Why WordPress can be the right CMS for #highered websites

February 15th, 2011 Karine Joly 12 Comments

In higher education, the CMS question is a million-dollar one.

Well, maybe not literally, although choosing the wrong Web content management system can result in costs and ineffencies worth millions of dollars.

WordPress logoA CMS that isn’t used by content contributors across campus doesn’t do any good to an insitution, which explains why ease-of-use is often at the top of the requirement lists for this type of applications.

Add to that a price tag tough to beat (free), and it’s no wonder WordPress has started to power more and more websites in higher education: online newsrooms, departemental websites, online versions of the institutional or alum magazines, email newsletters and even institutional websites.

While WordPress is easy to use and a very affordable solution, it doesn’t mean that there’s no room for messing things up. As with any flexible and powerful open-source application, there is no official user manual to explain how to use WordPress to power institutional websites.

But, you can definitely learn it by trial and error or by listening to other higher ed professionals who have already done it.

Mike Richwalsky from John Carroll University will present the first session of WordPress University, a 3-webinar series on strategies, tools and shortcuts for WordPress-based higher ed websites (March 22-24, 2011).

That’s why I asked Mike – who is currently in the middle of an institutional-wide WordPress implementation – to share some of his experience with us.

1) How long have you been using WordPress? When and why did you fall in love with this application?

Mike Richwalsky

I’ve been into WordPress for a little over three years now. For years before that, I had been a big Movable Type fan. We used it at my last institution for many years and as a blogging tool, it was great. Being written in PHP, as opposed to Movable Type’s PERL structure, I found I could hack WordPress much faster and easier. That fact, coupled with the very large community of WordPress plugin, support and theme designers, make it a very robust platform that’s only growing.

2) In your opinion, why is WordPress a good fit for higher education – in comparison to commercial or other open source CMS?

I want to be careful that I don’t slag commercial or other CMSes. It’s all about the right fit for the job – and for me at two institutions now, Allegheny College and John Carroll University, WordPress has been the right fit. It’s simple to maintain yet powerful – especially given the fact you can easily extend the platform with plugins and other PHP you can write.

In our CMS evaluation last year, the thing that really resonated with us, and especially our users, is that WordPress is very simple to use. Our users have technical abilities ranging from very, very savvy to folks who probably shouldn’t be using a computer. During our tests, WordPress was one of the easiest for them to use quickly, and they had good retention of the product after not having used it for a few weeks.

3) You will share best practices and tips on how to use WP to power an institution’s website, can you share a couple of don’t’s?

Double negative alert – Don’t not let your WordPress and plugins go un-updated. When there have been security issues with the platform in the past, an exploit is found in an old version and then attacked. WordPress, out of the box, broadcasts its version so it can be easy for bad people to attack your installation.

In the webinar next month, I’ll share more do and don’ts when it comes to giving users access to varying levels of the site, including the ability to change themes, add plugins and more.

12 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by bloghighed and carol carruthers, AllofE Higher Ed. AllofE Higher Ed said: College Web Editor – Why WordPress can be the right CMS for #highered websites http://bit.ly/fGSWQF via @bloghighed […]

  2. Mike says:

    I use WordPress for a lot of client sites, but I have a hard time believing that it would be scale well for a large, institutional website… I mean, at base, WordPress is blog software. Are these sites using WP-MU (multi-user), or vanilla builds that are thoroughly rewritten?

    A few other things bother me about it, and don’t get me wrong, I love WordPress, but WP is really easily hackable compared to most other CMS platforms. Even with updated software, nearly every WP installation that I have ever done has been attacked at some point in time.

    I’m interested to see how some of these schools are doing institutional-wide websites in WP. I can imagine individual departments, but for a whole school, it just doesn’t seem feasible. But, I’d love to be proven otherwise :)

  3. @Mike – We are using 1 install on dedicated hardware running WordPress 3.0.5 w/ Multisite. We are using the Wp-Super-Cache plugin and we haven’t noticed a performance issue. We’re running 50+ sites on it, so I think we’ve reached the point where we’d be noticing anything. At Allegheny, they’re running 125-ish sites.

