Universities are naturally forward-thinking, but slow-moving, organizations. Cornell is no different. But in the ever-evolving world of social media, Cornell—specifically as it relates to alumni—is a pioneer.
In implementing the five-year strategic plan that was introduced in 2009 to make Cornell the "platinum standard" by which all universities' alumni operations would be compared, leveraging emerging media was considered essential to supporting the plan's overall goal of connecting alumni to Cornell—and to each other.
In January 2010, Cornell lured Andrew Gossen from his alma mater, Princeton, where he served in various senior-level roles in its Office of Alumni Affairs. Gossen, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Harvard and is considered a leading thinker in social media practice, was hired as Cornell's first-ever senior director of social media strategy, with a mandate to implement such tools to better engage alumni. In April 2011, Gossen hired Keith Hannon, an Ithaca College grad who left a job in the gaming industry to return to Ithaca as his assistant director; Hannon brings a unique skill set to engage alumni and students using video and other visual media. In late August, Shane Dunn '07, a director from the region on the board of the Cornell Alumni Association (CAA), representing New England, talked with Gossen and Hannon about social media and their impact on alumni affairs.
CAA: How did you get involved with social media in general, and alumni affairs in particular?
Gossen: When I was working in alumni affairs at Princeton about five years ago, I noticed that people were starting to talk to each other and organize via social media, notably Facebook. I saw how fast these communities grew, and it became clear that to be relevant with our alumni, we needed to be involved.
Hannon: For me it was a philosophical shift. I wanted to leave the private sector and use my skills and experience to have an impact. Coming to Cornell allows me to use my skills to help the University and, in turn, a lot of people.
CAA: According to a recent report, fewer than one quarter of universities have staff dedicated to social media strategy in their advancement offices. What's the draw for you, as professionals, to bring your ideas, talents, and vision to alumni affairs at Cornell?
Gossen: We are aware on a daily basis of how lucky we are to have a mandate to be experimental—and the resources to support us. It's an opportunity that very few people working in social media in higher education have. It's especially exciting when you have such an engaged, ambitious alumni body combined with an on-campus group of faculty conducting ground-breaking research in social media. When you put it all together, it's a great opportunity to apply research being done at Cornell to the mission of engaging its alumni.
Hannon: I came here because I wanted to use my experience to highlight some of the unique and amazing things happening on campus. In a time when education, including higher education, is under public assault for a variety of reasons, I'm excited about highlighting and expanding access to a prestigious, productive institution.
CAA: What's your goal for social media strategy and implementation in the short- and long-term?
Hannon: The quick answer is to use social media to connect alumni more closely with each other and the institution. To expand on that, we are looking at two key variables: first, where there is already a critical mass of alumni activity (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter). And second, we are looking for emerging platforms that provide an opportunity to add value to Cornell. Gossen: It's also important for us to prove to skeptics that this work is valuable to Cornell and alumni. Because of that, we're placing a premium on tangible, measurable deliverables.
CAA: What challenges have you faced over the past two years?
Gossen: It's not unique to Cornell, but we have run into people who are not comfortable with the fact that, at its core, the explosion in social media means that there is less central control over determining and disseminating content. This is a fundamental contradiction of historical alumni affairs and communications practice. We're used to driving the bus, not listening in the way that we now have to listen. This requires reexamination of practices and attitudes that have served us well for a long time; depending on your level of comfort with change, that could be viewed as an exciting opportunity or a threat.
CAA: How has your work affected the rest of the University?
Gossen: We are heartened by the fact that the Office of Research Communications, several colleges and units, and other people across the university are telling us they are excited about expanding their own social media presence to further connect with their alumni audiences. We are hoping that our efforts will lead to additional collaboration that will positively impact the Cornell community.
'A former colleague of mine says that he uses Facebook to reach his students because "you hunt where the ducks are." If you want to engage Cornellians, there are 100,000 of them on Facebook.' — Andrew Gossen
CAA: You're dealing with a diverse group of almost a quarter million alumni. What are you doing to reach them?
