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Laptop addicts log on to best ideas

Academic chief executives in the US are discovering the benefits of email

Rather than picking up the telephone or writing a memo, Robert Glidden, president of Ohio University, swivels his chair around and spends a chunk of every day hunched over his computer.

He uses the email system to communicate with university officials, with students and academics, and he finds the high-tech way infinitely quicker and more responsive than communicating on paper or by telephone.

He is one of a growing band of chief executives on American campuses who are wired up to the new technology -- others include the presidents of the universities of Maryland and Michigan -- and who communicate with one another as well as with their staffs by zapping messages into cyberspace.

"Most of my mail comes from my own staff and from the people who report directly to me," says Glidden. "Communicating this way saves a lot of memo writing.

"I get mail from faculty members who are curious about something or mad about something. It provides a safety valve for them, ensuring that pressure doesn't build up too much, if they can get an explanation promptly."

Glidden got into the habit of using email at Florida State University where he was provost, the number two in the administrative hierarchy. So, when he arrived at Ohio University last summer, he made sure that campus was similarly equipped.

He receives 50 messages on his screen every day, and sometimes as many as 100, but he is not fazed by the load because most of them are very brief, he says. He tries to answer his mail every day, which means that his staff are receiving almost instant responses.

Glidden admits he is addicted to the equipment. When travelling he carries a laptop computer which he plugs into a jack in his hotel room so he can have the comfort of reading -- and responding to -- all those messages. And so that he can log any ideas that pop into his head.

"You get a lot of good ideas at weird times of the day," he says. One of his favourite thinking times is while shaving early in the morning.

"By the time I am done shaving I will have three or four messages to send to people.

"I suppose it's a bit threatening if you get messages from the president at midnight, but you'd be amazed at the times I get messages back."

Glidden and his fellow computer enthusiasts may be a growing band, but they are still probably in a small minority. Most of the older style university presidents have had little hands-on experience of the new technology and some of them may be too intimidated by the paraphernalia to start now.

They may also worry about giving students too much access.

This is not a problem, according to Glidden. His email address is published in the student newspaper at the beginning of the year and he finds students "respectful of that access".

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