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Colleges Putting Their Own Spin on YouTube

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

One of the first things that pops up if you check YouTube to find out about a public school in Western Maryland is a video that starts: FROSTBURG STATE UNIVERSITY. ITS GREAT!!! An edgy new-wavy punkish Electric Six song cranks in, and the camera lurches as people down shots, chug beer and do keg stands. One guy climbs unsteadily out a window, grins at the camera, then drops through the dark to the ground far below.

Not exactly the image the school wants to broadcast. And that's nothing compared with some of the videos at other universities, which show fights, racist costumes, weird hazing rituals and everything else that's ugly about college life. All playing out on a site that gets hundreds of millions of viewers a day, many of them smack dab in the school's target market.

Now Frostburg, like a growing number of schools, is trying to elbow its own messages onto such sites as YouTube to promote themselves, create a virtual community and drown out embarrassing clips.

"Marketing in higher education is really at a crossroads," said Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. "Those that don't engage and manage social media are going to be left behind."

Universities are moving onto social media including Facebook, iTunesU and YouTube "because they know that's where students are nowadays," said David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "To not have a presence in those areas means risking being left behind in the student conversation of this generation."

But like a parent trying to seem cool, sometimes the efforts are painful to watch. "The last thing someone on YouTube wants to see is a provost explaining the academic offerings at an institution," Hawkins said.

It's far more likely someone will click on, say, video of freshmen Alex Carroll and Daniel Hostetler back-flipping off 10-foot-walls, roofs, trees and an iconic statue at Georgetown University.

So schools are feeling their way as they try to grab control. Some, such as Old Dominion University, set up YouTube channels. Some, such as Berkeley, put classes on YouTube. Some, such as the University of Virginia, are posting slick promotional spots on iTunesU.

And some are sponsoring contests urging students to create videos that show what they love about the school. Frostburg announced its winners last week.

Student clips usually fit more naturally into the goofy, edgy YouTube world than do stiff institutional efforts. It's not perfect. But Frostburg officials hope that now, prospective students and their parents will be more likely to stumble across videos showing snowboarding and rafting near Frostburg, or even a loopy clip of a senior in a three-piece suit dancing across campus to "It's Raining Men."

Jared Miller, a student from Wheaton who made that film, said: "That's the kind of place I want to go to school -- where people just dance around. It looks like a nice, fun-loving, everyone-has-a-good-time kind of place."

School officials carefully craft their promotional materials, but brochures are just as likely to be tossed out with the trash as read, many acknowledged. Meanwhile, students are posting video on their Facebook or MySpace pages and sending them to each other so that they spread like crazy.

Such as: a badly leaking roof at Howard University, students setting off fireworks inside a dorm at U-Va., a fight at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, mock gang wars at Catholic University, allegations about criminal activity by the Old Dominion campus police.

Some schools ignore what's out there. But others watch the sites because they know how quickly an embarrassing clip can saturate.

Sometimes the student videos are good PR, maybe not exactly what the school would have chosen, but funny and appealing.

Like the back-flipping video, in which Carroll and Hostetler even climbed up the statue of the school's founder at the main entrance and leapt backward in jaw-dropping unison, backs arched, arms spread.

Within days, the video had been watched well over a thousand times. "Somehow, everyone at Georgetown has seen it," Carroll said. "All my friends from Texas have seen it." One told him, " 'Dude. I did not know your campus was that amazing,' " he said. "It's a cool way to show them that."

After watching the back-flip video, Will Harris, a freshman at the University of Mississippi, said he's no longer so sure he'll stay in the South for law school. "After seeing how pretty it is . . . I'll probably go look at a bunch of schools up there."

Old Dominion is adapting. It plans to translate the campus-tour videos into several languages, something it couldn't afford to do for printed materials, and have students from various countries bring their own style to the script, loosen it up.

On U-Md.'s YouTube channel, launched in January, there's a mix of institutional promotions (President C.D. Mote Jr. frosting some of the 50,000 cupcakes for Maryland Day) and student contest entries (a "Real World" take on life in a lab).

At Frostburg, public relations specialist Becca Ramspott said it made sense that when the university was trying to promote itself that the whole community, including students and alumni, could help.

Some entries showed students grabbing their boards on snow days or mountain biking down trails. One student used thousands of images to make a mesmerizing stop-motion video that jolts its way across campus. Another, "Ladies of Burg," has women hunched over a table playing "Go Fish" on a Friday night. "Frostburg, of thee I sing," featured a 1976 alum sitting in a chair, alternately speaking in a monotone and crooning.

Miller wants to make another video. He and his friends wrote the lyrics for a mock musical, he said, so one day, when the cafeteria's packed, they'll jump on a table and a friend who can't sing will belt out, "Frostburg, oh Frostburg, I love you, oh Frostburg."

It could be worse, right?

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