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How Social Media Helped Change University History

The June events related to President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation and reinstatement provided a case study in the power of social media. The strengths of social media—a way to follow breaking news, a forum for discussion and expressing opinions, and a mechanism for mobilizing grassroots support and organizing gatherings—all combined to have a dramatic effect on the University community and on the outcome of a series of events involving Sullivan and the Board of Visitors.

Keeping Up With the Latest

Social media, especially Twitter, allows people around the world to follow developing news and events in real time.

On June 18, eight days after Sullivan's resignation, the Board of Visitors met to discuss the presidential situation. Their assumed aim was to appoint an interim president, while students, faculty, staff and community members gathered on the Lawn to support the cause of Sullivan's reinstatement. It was the first major protest.

By following Twitter updates using hashtag "#UVa" (what are hashtags?), it was easy to keep abreast of the goings-on without being present. From the initial entrance of President Sullivan in the afternoon to the end of the closed session meeting at 3 a.m. when protestors shouted at Rector Helen Dragas as she walked to her car, dedicated students and members of the media remained on the Lawn tweeting updates to interested parties around the globe.

This was the first time during the Sullivan saga that #UVa became a global trending topic on Twitter (what are trending topics?).

On June 19, the Cavalier Daily obtained a series of emails between Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Editors tweeted highlights as they scoured the emails for information.

These snippets spread quickly through the Twitter community and were picked up by major media outlets such as the Washington Post.

“Social media puts [us] on a more even playing field with national news organizations," says Greg Lewis (Col '15), Cavalier Daily operations manager. "When you tweet it first, you are the first, and then people re-tweet that information. Organizations like the Times and the Post have money and time to put into stories and a site [and we don’t]. But on Twitter, everyone is equal.”

Read more tweets about the emails the Cavalier Daily obtained through its FOIA request.

The Final Day

The BOV called an emergency meeting for June 26. It was largely suspected that the visitors would reinstate Teresa Sullivan. The University broadcast the meeting live on Facebook and their website. Tens of thousands of viewers from all over the world logged on to learn the fate of the University's administration.

Before the meeting, faculty, students, staff and community members once again gathered on the Lawn to show support for President Sullivan. Twitter and Facebook updates enabled people to see what was happening on Grounds.

Additionally, social media allows people with good vantage points to inform others. For instance, a picture of Dragas and Sullivan hugging in the Rotunda after the meeting was heavily retweeted.

On this day, #UVa again became a trending topic on Twitter.

Sharing Opinions

"In the pre-social-media days, it was easier to pull off a palace coup. By the time people could get mobilized, enough time had passed so that it was a fait accompli. Now the response is instantaneous,” Professor Larry Sabato told UVAToday. "Traditional media coverage fed the social media reaction, and vice versa. Real emotion, high stakes and determined popular action created a 'Big Story.'"

Sabato was one of the University’s more outspoken faculty members, regularly voicing his opinions about the Board of Visitors’ and Gov. Bob McDonnell’s handling of the situation.

Read more of Sabato’s tweets during the events of June 10-26.

While Sabato was a high-profile voice of dissent on Twitter, the comments sections of articles provided another outlet for opinions from all interested parties. Social media links accompanying the article helped raise awareness of the situation, elevating interest as it grew into a national story. For example, the Huffington Post story below received 5,901 comments, and was tweeted and shared or liked on Facebook another 10,800 times.

Mobilizing Grassroots Support

“Before faculty members like me went public with our sense of outrage and analysis of the cause of the meltdown at UVA, students were organizing themselves via Facebook and Twitter,” Siva Vaidhanathan, director of UVA's media studies department, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Without instant and loud student support, the faculty could not have claimed so easily that it had the best interest of students at heart,” he adds. “The students had our backs. And we will never forget that.”

Suzie McCarthy, a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in politics, was one of the most active online organizers, and her Facebook group, “Students, Friends, & Family United for the Reinstatement of President Sullivan” grew to more than 6,000 members in a matter of days. The page currently has 16,408 members.

Through her Facebook page, McCarthy organized the Rally for a Transparent UVA and the Rally for Honor. She arranged each event and used live video streams, speakers, sign language interpreters, and a  virtual-participant initiative that gave the entire University community—in Charlottesville and elsewhere—the opportunity to participate.

Facebook's virtual attendees.

View more pictures and tweets from the Rally for Honor.

In a July 1 Facebook post following Sullivan’s reinstatement, McCarthy writes: “My intention from the start was to create a movement to reinstate President Sullivan and then to call for transparency within the BOV …  I hope that this experience of utilizing social media to create powerful change has a lasting impact on all of our perceptions of our ability to affect change in our institutions. I encourage all of you to take these lessons and create your own groups. This has been a fantastic experience.”

Suzie McCarthy has since opened a new page, United For Honor.

Students and alumni who couldn't be present at the rally mobilized online in other ways, too: