Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor, is the first woman and layperson to serve as president from 2018 to 2022 at Loyola University of New Orleans and at Fordham University, where she started last year.
Using the presidential voice is never easy.
A few weeks after I became president of Loyola University New Orleans, I watched the news about Shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue with horror. As the leader of a Catholic institution, I felt compelled to speak out against religious violence.
Overcome with grief and rage, I wanted to fight the world. But what on earth could I say that wouldn’t sound corny in the face of searing pain? How could I avoid minimizing the experience of racial violence without diluting current events? Would I open myself up to future criticism every time I fail to condemn the mass shootings that occur with unimaginable frequency?
“Our hearts ache,” my Email of 350 words she started in the community. “For the dead and wounded and their loved ones. For every Jewish parent who had to find the words to reveal this horror to their children this weekend. For every person who bravely lives their faith even in the face of hatred and violence.”
Knowing that any attempt at comfort would fail, I admitted to trying to find something specific, however small. I asked that we read a Hebrew prayer for healing Mi Sheberach. I encouraged the community to write messages of love and support to our neighbors at Temple Sinai to deliver together.
In my second university presidency at Fordham, I am still finding my voice and navigating the intricacies of speaking. Here are 10 hard-earned truths about college communications:
Let your guard down occasionally. University leaders walk a fine line. We are risk-averse and consensus-oriented, but our roles force us to speak up. Every time we face the calculated risk of going up without entering. It’s the art of talking just enough, but not too much. Sometimes the risks are worth it, especially so you don’t end up tepid and watered down forever. I don’t need my community to like me or always agree with me. I need them to trust me and trust that I won’t hold back the truth.
Prioritize compassion. Delivering your message with humility is more effective than adopting a preachy or scolding tone. Describe your struggles instead of lecturing. Avoid clichés. As the pandemic dragged on, I realized I had to stop talking about hope and resilience and admit how hard it was. If there are no easy answers, turn to empathy.
Write like you. I write as if I were speaking in presidential communications, especially on mundane issues. I’m not sure why people use formal bureaucratic language, but no one wants to read it. Offer warmth and humor, and your community might just read through what you need to tell them. Start with something evocative that makes people empathize or laugh, but don’t bury the ice. Our messages should not be mystery novels that only reveal the answers at the end.
You are the school and the school is you. The president represents the university. You cannot distinguish between your personal position and the position in the institutions. The good news is that someone other than the president can be the messenger. Different branches of the administration can be trusted more on specific issues and deserve a chance to build credibility.
Avoid playing defense. Talk about critical issues like Title IX, diversity, and campus mental health before you get into a crisis. Dealing with these issues on the front end will help you resist the urge to comment on every troubling news. Cover the topic broadly and early before you have to navigate the specific facts of a particular crisis, which are often muddy and fraught.
Everything you post is public. The idea that you can limit your audience is an illusion. Whether your message is a faculty newsletter, a letter to alumni, or a student-focused social media post, assume that whatever you send will ultimately reach the widest possible audience.
Consult your cabinet. When in doubt, I run the team lead’s ideas to see who I may have inadvertently offended or left out. But remember that your older employees may come off as overprotective and therefore risk averse. As Tulane’s chief of staff to the president, I hesitated to recommend that my boss stick his neck out and suffer the backlash, even if I would choose that risk myself.
But don’t overdo it. The inertia of consulting too many people can be worse than the risk of your message not being exactly right. Too many rounds of editing can delay delivery and degrade your voice so much that the output is milquetoast, why even bother? If you’re circulating a Google Doc, avoid chaos by only allowing comments, not edits that can become messy or substitute someone else’s tone for your own.
Stick to subjects where your message can be effective. I will be relieved to manage my career without ever making a public statement about the Middle East—a hugely complex and important subject that I confide in others about. Stick to issues that have a direct impact on higher education and our students, even if that can be hard to define. I may not weigh in on the intricacies of the nation’s immigration policy, but I have taken a stand in support of DACA and international students. Pick your battles to maintain credibility and avoid diluting the power of your messages. You cannot become a daily news commenter.
Raise issues that should matter more. We can say something meaningful without dividing our communities by instead highlighting issues that deserve more attention. Critics may argue that doubling Pell Grants it’s too expensive, but I’m not waving a red flag at the bull by advocating more educational opportunities. When I talk about domestic violence and sexual assault, I know that no one is publicly in favor of violence against women. We have a chance to fight inertia and apathy, to convince without causing controversy.