February 25, 2024

Op-eds: Why Are We So Afraid to Get Personal?

The headline on the college president’s Boston Globe opinion piece in early October read simply, “I have breast cancer.”

Then in just over 500 words, Helen Drinan, president of Simmons College, tells the story of learning a month earlier that she has stage 1, grade 3 breast cancer, and details her medical procedures since the diagnosis. It’s a story with a purpose: breast exams may be painful and inconvenient, but they can be life-savers. “I reflect often on the dire consequences if I had skipped my [annual] mammogram,” Drinan says.

It would be hard to imagine a more personal opinion piece. It’s also rare to find many college presidents willing to be seen as three-dimensional human beings with all the fears, failings, and family history that is both unique to each of us and common to all of us.

Storytelling, a communication device that dates to the dawn of humanity, has been rediscovered in recent years. There is rarely a month without a webinar or conference session on storytelling being offered to communicators. Yet college and university presidents, in their opinion pieces, most often rely on the distancing and impersonal voice that is so popular in academe, policymaking, and politics.

In my ongoing analysis of nearly 250 op-eds by higher education leaders in 2014, I found that only 10 percent employed some kind of personal story in their case-stating, and half of those consisted of presidents talking about some aspect of their job as president – an often transparently self-serving device.

Some noteworthy examples, though, are Franklin & Marshall’s Dan Porterfield on the importance of student-faculty relationships, and how such support shaped his (and others’) professional growth; Stony Brook President Samuel Stanley’s case-stating on the need for an enhanced GI Bill, using his father as an example; and Pat McGuire, Trinity Washington president, who shares her personal history as a second-generation immigrant to make an impassioned case for helping undocumented young people obtain a college education.

Three op-eds, on three important issues, each addressed using the power of storytelling.

Here’s a link to all 25 op-eds by college and university presidents that, in various ways, employ personal stories in making their case. And this more recent BostInno article offers more details on President Drinan’s rationale for going public, as well as on the treatment she’s undergoing.

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