Administration to Faculty: Come to the Dark Side!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2015 by Grant McMillan

This is the third and final installment in my series of responses to Kevin about what it is like to be a registrar in a university.

What challenges do you think professors or other researchers face if they try to transition into administrative roles?
Do you have any advice for scholars trying to move into administrative work?

Plenty of others have written on this very issue. Here are a few of the more thoughtful writers on this topic. Dr. Benjamin Caldwell moved to become a Dean and writes about it here. Richard Mahon writes about the pros and cons of making the leap from faculty to administration here. Deborah DeZure, Allyn Shaw and Julie Rojewski have written a very good response to these questions as well.

I will not duplicate these responses, but none of them talk about becoming a registrar, so I will offer my own personal perspective on this kind of specific transition. I will probably over-state some of the challenges, and I recognize that everyone is on a spectrum in these matters, but I think you will see the points I am making a little better if I write with some hyperbole. If you are a faculty member and you are tempted to be offended, pretend I’m talking about someone else. Or you can assume that I’ve gone over to the Dark Side and therefore my sanity is suspect.

First of all, before I describe some the challenges of becoming a registrar, I should probably explain why I found it worthwhile. I have gained a lot of satisfaction in my role as Registrar because I am able to have a broad view of academia and the university I work at. I have access to a lot of data and information that I am able to use to influence policies, decisions and the overall direction of the whole organization. I also serve all the students at the university and so I am able to gain and provide some perspectives because I am not only serving a smaller subset of students. I see my role as one that enables students to get an education and faculty to get a salary. I enjoy these aspects of my work, and I use them carefully and deliberately in my leadership. This is what attracted me to the position.

However, there are some distinct challenges to moving from faculty to becoming a registrar that are hinted at by the writers above when they refer to administration. There are different purposes for our respective careers, and what attracted us to be a faculty member may not be completely applicable to being a registrar. In other words, dear faculty member, you cannot expect that what made you successful as a faculty member will be what is required to be successful as a registrar.

Challenge #1: Competition vs. Collaboration

Being a faculty member is a highly competitive career. Being a registrar is a highly collaborative career. Faculty members are only successful if they grew up with a strong focus on studying, getting good grades, and personal academic success. Their academic careers have been spent in libraries, reading, researching and writing. It is most often a solitary pursuit. We have competed for admission to the best schools, vied for top marks in classes, stressed out over being published in prestigious journals, and competed for limited research dollars and grant monies. Faculty speak of competing for rare positions in universities, and the way they compete is by defining themselves as unique individuals who are able to offer exceptional, valuable, and rare skills to the university. This is a very individualistic and solo approach to a career. Many faculty members have strong competitive genes, and matching egos.

In contrast, registrars are expected to work with a team and to represent everyone’s needs, not just our own needs. Our decisions and work affect the entire institution, not just our own careers. We serve potential students, current students, past students, faculties and departments, parents, governments, etc. We almost never serve ourselves and our offices. We work with academic departments to help set admission standards to recruit the best students. We work with other senior administrators to help set prices for tuition. We propose policies to Senate to encourage student success. We almost never set our own policies because we don’t exist for our own purposes. We exist to serve others. Therefore, we must eschew such individualistic and solo approaches that are crucial to a faculty member’s success and focus instead on working collaboratively with the entire university.

Challenge #2: Individual vs. Organizational Leadership

Unless they teach in a business or law school, faculty members may have little to no experience in organizational leadership and the attending technical requirements such as hiring, firing, HR management, overseeing and balancing budgets, navigating collective agreements, scheduling staff, and other matters of running a relatively large organization. As universities have grown to be incredibly huge, some as large as small cities, jumping from being a faculty member (say in History or Biology) to being the Registrar at ABC University with 35,000 students just isn’t going to happen unless it is a very unique situation. The requirements of leading large offices within the complex world of the modern major university are too technical and too different for most faculty members to be able to make a successful transition without training, proven experience and a lot of support. In smaller institutions, it is possible to make this leap, but in the larger organizations more is required.

