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College presidents taste life outside their offices

Over the past decade, e-mail and social media have lowered the barrier between university presidents and students, many of whom seek a personal bond with their school's top officials.

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By Jenna Johnson and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 12, 2010

In his three years as president of George Washington University, Steven Knapp has tried nearly everything to bond with undergraduates.

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He moved onto campus, right across the street from a freshman dorm known for its party culture. He hired a graduate student to tell him which events to attend. He helped students haul their stuff into the dorms, created a Facebook account, danced at parties, judged a pie-eating contest and drummed with a basketball player.

Still, many students thought he was boring and out of touch.

They kept comparing the quiet academic to his gregarious predecessor, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who worked the campus like a politician for 19 years and wrote a book called "Big Man on Campus."

A generation ago, it was typical for college presidents to be stuffy and hard-to-approach chief executives, the type who inspired the Dean Wormer character in "Animal House."

(Photos of college presidents mixing it up with students)

Many of the barriers separating a college's top-paid leaders from its tuition-paying students have disappeared in the past decade. E-mail, text messaging and social media give students unprecedented access to a chief executive, who can no longer hide behind a secretary and an office door.

Today, many students -- and their increasingly over-involved parents -- want a personal bond with the president. Instead of occupying the president's office, more students are stopping by to chat. They want to be friends -- and not just on Facebook.

In an effort to be more cool, presidents across the United States are starring in YouTube videos, serving hot dogs, starting blogs, hosting parties and eating with the masses in dorms.

Knapp's big break came in February, when he stopped by a nighttime snowball fight between GWU and Georgetown University, surprising student organizers.

"It was like a Civil War battle. We were all lined up," Knapp recalled. "I think I was a target, because I got pretty pelted."

After victory was declared, Knapp made a speech and canceled classes for the next day. Suddenly, he had some street cred.


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