Model Active Listening and Academic Freedom, College Media Conference Presenters Advise

​“From day one, presidents and administrators should be clear about what college is and isn’t. College is not home—it is a place that challenges you and a place to learn,” stipulated Trinity Washington University President Patricia Maguire during the 2017 College Media Conference, June 26–28, in Washington, DC. The conference, co-hosted by CIC and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, drew more than 250 participants from across the country.

“We need to stop over-nurturing and under-challenging students,” Maguire added during a special program on free speech, sponsored by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Editor Liz McMillen moderated the panel, which also included Peter F. Lake, professor of law, Charles A. Dana Chair, and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University (FL).

Peter Lake, Liz McMillen, and Patricia Maguire present while seated at the headtable
During a special program sponsored by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter F. Lake of Stetson University, Liz McMillen of The Chronicle, and Patricia Maguire of Trinity Washington University debated "Free Speech on Campus: What Does It Really Mean?"

Lake observed that not all students feel a responsibility to listen, and that is an opportunity for educators to model active listening. “If we are not careful,” Lake said, “we will have a First Amendment memorial.”

“There is no legal requirement for campuses to remain open [to free speech],” he pointed out. “We have a lot more power to define place and time [regarding free speech] than we’re doing.” He said that he believes it is an issue that the Supreme Court will rule on in our lifetime.

Unsurprisingly, the subject of free speech arose in many conference sessions that brought together members of print, digital, and broadcast media with PR and media relations professionals from a broad range of colleges and universities. Maguire cautioned, “Nothing is too benign to be turned into something evil,” and Lake said higher education PR professionals need to understand how to create and publicize authoritative narratives of their institution to protect against falling victim to narratives that are untrue.

Conference sessions focused on understanding media across the spectrum of broadcast, print, web-based, and social media. And presenters discussed the needs and interests of higher education, business, science, Hispanic, national, and international media.

More than 100 participants began the conference with tours of newsrooms or roundtable discussions with editors at C-SPAN, Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Washington Post.

Steve Givens presents from the podium with a projector screen behind him
In a panel on the value of hosting big events, Steve Givens of Washington University in St. Louis described the pros and cons of hosting a presidential debate on campus.

Covering Breaking News

In the opening session, “Breaking News on the Higher Education Beat,” Politico Pro Senior Education Writer Kimberly Hefling described the 24/7 nature of today’s news cycle in which media constantly update print and digital editions. She described her interest in student debt data, U.S. Department of Education actions and policies, Higher Education Act reauthorization developments, higher ed trends, and faculty research. Like many reporters, she seldom writes a story about a single institution, but cites a number of colleges in articles reporting trends.

Participants pitch stories and network with speakers after a session
Kavitha Cardoza, Education Week correspondent and PBS NewsHour contributor, spoke with conference participants after her discussion on broadcast news.

Melissa Korn, higher education reporter for the Wall Street Journal, covers undergraduate and graduate education, people and trends, free speech on campus, the “free college” movement, campus sexual assault, financial aid, higher ed finance, student demographics, and higher education outcomes and innovations. “I write for a general audience that includes bankers, doctors, lawyers, government officials, parents, and college students themselves. I’m especially interested in how schools differentiate themselves,” she explained.

Author and Washington Post contributor Jeffrey Selingo said higher education is now a national beat at the Post, and he is one of three higher ed reporters. “My job is to explain higher education to external audiences. I’m interested in what you are doing to restore faith in the institutions that deliver higher education. What are you doing to differentiate? I’m interested in the undergrad experience and how colleges are preparing graduates for the workplace.” He noted the expanding divide between the elite, wealthy schools—both private and flagship publics—and everyone else. “How will the rest survive?” He focuses on institutions who are innovating and reducing costs.

Jamal Watson presents from the headtable while seated beside the moderator
(From right to left) Jamal Watson, executive editor of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, detailed the magazine’s story interests in a session moderated by Deanne Taenzer, vice president of ExpertFile. 

Reaching and Responding to the Media

Although individual reporter’s interests differed, advice for colleges and universities seeking media exposure coalesced into common themes: Campus PR and media relations heads should ensure their websites clearly indicate their contact information, return media calls promptly, and have presidents or faculty members respond immediately to press inquiries to be included in breaking news.

Although reporters were split between email and Twitter as their preferred mode of contact, those on tighter news deadlines generally used Twitter. The faculty experts they depend on must be experts on the topic at hand, get back to reporters quickly, and be able to talk clearly and succinctly about their area of expertise. For breaking news, reporters seldom seek out new experts, but rely on prior contacts. They encouraged conference participants to introduce experts before journalists need to rely on them. Broadcast journalists advised that campus communication reps confirm whether there is a studio in or near the college and send video clips of faculty experts to assess adeptness on camera.

Jon Marcus presents from the podium with the projection screen behind him
During the conference’s closing session, Jon Marcus, higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, offered insights on how to receive national education news coverage.

Boosting Media Exposure through Alternative Means

Another session examined the value of hosting big events—U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates—on campus. Melissa Kane Connolly of Hofstra University, Steve Givens of Washington University in St. Louis, and Justin Pope of Longwood University related their experiences managing past debates and established pros and cons. They described necessary investments in computers and connectivity, construction or renovation of facilities and other infrastructure, signage, security, additional speakers and activities to provide value to students, and loss of the use of campus areas, as some of the tangible costs of hosting a debate. To be successful, said Connelly, you need to have as many faculty and staff members and students on board as possible. Involving them helps create opportunities for engagement in the debate preparation and provides students with a powerful look into the process of democracy.

Givens explained that Washington University did not experience a direct lift in admissions from hosting the debates, but since it began hosting in 1992 enrollment has continued on an upward trajectory despite demographic trends. He suggested another means to assess value would be to compare the $6 million cost to host the last presidential debate that gave the university hours of national media exposure to the $88 million it would have cost to buy that much advertising airtime. Less measurable, but perhaps more important, he emphasized was the team-building on campus, the network of alumni volunteers, and the experience for faculty, staff, and students who come to more deeply understand what it means to be a democracy.

Resources from the 2017 College Media Conference are available on the conference website. The next College Media Conference will take place June 25–27, 2018, at the Capitol Hilton hotel in Washington, DC.