Challenge #3: Personal Life vs. Corporate Life

This third challenge is related the the first two challenges, and it is often the greatest cause of fear and trembling as faculty members consider joining administration and “the Dark Side.” Because registrars exist to serve others, our lives are not our own. We cannot close our doors to the world because we want to read the latest research on Portuguese Irregular Verbs. We do not have permission to be absent-minded. We cannot yell at the president of the university from behind the protective walls of tenure and academic freedom. We serve and represent, and as such we must deal with the expectations of our institutions, government requirements, the service industry, etc. I have to dress professionally, shave every morning, work long hours in an office, respond to phone calls and emails promptly, and people other than my wife and kids need to know where I am and how to contact me at all times. My life is no longer completely self-directed – I have responsibilities that others have laid on me.

That’s not to say I haven’t stopped by a forest of faculty offices and thought “How lovely, dark and deep.” But then the bells of my cell phone shake and remind me that I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.


The Pressured Registrar

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2015 by Grant McMillan

In my last post, I responded to Kevin’s question about moving from a faculty position to become a registrar. He asked some common questions faced by people interested in becoming a registrar, or at least moving into administration. His second question is:

“Professors often face the pressure of being expected to publish frequently. Thus the axiom, ‘Publish or perish.’ What are the greatest sources of pressure and stress placed on registrars or other full-time administrative professionals working at universities?”

Job descriptions for registrars are hardly uniform, so it is difficult to give one answer to this question. If the Registrar is responsible for recruitment and admissions, then we are faced with significant pressure to recruit and admit the right number of the right students. Miss that and the entire university suffers. There really isn’t much of an option – screw up admissions and we will likely perish. We are responsible to be professional and growing in our knowledge and skills in leading recruitment and admissions teams.

If the Registrar has the typical bursar responsibilities of charging and receiving tuition and fees, just try doing that incorrectly and we will quickly find out what sort of pressures there are in this area. Students and their parents don’t appreciate it when we mess with their money. The university likely can’t afford it if we don’t collect enough of it. Screw up the money and we will likely perish. We are responsible to be professionals when it comes to handling financial transactions for hundreds, thousands, and tens-of-thousands of students.

Almost all registrars are senior officials in our institutions, which means we manage large departments full of staff. Many of these departments are union shops with all the pressures that come with bargaining units and collective agreements, etc. Regardless of whether or not our departments are unionized, leading in large and complex organizations can be a very daunting task. The Registrar’s Office is often described as a wheel with many spokes leading in and out from all the rest of the departments of the university. Forget one of these spokes in our plans or communication, tick off some staff or another department by poorly communicating and we will quickly find out what pressures there are in managing in a large and complex institution. I personally know several former registrars who are “former” because they couldn’t lead or communicate very well or they angered the wrong people. We are responsible to lead like professionals.

Registrars are senior leaders for a reason: there is too much at stake, too much influence in our universities to screw up. We are responsible for our own professional growth and development, as are faculty members, with one major difference: we are not lone actors. Instead of “publish or perish” we must be responsible to plan, organize, lead, supervise, and control as one central and influential unit within our organization. This isn’t something we can do casually or without significant oversight. We must lead, and lead well.

“Lead or perish” is my personal axiom for my role as Registrar.

Next time, I will respond to Kevin’s questions: What challenges do you think professors or other researchers face if they try to transition into administrative roles? Do you have any advice for scholars trying to move into administrative work?


P.S. Update: my boss, the Provost, suggested “Precision or Perish” which is appropriate as we Registrars must earn the trust of those we serve by being precise!

I Am Considering Becoming a Registrar, But I Have Questions!

Posted in Definition: Registrar with tags , , , , on April 15, 2015 by Grant McMillan

Kevin contacted me via LinkedIn the other day and asked me some thought-provoking questions. They get right to the heart of some common concerns about the registrarial profession. He gave me permission to share them with you and I will try my best to answer them one at a time.

First, here is what he sent me.

Hi Grant,
I don’t know if these questions will be of interest to other readers of your blog, but you’re certainly welcome to share our conversation if you’d like.
While I was doing my doctorate, I ran a wedding videography and photography business with my wife and some partners. That provided excellent practical administrative experience in business contexts. However, I imagine there are similarities and important differences between business and university administration.

My main questions for you concern skills, challenges, and path into administration.
(1) Apart from April fools day jokes about voice recognition, how often and in what capacities do you get to exercise your creativity as a registrar?
(2) Professors often face the pressure of being expected to publish frequently. Thus the axiom, “Publish or perish.” What are the greatest sources of pressure and stress placed on registrars or other full-time administrative professionals working at universities?
(3a) What challenges do you think professors or other researchers face if they try to transition into administrative roles?
(3b) Do you have any advice for scholars trying to move into administrative work?

