For years I have written about how technology has changed the lives of leaders – complicated their lives, made it harder for them to lead and manage, emboldened their followers to attack, often anonymously, in ways they never would have done previously. Still, the enormous impact of technology on the dynamic between leaders and followers remains insufficiently studied, poorly understood, and widely unappreciated.
Most of the evidence we have on this is anecdotal – stories that testify to the tyranny of technology but that do not facilitate a framework for looking at power in particular. Still, every now and then leaders come along who memorably detail the impact of the changing technologies on their capacity to control the action.
So it is with Morton Schapiro, who previously was president of Williams College, and who for the last six years has been president of Northwestern University. In a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled “The New Face of Campus Unrest” (3/19), Schapiro wrote eloquently about how the explosion of social media has disrupted campus life “to a level unforeseen in the digital dark ages” little more than a decade ago. Schapiro points out how “dealing with campus community members on Facebook, Twitter, You-Tube, Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Vine and Yik Yak has become a high-stakes challenge.” He describes how during a class, previous authority figures, namely professors, were attacked on Yik Yak, a smartphone app that allows people within a limited geographical range to share anonymous messages. He describes students using social media to post racially offensive comments. And he describes the high level of divisiveness among university officials on the question of how exactly to respond to these sorts of on line offenses, even at the highest levels.
Above all Schapiro describes a leader, himself, caught too often between the proverbial rock and a hard place. “Any attempt to hold people accountable for what they say will rile up the ‘free speech at any cost’ advocates,” he writes, “but any defense of First Amendment rights will lead to campus unrest and hand-ringing. So where to draw the line?” Later he asks … “So what’s a president to do?”
No easy answers here but in the end Schapiro turns, as I now invariably do, to context. “The context of an incident matters,” he concludes, “and it is near impossible for outsiders to glean the facts during the public battles that ensue after a high-profile event. College community members deserve to be in a safe and supportive environment, and it is our job to nurture that environment.”