Why Do So Many College Presidents Call Their Campuses a ‘Family’?

July 29, 2016

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Emotions associated with the word may explain why "family" seems to be the metaphor of choice when university leaders speak about their campuses nowadays. "‘Family’ is protective," says Gene Grabowksi, of the public-relations firm Kglobal. "‘Community’ is not as protective a term as it once was. Communities are fragmented now."
In one of his first messages to the campus after taking over as interim president of Baylor University, a campus whose record on sexual assault made it the object of national outrage, David E. Garland began with three simple words: "Dear Baylor Family."

Family. On its face, the metaphor is an odd one. Families aren’t made up of tens of thousands of people — a large percentage of whom leave the family every year — linked to one another by little more than a common location.

And Mr. Garland is not alone in his use of the word. "Family" pops up in messages from leaders at campuses across the country. Timothy L. Killeen, president of the University of Illinois system, expressed his deep gratitude to his university family in view of the morbid state budget situation. Jeffrey S. Vitter, chancellor of the University of Mississippi, discussed fostering dialogue with his "Ole Miss family" after six months in office. And Robert L. Barchi, president of Rutgers University, expressed appreciation for veterans in the "Rutgers family" on Veterans Day.

So what gives?

"You can thank a PR person for this," said Gene Grabowksi, a crisis-management expert and a partner at the public-relations company Kglobal.

By virtue of their positions, college presidents must communicate in precise, tactful language meant to impart a sense of concern, compassion, and care, said Erin A. Hennessy, vice president of TVP Communications. And such leaders need to rise to an almost impossibly high standard of speech, especially following a national tragedy or an event causing turmoil on a campus.

 "They are under increasing pressure to communicate regularly, to communicate well, and to continue to foster a feeling of investments in an institution, whether it is with students, parents, alumni, legislators, policy makers, donors," she said.

In Mr. Grabowksi’s mind, the contemporary usage may be a reflection of the times. Nowadays students are asking for more safe spaces, he said, and the word "family" communicates security and closeness. "‘Family’ is protective," he said. "‘Community’ is not as protective a term as it once was. Communities are fragmented now."

David Maxwell, who served as president of Drake University from 1999 to 2015, said he had used the term "family" during his tenure. Since he was a kind of patriarch of the university, the word wasn’t inappropriate, he said, because the campus was intimate — with only a few thousand members.

"If I was president or chancellor of a public institution with 65,000 students, it might resonate a little bit differently," he said. "But on a residential campus, it’s an accurate term."

Mr. Maxwell described his communication style as "intensely personal" and very active. "I was jokingly accused of overcommunicating at Drake, with very long emails, because my degree’s in Russian literature, so I have a different definition of ‘brief’ than other people."

That’s the preferred approach to communication, Ms. Hennessy explained — often and honest. "The language college or university presidents use needs to sound authentic," she said. "And so if this is someone who talks regularly about the institution and the people that make up the institution as a family, then I think that fits."

But, she added, if leaders’ typical way of speaking isn’t as warm, they should use a word other than "family," more accurately reflecting their character.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, said that during his presidency he’d occasionally send messages to the campus written in dramatic language. Sometimes they’d be a tad over the top, he said, but that was just his nature.

"At least I didn’t do it by accident," he said. "It was most of the time me being me."

Regardless of style, effective communication is of "considerable" importance for a college leader, he said. "What you’re trying to do is get a disparate group, many of whom do not perceive themselves as having a common interest, to believe and to see that they do in fact have a joint enterprise that supports them in different ways, perhaps, but ultimately does tie them all together."

Even if some members of the campus don’t agree, "they are knit together, if by nothing else, a common parking lot and a common institutional budget, and so there is a community," which gives a sense of family.

Mr. Trachtenberg said observers scrutinize every message from presidents. "People will read and reread that text, looking for hidden meaning," he said.

And there may be one, although the author may not have intended it, said Christopher D. Kennedy, a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago. Sometimes, he said, the word choice of politicians, corporate leaders, and even college presidents is crafted to evoke certain emotions, according to a word’s complex set of associations. "They’re taking advantage of connotations that go with that particular word," he said.

"The reason why that works is because these are things we really are sensitive to," he added.

And as long as the word is presented as information that is not up for debate, readers are inclined accept it. "The most natural thing is to just accept that, and move along as though that is the right way to characterize a group," he said.

But if the author uses the term in a declarative sentence, like "The university is a family," the word sticks out, and the reader is more likely to question its validity.

Overuse of words like "family" could easily render it a cliché, Mr. Trachtenberg said.

"But if you use them artfully and sparingly, they can help you actually build community and actually build a family," he said. "What you have to do obviously is not merely use the phrase but put some meat onto them, indicating why people ought to think of their associates in the university as being kinfolk."