Thank you! If you or your students have any questions about what it’s like to do postgraduate studies in the UK, I’d be happy to help. :)
With my warm regards,

These are excellent questions, Kevin. I’ll answer your first question here.

How often and in what capacities do you get to exercise your creativity as a registrar?

It depends on what you mean by creativity. I am a creative person, and outside of my work as a registrar, I express this in my wood carving and sculpture.

I work with a fun bunch of people who take their work very seriously but take themselves lightly. We play the odd prank and host hot-chocolate or lemonade stands for students. The main way I express creativity at work is by solving problems and making life easier for students, staff and faculty. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for faculty to complicate matters. I enjoy seeing the relief on their faces when I suggest an easier, more direct solution. In fact, this is much of my job. The Provost often comes to me to find solutions for problems as do Deans and individual faculty members. I’m constantly on the hunt for an easier, simpler way to do everything, as long as it is consistent with who we are and what we do.

I spend some time creatively working through the best office configuration for welcoming and serving students. We change things up every couple of years depending on our service model. For example, when I first started at Trinity Western University our office served most students in-person, and most of our work was paper-based. Our office was set up much like a bank with tall, stand-up desks designed to receive and distribute paper forms and cash payments. Then we switched things up to be more of a consulting model, so we had individual desks with sit-down chairs and more resources available for staff to take the time to respond to student needs. Then we chose a hospitality model similar to a hotel, and we changed up the configuration of the office yet again, with a reception/concierge type of desk designed to serve the majority of student queries. There is some creativity expressed in this.

Secondarily, I encourage creative solutions from the staff in my office. Recently, a staff member proposed making a sign in the trendy chalk paint style to welcome students. I gave her the time and resources to create it, and used my own personal wood working skills to build a frame for it.  I’ve been in some registrar’s offices that decorate with different themes for different times of the year. We haven’t done that, but it’s an option.

We have to be careful with creativity in the Registrar’s Office. Just as accountants cannot do too much creative accounting, neither can registrars. Universities depend on us to be consistently perfect with student records, finances, academic calendars/catalogs and other university records. But much like accountants, if we know the boundaries we also should know the options to work inside those boundaries or when to remove and replace them.

Voice Recognition and the Hard to Find Registrar

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on April 1, 2015 by Grant McMillan

Today, on April 1, access to my office has received an “upgrade.”

Voice Recognition Entry

Voice Recognition Entry

I toyed with upgrading this blog to require voice recognition software before you could read it, but I thought perhaps too many of you would take it seriously and forget which day it is…

Have some fun today!

Grant McMillan

What Do Registrars Do? They Love Students!

Posted in Definition: Registrar, Service with tags , , , , , , , on March 18, 2015 by Grant McMillan
Come for Dinner

Come for Dinner

It always interests me how people react when I tell them I’m the Registrar at Trinity Western University. Some give me a slightly confused look followed by, “What is a registrar?” Others give me the slightly awed look and maybe a “Wow!” sometimes followed by “That’s a tough job!”

It’s not, really.

Sorry to burst your bubble. Oh, sure, there’s all the database, web registration, CRM, SIS, and other technical jargon we have to know (see some earlier posts on definitions for more reading excitement). Yes, we’re always dealing with legal issues, challenging financial management, tricky policy interpretation and application. There are pressures such as admission deadlines, registration systems to open on time, thousands of courses & exams to schedule, fees to collect, and, ultimately graduates to get across the stage every year. It is easy to get lost in all the technicalities and bureaucracy. Interruptions and demands of students can get in the way of running a perfectly smooth operation. Hey, running a university would be easy if it weren’t for all those students!

I can get all that stuff right – I can run the tightest ship around – but if I do not love students I am just making a lot of noise and smoke. As one writer put it, I’m “like a clashing cymbal”. We all know how jarring that sounds.

No one likes being jarred by a registrar – ugh! All that technical, legal red tape again! No one likes to be thought of as an interruption or a pain in the neck. And if that is the impression I give people, the job of being a registrar becomes really difficult. But it doesn’t have to be that way – it is simple really: love students. Have empathy for them.

Red Tape + Anger + Love/Empathy = Hope

Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, understood that selling computers wasn’t about selling gigabytes, processing speeds, or programming languages. It was about letting people do stuff with an Apple product. He had empathy for customers, and sometimes his products had to catch up with his vision – here’s a cool, short video on an upcoming biography of Steve Jobs that explains more. And yes, I will admit to being an Apple fan.

