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Lafayette's leader takes to Twitter

Alison R. Byerly saw on Twitter that a group of Lafayette College alums planned to gather at a Boston sports bar to watch the basketball team take on Bucknell.

Alison Byerly, president, Lafayette College. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ/Staff Photographer) April 4, 2014
Alison Byerly, president, Lafayette College. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ/Staff Photographer) April 4, 2014Read more

Alison R. Byerly saw on Twitter that a group of Lafayette College alums planned to gather at a Boston sports bar to watch the basketball team take on Bucknell.

She had already been named president of the selective liberal arts college in Easton but was a few months away from taking the helm. Byerly, an English scholar, decided to show up unannounced.

"I said, 'Hi, I'm Alison Byerly, the new president,' and I sat down and had a couple beers with them," she said.

Then she tweeted about the meeting.

"It somehow struck a chord," said Byerly, 52, a Glenside native who started as Lafayette's first female president on July 1.

The sports bar encounter is among many connections Byerly has made with current and prospective students, parents, professors, and alumni via Twitter.

She is one of few local college presidents who regularly tweet. With a job that often requires evening and weekend work, most presidents said they don't have time.

According to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, about 50 of its 1,000 or so member presidents - about 5 percent - said they tweeted.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said she expected that number to grow exponentially. On Twitter, presidents can show their interests and personality informally and tout university events and accomplishments, she said.

"It does enable you to reach people you can't otherwise reach," she added.

Other local presidents active on Twitter include Stephen Spinelli (@spinelliS) of Philadelphia University; Karen Stout (@drkastout) of Montgomery County Community College; Daniel Porterfield (@danporterfield) of Franklin and Marshall; and Michelle R. Howard-Vital (@CheyneyUPres) of Cheyney. Howard-Vital is one of the most prolific, having sent more than 6,800 tweets and retweets in the last three years, many over morning coffee.

Nationally, some presidents have a major following. John Maeda (@Johnmaeda), former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, attracted more than 369,000. Santa J. Ono (@Prezono) of the University of Cincinnati had more than 30,000.

Byerly, who has about 1,100 followers, started tweeting more than two years ago as a way to connect with others in her scholarly research areas. She was then provost of Middlebury College in Vermont.

"One of the things I love about Twitter [is] it connects you with networks that you might not be connected to unless you were at the right conferences or even the right cocktail parties," she said.

She checks in on Twitter when she gets up in the morning, in the early evening, and whenever an event or situation merits. She has posted more than 700 tweets.

"It doesn't feel like a chore to me," she said. "It's like doing your e-mail. It's part of your day."

Last month, she tweeted congratulations to about a dozen students admitted to Lafayette after they gleefully noted their acceptance on Twitter. She said she hoped a personal connection might tip the scale when students make their final decision on a college.

A student tweeted that he may be the only one from his high school planning to attend Lafayette.

"Shows your good taste. Welcome!" Byerly replied.

The exchanges caught the eye of Action News anchor Jim Gardner, also an active tweeter, who wrote: "Classic! Lafayette College President, @alisonbyerly is tweeting admitted high school students, encouraging them to matriculate . . ."

Byerly has struck up a little Twitter friendship with Gardner, the newsman she grew up watching. She visited him at the station this month, and both tweeted out a picture of them together.

Patty McIver, an Atlanta school Web manager and parent of a Lafayette junior, said: "I'm very impressed with how she has responded through the admission process via Twitter. It speaks volumes about her. She's genuine."

McIver has commented on some of Byerly's tweets - and Byerly replied.

"Because of our Twitter engagement, when I got to meet her in January, it made for a nice conversation," she said.

Sometimes, Byerly makes news. She tweeted on Nov. 19 that more than 30,000 tickets already had been sold to the Lafayette-Lehigh game at Yankees Stadium next fall. The local newspaper picked it up.

In October, she posted a picture of a pumpkin with a leopard face that her husband had carved for Halloween (the Lafayette mascot is a leopard): "If your Leopard spirit is as strong as yr Halloween spirit, this pumpkin's for you! Carved by First Husband."

The photo landed on the NCAA's website.

Byerly has some rules: Don't tweet anything controversial. Don't tweet any vital information that people can't get elsewhere. Don't follow students unless they ask her - a student's string is sometimes very personal.

"She has a good sense of humor, and that's nice to see in a college president," said Abby Williams, a junior policy studies and neuroscience major from Sacramento, Calif.

The student government asked Byerly via Twitter to participate in the college's forthcoming Derby Day, an outdoor picnic.

"How would you feel about riding out on a horse wielding the sword of Lafayette to start derby day?" a student tweeted.

"Sounds a little dangerous! But happy to participate in some way that does not involve riding or swords," she replied.

"So I'm guessing parachuting in is out of the question?" the student asked.

Byerly responded: "Parachute in? Sure. Just like Queen Elizabeth did at London Olympics."