    If you are having I/O issues, you can always setup a load-balanced/Master-Slave MySQL environment. The database connections are always the bottleneck, so with caching and a good MySQL setup, you should be able to handle just about anything.

    HyperDB is a database plugin the Automattic folks put out which helps with scaling DB issues. You can see it here: http://codex.wordpress.org/HyperDB

    For security,there are many plugins that add additional protections to your site. They’re worth checking out – we’re running a few. http://www.hotscripts.com/blog/10-musthave-wordpress-security-plugins/

  4. We’ve been using WordPress to run nearly all of our institutions sites (http://www.law.utah.edu) for about two years now. We chose it because it was the easiest of the options we looked at for our content-creators and departments to contribute to. In the years since we’ve built a couple custom plugins to customize/streamline the experience for our needs. It’s been working great so far, and I definitely see us continuing to use WP well into the future.

    We also use WP to create and manage all our external email campaigns. It’s been great!

  5. @Aaron, very interested to hear how you’re managing email campaigns from WP. Mind sharing some info?

  6. Karine Joly says:

    Not sure this how Aaron is doing it, but Lacy Tite explained how she’s doing it in this post.

  7. Sure! Essentially, each one of our emails is a WordPress post (coded to appear nicely in email clients, of course.) Users who are logged in will see not just the email, but a special control panel that facilitates sending that post as an email to various places.

    To illustrate, if you go to http://newsletters.law.utah.edu/831, you’ll see an invitation to an event. But if you are logged in and go to the same link, you get this (screenshot): http://goo.gl/XVSQR

    From there, you can send the post as an email (or export the code to an email service, in our case Constant Contact.)

    There is also another page where different departments can create and manage their own emails/newsletters/etc. This is the first page users see when they log in. There is also the option to create a newsletter automatically out of posts from our news site. Screenshot here: http://goo.gl/OFRxX

    The WP theme that does all this is a little rough around the edges, but it works. I’ve been considering polishing it up and providing it for free to other schools if there’s interest.

  8. Kati Davis says:

    Mike – Very cool! I’m looking forward to seeing the sites when they launch. It’s great to see that you have a clear plan of attack to avoid getting hacked which always is the biggest concern I hear.

    Bates.edu also uses WordPress. It’s much more than a blogging platform.

    Karine – fabulous topic! In my experience, the biggest issue with a content management system is usage of the platform more so than the platform itself. You can have the most expensive, robust option out there but it still can’t force people to manage content or ensure they’re using the features appropriately.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Great post, it definitely gets the gears turning when comparing the numerous CMS solutions that are offered.

    We’ve been using an enterprise CMS for about 3-4 years now and have begun to ask a few questions now that we’ve been able to observe our end users for quite some time. Ease of use is definitely top on the list, our content publishers just don’t seem to be grasping things, and, unfortunately, most don’t use the application on a regular basis so it’s difficult to keep things fresh in their mind.

    The #1 question I have when it comes to WordPress would be how to introduce it into an environment that contains a mixture of subdomains and various PHP applications and/or custom scripts that are scattered in different directories within www. For example, we have a few applications within the Registrar’s site that connect to a database, or, Undergrad Admissions has a visitation scheduling application (with a back-end). Would these have to be moved elsewhere, would there be some magic that needs to be done to get the URL to resolve correctly, or would this be a custom plugin that is enabled on the specific site? I think I am so accustomed to dealing with publishing static pages that can contain anything I want that I’m just not grasping how WordPress would fit in our environment.

  10. […] uses were also outlined recently in a post on the College Web Editor blog which suggested reasons why WordPress can be the right CMS for #highered websites.  In light of the growing interest in use of WordPress as a CMS it would seem that this platform […]

  11. Andrew says:


    We are looking into WordPress as a possible solution to our cms dilemma. I found this plugin on WP’s site: http://wordpress.org/support/view/plugin-reviews/wordpress-https

    Would a plugin like this be enough to secure the WP login in page with an SSL? I think that’s our only concern. We haven’t made a decision yet on whether to use WP but we are looking into re-designing our site and making it responsive and WP seems very appealing for this.

  12. Andrew, that plugin is fine, but you still need either a shared or private SSL certificate. You could create a self-signed one, but users will see that scary message in their browser.

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