Tuesday, March 21, 2023
HomeEducationPresident Speaks: 10 tips to help shape your presidential voice

President Speaks: 10 tips to help shape your presidential voice

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.”  

Tania Tetlow

Permission granted by Fordham University


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. 

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