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USF dean uses Facebook to navigate the times

TAMPA — It was only 9:30 a.m. but the dean had already met with the Board of Trustees and was late to see his senior staff.

He ducked into his office and held up a poster that said "Dean Eisenberg is my Homeboy." He popped a candy in his mouth and bounded into a board room.

"We've got to get to work," he said. "If we don't work, we'll be in trouble."

Eric Eisenberg manages the University of South Florida's College of Arts and Sciences, an entity the size of some universities. It's his job to shape a vision and make choices that aren't always popular. Last week, he announced a decision to move the School of Mass Communications in a more digital direction, dropping its accreditation and changing leadership — a shift that met with mixed reactions.

People don't have attention spans anymore, Eisenberg said, and it was time to change. At that moment, a photo on the Internet showed the same man juxtaposed with Honey Boo Boo, a television tot who eats spaghetti with ketchup.

A dolla makes me holla!, her picture said. A scholar makes me holla, his said. Thirty-six people had liked it on Facebook. Two-dozen had shared it.

Teachers get older while the world inhabited by their students changes. Navigating the divide can be perplexing, but Eisenberg has some tools.

A Ph.D in communication, and 400 Facebook fans.

• • •

Deans. People think they're something out of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, Eisenberg said.

This dean is 55 with a snow-white goatee, a bit of hair on the sides and a smile that squeezes his eyes. His domain, arts and sciences, is USF's largest college, with 15,000 students, 631 faculty and 24 departments. Last week's shake-up, which could signal an eventual merger with the School of Information, was not his first.

Eisenberg oversaw restructuring that established the School of Humanities, the School of Social Sciences and the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. He saw a budget crisis that threatened areas including the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Department of Women's and Gender Studies.

Eisenberg was always a communicator, never one for numbers or spreadsheets. But after high school in New York, he entered pre-med at Rutgers University. Sensing they were trying to weed him out, he said, he switched to communication.

In the 1980s he wrote about organizational culture and the rituals of American workplaces. He visited companies like American Honda and Disney, tracking everything from stances on facial hair to management styles.

At USF, he was interim arts and sciences dean before landing a five-year term in 2010. Eisenberg quickly hired Michele Dye, who had worked at the University of Florida doing creative marketing. Dye assembled a team of interns who lightened the college's web presence. They talked about things in their world. Internet cats, for one.

A tawny feline named Rafters lived in USF's Botanical Gardens. Soon, Rafters had a Facebook page of funny pictures, even a tiny USF president Judy Genshaft riding on the cat's back. Students started bringing Rafters food. They visited the gardens for the first time.

Maybe people would like the dean, too, Dye and the interns thought. Eisenberg already posted pictures on his Facebook page, news of the Interdisciplinary Sciences building that opened on his watch. Occasionally he posted funny quotes, like one from Michael Scott, Steve Carell's obtuse TV character on The Office: "Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me."

Soon, the dean's posts got bolder. Katy Perry appeared. So did Kim Kardashian. He wore a Santa hat and lip-synced to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You on video.

He posed with an elbow on the table, a play on the Dos Equis beer ads. World's most interesting dean, the meme said. Nailed it.

• • •

A Facebook exchange:

Eisenberg says, "Dump Kanye. He's a college dropout."

Kim Kardashian says, "I don't think so, dean."

Eisenberg says, "He couldn't even make it to registration on time!"

To get that one, you have to know Kardashian is dating Kanye West, who has albums called The College Dropout and Late Registration.

"I think sometimes my dean colleagues look at me like, 'What is the matter with you?' " Eisenberg said.

He consumes pop culture. He watches Girls, Shameless, Top Chef. He plays Tom Petty and Steve Earle on guitar. But he doesn't want to be the proverbial old guy with the ponytail.

"I try not to be a poser," he said. "I think the interns enjoy our conversations together. I think more than anything they like the fact that I'm willing to put myself out there, that I don't take myself that seriously, that I think learning is really about being vulnerable, being open to being wrong, to looking silly, to asking a silly question."

Being a down-to-earth boss is hot right now.

Macalester College president Brian Rosenberg toured campus on video, doing yoga in a suit, eating Golden Grahams and sipping from a helium balloon. University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor Harvey Perlman has "Harvey's Perls of Knowledge," a series of bone-dry videos gone viral.

"It's easy to stay in your box," said Frank Brogan, chancellor of Florida's State University System. "But at the end of the day, listen, we live in a 21st century world where social media has become a part of our students' worlds."

Brogan filmed a light YouTube video this spring break urging students to quit the Harlem Shake videos, or to at least be the one hiding under the helmet.

• • •

Eisenberg's decision to alter USF's mass communications school reflects painful changes affecting schools like Northwestern and Indiana.

"Because there's so much of a connection between journalism and faculty in the college, and because it has always had kind of a special place, I think this is a very tough one," said former USF president Betty Castor, who often called on Eisenberg to mediate difficult meetings. "The whole area of library sciences, information sciences and communication is changing so rapidly that it's hard, it's really hard, to be in front of it."

Budgets are also sensitive things. Eisenberg's interns wanted to make a video for a fundraising campaign that allows USF employees to make a donation to any area at school. They planned a take on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air with the dean rapping, said Carrie Murawski, a 21-year-old intern in the dean's office. But the audience was faculty, not students, and the request was money.

"It's kind of a long stretch getting the dean of the college to rap," said Murawski.

Eisenberg declined. But by then, he was a known entity, a brand crucial to the cause. So the interns rapped instead, holding up a picture of his face.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394.

USF dean uses Facebook to navigate the times 03/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 1:50pm]

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