Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor, is the first woman and layperson to serve as president at Loyola University of New Orleans, from 2018 to 2022, and Fordham University, where she started last year
Using the presidential voice is never simple.
A few weeks after I became president of Loyola University New Orleans, I watched the news of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting with horror. As the leader of a Catholic institution, I felt compelled to speak out against religious violence.
Overwhelmed with grief and rage, I wanted to rail against the world. But what on earth could I say that wouldn’t sound trite in the face of searing pain? How could I avoid seeming to minimize the experience of racial violence without diluting the events at hand? Would I open myself up to future criticism each time I didn’t condemn the mass shootings happening with unimaginable frequency?
“Our hearts hurt,” my 350-word email to the community began. “For the dead and the injured and their loved ones. For every Jewish parent who had to find the words this weekend to reveal this horror to their children. For every person who bravely lives their faith even in the face of hatred and violence.”
Knowing that any attempt at comfort would fall flat, I confessed my struggle to find something concrete to do, however small. I asked that we read out the Hebrew prayer of healing, the Mi Sheberach. I invited the community to write messages of love and support for our next-door neighbors at Temple Sinai for us to deliver together.
In my second university presidency, at Fordham, I continue to find my voice and navigate the complexities of speaking out. Here are 10 hard-won truths about university communications:
Let your guard down occasionally. University leaders walk a fine line. We are risk-averse and consensus-oriented, but our roles compel us to speak up. Each time, we face a calculated risk of stepping up without stepping in it. It’s the art of talking just enough but not too much. Sometimes, the risks are worth it, especially to avoid being forever tepid and watered down. I don’t need my community to like me or always agree with me. I do need them to trust me and believe I won’t hold back the truth.
Favor compassion. Expressing your message with humility is more effective than adopting a preachy or scolding tone. Describe your struggles instead of lecturing. Avoid trite platitudes. As the pandemic dragged on, I realized I had to stop all the talk of hope and resilience and acknowledge how difficult it was. If there aren’t any easy answers, turn to empathy.
Write like yourself. I write like I speak in presidential communications, especially about mundane issues. I’m not sure why people use formal bureaucratic language, but no one wants to read that. Offer warmth and humor, and your community might actually read to the end of what you need to tell them. Start with something evocative that makes people empathize or chuckle, but don’t bury the lede. 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 your institutional position. The good news is that the messenger can be someone other than the president. Different branches of the administration may be more trusted on particular issues and deserve chances to build credibility.
Avoid playing defense. Speak out on crucial issues like Title IX, diversity and campus mental health before you have a crisis. Grappling with these problems on the front end will help you resist the call to comment on every troubling news story. Address the topic broadly and early before you have to navigate the particular facts, which are often muddy and fraught, of a specific crisis.
Everything you send is public. The idea that you can restrict your audience is an illusion. Whether your message is a faculty bulletin, a letter to alumni, or a social media post geared toward students, assume that everything you send will eventually gain the widest audience.
Consult with your cabinet. When in doubt, I run ideas by the leadership team to find out whom I may have inadvertently offended or left out. But remember, your senior staff may prove overprotective and thus risk-averse. As chief of staff to the president of Tulane, I hesitated to recommend to my boss that he should stick his neck out and suffer the backlash, even if I might have chosen that risk myself.
But don’t over-consult. The inertia of consulting too many people may be worse than the risk of not getting your message exactly right. Excessive editing rounds can delay delivery and diminish your voice so much that what comes out is milquetoast, at which point, why even bother? If you’re circulating a Google Doc, avoid chaos by allowing comments only, not edits that can become chaotic or substitute someone else’s tone for your own.
Stick to subjects where your message can be effective. I will be relieved if I make it through my career without ever issuing a public statement on the Middle East — a topic of enormous complexity and importance about which I defer to others. Stick to the issues that directly impact higher education and our students, as hard as that might be to define. I might not weigh in on the complexities of national immigration policy, but I have taken stands in support of DACA and international students. Pick your battles, both to preserve credibility and to avoid diluting the power of your messaging. You cannot become the daily news commentary.
Elevate issues that should matter more. We can say something meaningful without dividing our communities by instead raising the profile of issues that deserve more attention. Critics may argue that doubling Pell Grants is too costly, but I’m not waving a red flag at a bull by advocating for increased educational opportunity. When I speak out on domestic violence and sexual assault, I know that no one is publicly for violence against women. We have the chance to battle inertia and apathy, to persuade without stirring up controversy.