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May 26, 2011

In the social media age, engaging with students and staff is possible at the touch of a smartphone button, and a growing number of vice-chancellors are spreading their wings on Twitter.

There are obvious benefits to such instant communication, which can make management less faceless and more personable. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, for example, may be vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, but we now know that he is also a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest. @vonprond: "Is it just me, or is the German presenter a tad bored? I also keep fearing she may yet develop a wardrobe problem."

In addition, vice-chancellors' Twitter feeds can provide insights into the work they do to promote their institutions or events. John Vinney at Bournemouth University reminded his followers: "Don't forget to book for Professor Rudy Gozlan's lecture tomorrow on fish biodiversity and conservation" (@VCJohnVinney).

Some, such as Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, use it as a real-time mouthpiece for their views on the important topics. @VCSalford: "New blog post: Fees - where we are now: Much of the press coverage on university fees has, at best, told only part of the story."

However, as De Montfort University's vice-chancellor Dominic Shellard (@DMUVC) found out this week, tweeting can sometimes get one into hot water. In a week when De Montfort announced that 190 support staff are at risk of losing their jobs, Professor Shellard drew flak for his light-hearted tweeting style.

In an open letter to the vice-chancellor on the microblogging site, an anonymous poster claimed that Professor Shellard was "fast losing his popularity among staff".

"Your demeanour on Twitter is one of the problems," the letter says. "I assume you are aware that your university is currently in the process of making nearly 200 support staff redundant? While many university staff earlier this week were waiting agonisingly for letters to tell them if their jobs were at risk, all we read in your Twitter feed is of your nervousness in waiting to hear if (Queen's Park Rangers football club) might be docked points. In a scene worthy of revolutionary France, while many staff were called to meetings to hear that they might soon be unemployed, the only message coming from upper management was regarding a university croquet competition!"

The latter complaint is a reference to Professor Shellard's tweet: "At close of entries, 58 teams have entered the Bill Dawson Croquet Tournament at DMU - so over 200 staff will be participating. Tremendous."

It should be noted that the offending tweet is one of thousands posted by Professor Shellard, who is one of the most prolific of the tweeting vice-chancellors. He has tweeted more than 7,100 times since he joined the microblogging site, compared with the 29 tweets ventured by Paul Layzell, principal of Royal Holloway, University of London.

Professor Shellard's closest rivals in terms of tweet-count are Professor von Prondzynski, who has posted nearly 1,500 tweets, and Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London, with just over 1,000.

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