Clif Smart likes to joke that he joined Twitter, in part, because he did not want students to view him as the "old bald guy in Carrington."
"They get a little bit of a glimpse into who I am," said Smart, the president of Missouri State.
Smart started using the social media platform in 2013, just two years into his tenure, and more than 20,000 Twitter users now follow his daily tweets.
"For me, it's been an important piece of setting the tone, creating the culture," he said. "I have found it really helpful to me."
The News-Leader reached out to Smart regarding his Twitter usage after University of Missouri System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi experienced a backlash after blocking students on Twitter.
This week, 15 faculty members of the Missouri School of Journalism signed a letter that expressed disappointment in Choi's action. They argue that his "implied intolerance of dissent" may have a "chilling effect" on the campus and the news outlets staffed by MU faculty and students.
The letter states Choi reversed his decision to block students from his Twitter account under threat of a lawsuit and argued it "should not take eruptions of public outrage to force his compliance with the values of free speech and public openness" championed by the journalism program.
They wrote: "Amidst the global crisis of the pandemic, leadership of the campus that is home to the world’s first school of journalism should be modelling transparency."
Smart declined to comment on the Choi situation but agreed to answer questions about how he uses Twitter. He also acknowledged that not all university leaders manage their own accounts or decide to be active on social media.
"It's a wasted opportunity if university presidents out there aren't using it to engage with students, in particular, and with the alums and with their community as a whole," Smart said. "It's a great way to promote the university and be positive and have a voice that is meaningful. For me, it's an important leadership strategy."
Smart uses Twitter to highlight activities on and off campus. This week, he talked about a voter registration drive aimed at students.
He tweets about faculty awards, football games and university news. He also weighs in on critical topics, such as efforts to address racial inequity, and provides updates on the MSU pandemic response.
Smart said Twitter also provides a window into his job.
"I also do it so people know what I am doing. If I meet with the governor, if I meet with the commissioner, if I am involved with fundraising, if I am doing something with the foundation," he said. "A lot of people don't know what the president of the university does and so it lets people see I'm active in advocating for the university and trying to make our community better."
He hopes his presence on social media, including Instagram, makes him more relatable or approachable to students.
"I would not have what I perceive to be a reasonably good reputation without being actively engaged on social media — and that is particularly true with students," he said. "I don't think they'd have any sense at all of who I am."
In turn, Smart uses Twitter as one tool to get a "sense of what people are thinking about or are worried about."
Twitter gives individuals who might be hesitant to send an email or make a call another way to provide feedback or ask a question.
"If it's something I should answer, I do," he said.
Smart said he tries to respond to as many tweets as possible but sometimes the MSU employees running the @MissouriState account will jump in and provide an answer, a link, or a resource before he even gets a chance.
He said while he enjoys the interaction, there is a downside. "I don't always enjoy things people say to me, but you have got to have a thick enough skin that you can just ignore the foolishness that comes through."
There are other situations where he will read but not respond.
"The last year in Dave Steckel's contract, I got a lot of people telling me what an awful football coach Stec was and I didn't respond to that. There isn't anything productive to be gained by responding to that," he said. "But if people have a real issue about something meaningful, we'll make sure they get a response."
Asked how often he blocks Twitter users, Clif Smart answered: "Almost never." He said in the past seven years, he has blocked fewer than five.
Smart said on rare occasions, he has blocked anonymous Twitter accounts that unleash a barrage of excessively hateful tweets.
"I'd only consider blocking someone who is anonymous. In other words, if you want to tell me your name, I think I'm fair game for you to tell me anything you want," he said. "If you are going to use an alias then I don't think I necessarily have to put up with that."
That said, Smart said he does not block accounts without a name attached unless they go too far.
"If you have an alias and you are just going to be aggressively mean-spirited, comparing me to Nazi war criminals in a series of dozens of tweets over a short period of time, I don't think any public servant or official ought to have to take that," he said.
"I would not block an employee, an alum or a student who is using their real name."