Suzie McCarthy, like many of us, was just having a pleasant summer Sunday afternoon in Arlington, Virginia, on break from pursuing her PHD in Politics at the University of Virginia, when an email popped in that totally surprised her. In a mass-mailed message to alumni, students and others in the database, UVA's Rector on its governing board announced the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan.
First she suspected that the University's first female president might have been a victim of some kind of gender discrimination, not unknown in McCarthy's own field, which is dominated by male professors. But increasingly it appeared that the reasons for her dismissal were so obscure that nearly everyone was dismayed, male and female professors alike, liberals and conservatives.
"Knowing that these professors were also enraged and that they were mostly male - for the Board to summarily dismiss President Sullivan and not even to think through the gender issue - that alone enraged me. The University had made a publicity campaign two years ago, when she was hired, around the fact that she was the first female and now it was firing her without any thought to the accusations they might face of gender bias -- that alone enraged me. But I was afraid (the issue) was going to go away."
So McCarthy went to work. Her academic concentration is on new media and politics, and she was armed with an experience of community action using Facebook in 2009, when she was able to get the attention of Facebook itself. After forming a fan page to protest Facebook's decision to ban users from certain countries, McCarthy emailed a PC Week reporter about how people around the world were responding to this change. In that experience, she had learned first-hand the ability to use social networks to pressure mainstream media with greater access to decision-makers into asking embarrassing questions which led to a change in policy.
The first thing she did was to create a Facebook group, "Students, Friends, & Family United for the Reinstatement of President Sullivan"...now known as United for Honor" -- "honor" a key term to use when the school has a strong honor code honed over centuries. By the end of the Thursday after the June 10 dismissal, the Facebook group 80 members, by Friday that number had reached 2,000 members and by Monday there were 6,000 in the group.
"Everything happened really fast," McCarthy told me. On June 15, United for Honor added its feed to twitter, using the hashtags #UVAfirestorm and #UVAoutrage, referring to the ongoing media campaign to force Governor McDonnell to get involved in the resignation of President Sullivan. By Sunday, June 17, the faculty senate had met and voted "no confidence" in the Board. Some members within the exploding Facebook group, which eventually peaked at 17,000 members, contacted Suzie and this began a whirlwind of lightening-fast planning and media coordination. Two thousand people assembled on Monday, June 18, on the famous central Lawn on, barely over a week after the dismissal announcement was made. Full local and national (The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg News, local TV and The Daily Progress local newspaper) of the event led to further calls from former presidents of the University and board members, prominent faculty and finally an admonition from the Governor to either fix the problem, "or else." There was a second rally on Sunday, June 24, and finally, on Tuesday, June 26, the Board unanimously voted to reinstate Teresa Sullivan. That day, #UVA was "trending" for many hours on twitter. (Full time-line of actual events here.)
From a social media perspective, this could not have been a happier or much faster outcome. It parallels the success of the global movement to resist Columbian terrorists, which David Kirkpatrick reported on in The Facebook Effect. This is a story that catches fire because of the personal connections of defined group, and active creation of content that creates more engagement, in that hyper-charged loop that we have come to expect -- particularly with Facebook and Twitter acting in concert with new members with the one platform, and new information on the other.
But what's really interesting is the role that mainstream media played. Assuming that an older, media-conservative group of mostly business people, who make up UVA's board, would not be logging on to twitter or publicly joining the Facebook group, the reason that United for Honor had an early effect was because it was picked up by The Washington Post, which McCarthy had contacted by email. McCarthy was able to demonstrate and confirm that the sentiment of a substantial crowd of students, professors and alumni were contributing to the Facebook group and the sentiment was overwhelmingly in support of Sullivan. What would have taken days, if not weeks, in the old days before new media was instantly available 24/7 to data-hungry journalists.
"This is the way for social media can really be used.... you can go to (journalists) with 17,000 users. They can ask: 'What's the general vibe on your site?' Social media creates a legitimacy that can't be ignored," according to McCarthy.
While dealing with reporters on one the hand, McCarthy was also running, maintaining and moderating a Facebook site. She immediately enlisted her father as administrative assistant; her day began at 7am and ended at 1am. Her whole effort was managed remotely, from the suburbs of DC, in concert with people on the ground, videographers, a former NPR radio producer, and many others in a leadership model that McCarthy refers to, perhaps in contrary to our traditional notions of leadership, as "crowd-sourcing."
What was the lesson of the experience? "Social media has such an interesting, flattening (non-hierarchical) effect; whereas in actual meetings people might have deferred to so-called experts before stating an opinion, the relative anonymity of Facebook, where we may have someone's picture but not his "title" or position, makes for a much broader level of expression. In the group, I might have been actually talking to professors and they had no idea I was just a student." McCarthy also talked about the need to respond immediately to messaging, requests to join, and what was happening in Charlottesville: ironically, the same kind of "strategic dynamism" that was described by the Rector, Helen Dragas, as something lacking in her leadership.
"This is an amazing testament to the positive power of social media. Usually these social movements end in violence, but not this time." Indeed.
You can follow Suzie McCarthy @suzimcc, and for the future of the United for Honor movement, @United4Honor.