Hannon: Over the past few months we've attempted to connect with alumni in a fairly emotional way by creating a bit of nostalgia. On Facebook, through the Cornell Alumni Association page, we have created interactive games and photo caption contests to re-connect alumni with their campus experience. We also have a YouTube channel that has rapidly grown in popularity.
Gossen: Keith's video experience is vital. The social web is an informal, fast-paced environment in which video works well. We're trying to create informal content that evokes the many dimensions of life at Cornell. We also are extremely excited about the potential of live-streaming alumni events through our Facebook page. This ultimately opens up the University to people from around the world.
CAA: What's the best way for alumni leaders to leverage social media?
Gossen: There is an extraordinary number of Cornellians on all platforms, from the obvious to the obscure. Anytime you have that number of people on a platform, you must think long and hard before saying no to using it yourself. A former colleague of mine says that he uses Facebook to reach his students because "you hunt where the ducks are." If you want to engage Cornellians, there are 100,000 of them on Facebook. There is no silver bullet on how to use this. Different audiences will respond to different engagement strategies. Experimentation is key; no one is an expert. You certainly can make mistakes with social media—and you should. However, the medium moves so fast that mistakes don't linger long. The biggest mistake you can make, in my opinion, is to not be involved.
Andrew Gossen can be followed on Twitter @agossen and Keith Hannon @keithhannon. You can connect to fellow alumni through the Cornell Alumni Association Facebook page at www. facebook.com/cornellalumniassociation and on Twitter @CornellAlumni and @CornellAlumniAssociation.
Touchdown Scores a Touchdown
To help promote Homecoming 2011, Andrew Gossen and Keith Hannon leveraged social media in a humorous way. "We decided to do a riff on the ESPN 'Sportscenter ' commercials that featured school mascots," Gossen says. Using Hannon's video capabilities and help from students who play the Big Red Bear, three videos were filmed with the theme that Touchdown would be lonely if no one showed up for Homecoming. The videos featured Touchdown at the Ithaca airport, at the Hot Truck, and being cloned in a CALS lab. They're accessible through the Cornell alumni Facebook page and on the CAA YouTube channel. Says Gossen: "Expect more like it in the future."
A Message from the CAA President
Greetings from the Windy City! I am thrilled to be contributing my first column as president of the Cornell Alumni Association. Our sixty-five board members represent every college, graduate program, regional club, and organization. We are your ambassadors, liaisons, and advocates. Over the past four months, we have been putting together a plan with specific action steps to make CAA even more meaningful to you.
One of the important pieces is an expanded recognition program. In the past we've done an excellent job recognizing our top volunteers through the Frank H. T. Rhodes Exemplary Alumni Service Award, given annually to six exceptional leaders who are at least thirty-five years from graduation. Expanding on this success, we will broaden our scope to include recognition of younger alumni as well as our exceptional clubs and organizations. CAA vice presidents Scott Pesner '87 and Laura Fratt '81 are leading this important initiative.
The eighteen directors-from-the-region on the CAA board support our clubs across the globe. This team, led by vice president Shana Chacko Mueller '96, offers regular leadership training on such topics as annual planning and effective meeting management. The training has been greatly valued by our regional leaders, and I am happy to report that we will be working with the Cornell Association of Class Officers (CACO) to offer even more educational opportunities. We have also partnered with the Office of Alumni Affairs to send out support materials for regional clubs—a new "Bear Necessities." Look for it this fall.
For the first time, we are integrating affinity groups into the fabric of CAA. Vice president Tom Cummings '75 is working with the twelve directors-at-large to identify ways we can support existing affinity groups such as athletics, Greeks, and music, as well as Cornell's many special interest groups. This is an exciting and important new area of focus.
We are especially fortunate to have Rhodes Award winner Steve Siegel '68 as a vice president. Steve's focus will be diversity initiatives. He will partner with the Office of Alumni Affairs as a visionary and a source of institutional knowledge. Speaking of which, we have invited all past presidents of CAA to be emeritus board members. They will help us build on our strong foundation as we move forward.
