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A world without registrars

Are you leading innovation and change or are you so stuck in the past that you thwart innovation?
University Business, January 2016

Not long ago a journal published an article criticizing registrars for holding back the tide of innovation and change. While it dawned on me that registrars frequently have to say “no” to change, I have never thought of my fellow registrars or myself as stodgy curmudgeons seeking to restrain the pace of innovation. Quite the contrary—many of us have survived the front lines of ERP implementation and advocated for the electronic resources to move paper processes online. Moreover, I would argue that many of the newest technologies, such as PDF transcripts, XML transcripts, and innovations to degree audits, have been the brainchildren of registrars.

Nevertheless, today I find myself wavering in my convictions. I wonder about the registrar’s role and power on campus and foresee a time where the position of registrar may become—gasp!—obsolete. In fact, I would argue that the nation now has two very distinct types of registrars: those who lead innovation and change to the point that students rarely need to come to the office, and those so stuck in the past that they are perceived to thwart innovation.

Stuck in the past

Recently, while struggling to catch up with my email, I ran across a barrage of emails from Registrar’s across the country asking the group about their use of manual typewriters. My first thought was, Why on earth would you need one of those? I was therefore surprised by the distress others expressed about their ailing typewriters and the difficulty of replacing them. That same afternoon I received a paper class roll from a local community college where I’m teaching as an adjunct, containing far too much student information and informing me to “check to ensure accuracy.” In both cases I was dumbfounded, thinking it’s been a long time since I’ve used a typewriter or seen a paper class roll. Moreover, last March I asked whether a fellow registrar planned to attend AACRAO, only to be asked, “What’s AACRO?” While these examples may seem extreme, many registrars seem to live by the philosophies that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

There was a time when registrars had a great deal more power on campus, frequently overseeing admissions, curriculum, room scheduling, etc. But over the years we have seen those offices splinter off and function independently from the Registrar’s Office. Let’s face it—even our state, regional, and national organizations struggle to connect with Admissions Offices, which are beginning to affiliate with other national groups. If one thing has became crystal clear as a result of the Re:Fresh SACRAO surveys we conducted, registrars don’t care that fewer admissions folks are involved in the organization, and some would prefer to have SACRAO simply serve registrars. While it may be an overgeneralization, what remains is a group that have circled the wagons to prevent intrusions by others who might introduce innovation and fundamentally change what it means to be a Registrar. Registrars often seem perfectly content to remain behind the scenes, quietly and meticulously moving new processes forward in a methodically slow march. Hence the perception that Registrar’s are unwilling to change or simply don’t have the skills.

We often laugh at the saying, “Nobody ever chooses to become a registrar.” While that is not exactly true, many of us tell stories of simply being in the right place at the right time, or starting as a student worker in higher education and ultimately ending up in the Registrar’s Office. Truthfully, however, I know of two institutions that have decided they no longer need a registrar, while others have chosen faculty members or other administrators without a lick of Registrar’s Office experience to take on the role of registrar. And these folks seem to be doing just fine. After all, you don’t need to sit through a FERPA session at every conference when the policy is readily available and easy to interpret on the Internet.

New challenges for those on the forefront of change

However, some Registrar’s Offices have been the pinnacle of change, keeping up with new technologies and creating altogether a new set of challenges. Visiting my alma mater over the weekend I was relaxing on a set of famous steps leading to a building named after the first African American undergraduates admitted to the institution. The building is very old and desperately in need of refurbishing, but retains that classic feel of a building that stands as a hallmark of the institution. The building has housed the Registrar’s Office for decades, with photos commemorating a time where students lined up those steps to register for or withdraw from courses.

My connection to the place runs deep, having completed my own education at this institution and worked in that very office for many years. However, my revelry that day was broken by a tour group that had stopped at the historical marker explaining the building’s significance. Listening intently to the tour guide talk about history and heritage, I couldn’t miss the guide’s final comment. “The building houses the Office of the Registrar today, although students don’t ever go there anymore because they can do everything online.”

The guide has a point. Many Registrars’ Offices have moved to entirely paperless environments, giving students the ability to do everything online. These offices pride themselves on being student centered, simplifying processes in a way that enables students to focus on what’s really important, their classwork. But with all the technology, why not just fold the Registrar’s Office into IT? Do these offices really need to remain independent in a rapidly changing higher education environment, where institutions are seeking ways to cut costs?

I have tried, rather unsuccessfully, to rally our state, regional, and national leadership to begin analyzing the changing nature of our work, encouraging them to focus on how Registrar’s Offices can market our value to students, faculty, and staff. Registrars desperately need to reinforce their niche and leverage their knowledge in new ways to help guide higher education in the future. And we are beginning to identify such avenues in areas such as state authorization, aligning with admissions to market the institution to new students, leading innovation in course and curriculum design, creating co-curricular and experiential credentials, and leading efforts in research, continuing education, and policy, to name just a few areas.

The question is, where do you stand?

Change is never comfortable, especially for registrars who have meticulously maintained accurate academic records for more than a century. What type of registrar are you? Begin by asking yourself the question; Are you one of those registrars attending the FERPA session at every conference because those words are like heroin to your ears (even if you already know the information)? Or are you one of those who will buck the system and work towards taking back the central role Registrars Offices once had? For this Registrar, the writing is on the wall; don’t believe that institutional history will protect your position. We are long overdue to reestablish the influential role of the University Registrar. Recover your courage my colleagues (Revocate Animos), before we find our own jobs obsolete.

Rodney L. Parks is the registrar at Elon University

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