vast and ripe market space by treating social networking as a passing fad. It is very much not a passing fad.
I’ve often times used the metaphor of a herd when discussing market cohort groups. In case of “young alumni” I see them composed of Generation X and Generation Y members, people in my age bracket who graduated from University from 1995 into the current year. These people are easy for people like me to understand, as I am in the group. If it appeals to my model of what my cohort finds attractive and compelling then I know it will succeed. In many ways I imagine Western to be much like other institutions out there, we’re all competing for various scarce resources, such as money, students, legislative power, and finally, social relevance. Currently WMU and Kalamazoo are “on-the-map” because of a Glen Miller song, Teaching, Aviation, and Paper Technology. Outside of those sharp niches we’re just another public state school. Because we don’t actually inject any controlled content into the social networking sphere currently, our most powerful method of advertising and promoting our institution is in the hands of everyone else but us.
I have to admit that when I look around the sense I get is one of shy victimhood. Because we are never in control of the social message we are perpetually defending ourselves against every critic and because we are mute when it comes to our social message we cannot hope to make any progress on the sort of initiatives that matter the most to our organization. I think what is most telling to me is the nearly universal response I have seen from recent graduates and young alumni. The expressions they share are not of indifference but rather of belligerence, derision, and hatred. WMU didn’t do anything for them while they were students, and it continues to do nothing for them as Alumni, yet WMU calls with their hats in their hands asking for money. I’ve personally witnessed at least a handful of times being the message-mule to inform WMU that certain alumni want absolutely no contact whatsoever from their alma mater.
This points to another argument I made years ago when I brought this concern up to some paid consultants. I was told that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I shouldn’t worry myself over these concerns. I have stated before that there is a huge social shift when you compare alumni who graduated in the 70′s versus alumni who graduated in the 00′s and later. In the great long ago it was a prideful privilege to attend a University, it was a mark of intelligence and was a source of pride and honor. The market, society, perhaps western culture itself changed in the 80′s and the 90′s and there was this shift towards a clear preference for higher education graduates and a dearth of employment for those without higher education. Suddenly a basic education was not sufficient, if you wanted a family and to be successful and happy you needed a degree of higher education added to your name. Higher education catered to this shift by admitting more people, but when they did it, they also became more insular and grew more callous, bureaucratic, and monolithic. What was previously something very special became exceptionally banal in just a few short years. Higher education changed from “University” to “K-16″. As this change was happening I was attending SUNY Buffalo and I immediately was confronted with something I was not expecting. Instead of an organization built on mutual respect, a passion for learning, and earned obedience and loyalty these institutions converted into featureless service and content providers. What was a chance to pursue difficult questions with like-minded adults and develop a higher intellect devolved into a high school sequel. This change has set both groups apart from each other, on one side the University with its staff and faculty and on the other side, the Student. What possible affection can be raised when your University is fundamentally indistinguishable from a Supermarket?
It is this shift that I brought up, that people graduating in my social cohort group are not enamored with higher education. It’s just another thing we felt forced into by society, we didn’t attend because we were passionate about it, we attended because there was no choice. These people are not going to give money to their University as much as they would write a check to a supermarket just because they happened to shop their once or twice. As I’ve moved along in my life and witnessed things, I have this sense that this shift was actually quite traumatic and there is profound scarring for both groups. I don’t know if modern Universities are ready to face a future where their better angels care not a jot for them and meet with closed doors, dial tones, and a profound lack of opportunities to raise money. All I can go on is what I have witnessed and that is summed up by this: “WMU didn’t do shit for me, I have a worthless degree and a lifetime of crushing debt. If they want money, they’ll have to find it somewhere else.”
So we return back to where we started. Will Higher Education embrace social networks? Can they? Is there sufficient scarring to make all of these arguments mute and this last sliver of opportunity, this last gasp of future relevance just so much pissing in the wind? At least for this place, I have hope that it is, I have hope that my arguments find some traction. Along with all of my hope comes my fear that a change-averse monolith simply hasn’t the capacity to move forward and that all this is just hot air being blown over a corpse that doesn’t know it’s dead yet and hasn’t quite gotten around to laying down in its grave. I suppose only time will tell, as it does with everything else.