I am happy to report that the newest addition to the Cornell Alumni Magazine (CAM) Committee is Charles Wu '91, one of our CAA directors. Charles is an incredible addition to the committee, and his appointment further cements the relationship between CAA and the magazine. Together, we can provide greater alumni recognition in CAM while respecting its strong journalistic independence.
I am so excited about these collaborations at unprecedented levels—and so honored to be a part of this dream team. You can expect great things from CAA this year. I will keep you posted!
— Stephanie Keene Fox '89
In Memoriam: Jim Hazzard '50
In 1984, President Rhodes appointed a committee of forty-eight alumni, called the Steering Committee on Alumni Leaders, to "examine the participation of women and minority alumni as trustees, members of advisory councils, in student recruitment, fund raising, and the full range of involvement programs."
After a year's study, the committee concluded that "many current attitudes and practices must change if alumni activities are to attract women and minorities as active participants and leaders." It recommended that Cornell launch and support "a vigorous program to identify, recruit, effectively use, and advance women and minorities in its alumni organizations and programs." President Rhodes endorsed the report and Cornell set about to find a change-maker, an experienced leader who would embrace these findings and see the recommendations through—someone respected by alumni, sensitive to the needs expressed by the committee, and philosophically in tune with the changes that needed to be made.
Enter Jim Hazzard, perfectly prepared for the job. He had experience as CEO of a large corporation, a ten handicap, a habit of taking cues for living from Bob and Ray, and an understanding of suffering as a true-red fan of Ivy League athletics. In November 1985, the announcement of Jim's appointment as director of alumni affairs noted that his duties would include "setting goals and priorities for alumni activities, managing programs involving thousands of volunteers, and influencing alumni, administrations, and faculty to lead, support, or participate in those programs." Clearly senior administrators recognized in Jim the qualities of spirit and attitude they'd set out as qualifications for the next director.
He hit the road, encouraging alumni leaders to set goals and find ways to measure their organization's impact on Cornell. He brought an infectious enthusiasm and commitment to his understanding of the mission: help Cornell by helping alumni leaders do their jobs more effectively, and at the same time provide them with the resources to recruit women and minorities into their ranks.
Jim's strategy was to personalize the job and set an example. He met with female and minority alumni he felt were qualified for leadership roles, and encouraged them to seek those responsibilities. He stressed repeatedly to the current alumni leaders the importance of identifying and enlisting into their organizations women and minority alumni with potential as leaders. Cornell then recruited these motivated and experienced alumni for positions on class councils, college advisory boards, University Council, the Board of Trustees, and as senior counselors to the administration and faculty.
Cornell was fortunate in finding the perfectly prepared leader to achieve its objective of diversity in the ranks of its alumni leadership. Jim's success is confirmed daily with one of the most diverse and functional alumni bodies in the world. His noble commitment to that achievement is his perfect legacy.
— C. Richard Lynham '63, BME '65
Dick Lynham is a former president of the Cornell Alumni Federation (now the Cornell Alumni Association).
Meet the Cornell Alumni Association Board
Theresa Flores '93
Position: Director-from-the-Region, Southwest/Mountain
Location: Dallas, Texas
First Cornell volunteer experience: Working with the Cornell Club of Washington, D.C.
Current activities: Cornell Alumni Association of North Texas (board member); Cornell University Council (just elected); Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network (General Chair, Dallas)
Favorite place on campus: Sibley Library, because of the couches and the lovely art books
Favorite professors: Mary Katzenstein (government) and James Turner (Africana studies)
Katherine Ward Feld, MBA '82, JD '83
Location: Short Hills, New Jersey
Profession: Vice President and Corporate Counsel, Prudential Financial
First Cornell volunteer experience: Cornell Law School Advisory Council
Current activities: Cornell Law School Advisory Council; past president, Cornell Law School Alumni Association; Cornell University Council (2007-11)
Favorite place on campus: Law school library (It's a great place to meet boys; my husband, Jeffrey Feld, graduated from the Law school in 1983.)
Favorite professor: Robert Summers (contracts)
More profiles of CAA board members will appear in future issues.