What do students want? They want to be able to do stuff. They want to know we care enough to help them do stuff. In my office that means we work hard at being hospitable – taking the time to invite students in, to get to know their needs, to listen, listen again, listen more, repeat back to them what we think we’ve heard and ask them if we got it right. We ask them why they need what they need, and then talk about the options available. And if there are no options, we go about clearing new paths and doing what we can to create new options.

Red Tape + Love/Empathy + Plan = Possibility

What does that look like? Just last week a student came in to our office and was angry because he’d received a note saying he couldn’t graduate for numerous reasons. He was hot under the collar, red in the face, and assuming the worst in every personal interaction with our office people. His problems seemed insurmountable – the mountain top of graduation just too far out of reach – and he was furious.

It all changed for him when one staff member said, “I understand that you are unhappy about this, but do you realize that I’m here to help you? It might be hard, it’s going to take some effort from you and me, but there is hope.” The student actually stormed out, still steamed, and I thought we’d lost him. But fifteen minutes later, he came back with a completely new attitude. Our staff member laid out the issues along with a plan to deal with each one. It still looked almost impossible, but there was a glimmer of hope and the student left with a simple thank you. Next day we were pleased to find out that he had dealt with each issue and is now going to be able to graduate.

Without love, without empathy, that situation could have been nothing but a whole lot of clashing cymbals. It was terribly complex, technical, legal – impossible, really. But all it needed was someone to say, “I’m on your side. We can do this. There is hope.” The impossible became possible.

The simple job of registrar is to love students and reach out in the spirit of hospitality to help them do stuff.

Registrar + Love = You Can Do Stuff

Registrar 101: Definition & Use of Prerequisite, Corequisite Courses

Posted in Definitions, Registrar 101 with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2015 by Grant McMillan

I once had an aged Philosophy professor in my undergraduate program tell the class that we learn definitions and meanings of words by their repeated use. He gave us two words: heilsgeschichte and noumena, and told us that we were not allowed to look up their definitions but instead had to use them 5 times a day in conversation and then come back next week with our own definitions. Let’s just say that there was a rather lengthy stunned silence in class as we stared at him incredulously.

I'm sure this is Kant's definition of Noumena.

I’m sure this is Kant’s definition of Noumena.

I don’t remember any of the definitions we came up with, but he didn’t seem to care unless one of us had obviously cheated and came up with a rather Kant-like definition of noumena. Most of the time, when I said “heilsgeschichte!” people responded, “Gesundheit!” which seemed rather fitting somehow. I remember nothing else from that class, other than the prof holding up a chair and telling us it wasn’t a real chair after which I drifted off…

This is not a chair.

This is a real chair, but definitely not an ideal chair.

I personally believe that some definitions are important. I understand Wittgenstein’s theory of language and meaning (I think…). I also know Ph.D. students think their doctoral dissertations can’t be taken seriously unless they invent a new word or redefine an old word (I blame Immanuel Kant for popularizing this. Actually I blame Kant and Wittgenstein for most of the world’s problems). My point is this: if you want to be confused, read Kant or Wittgenstein without a dictionary of philosophy.

This is not Wittgenstein either.

This is not Wittgenstein either.

I’ve been a Registrar for 18 years now, and until 8 years ago I had never heard of the term “corequisite.” And, until two years ago, I had no personal need to use the term. And last year, I finally learned the definition and use of it. Assuming you might still be learning, let me propose two words and their definitions and then you can use them five times a day for the next week and come up with your own definition:

  • “Prerequisite course: a course that must be completed successfully prior to enrolling in a subsequent course.” For example, students must complete (and pass!) PHIL 101 Introduction to Philosophy before they are permitted to enroll in PHIL 201: Epistemology: Theories of Knowledge. This includes knowing the difference between a real chair and an ideal chair.
  • “Corequisite course: a course of study that must be completed at the same time as another course of study.” For example, BIOL 101: Introduction to Biology must be taken in the same semester as BIOL 101L: Introduction to Biology Lab.

Something else I have learned about these two terms is that there is a hard and a soft application for each. The hard, or strict, application of these terms is when there is no way out of them. For example, if students are required to take PHIL 101 first, no ifs, ands, or buts, then our student registration computer system blocks registration in any PHIL courses until that one is completed. The soft application of these terms is when they are intended to be recommendations (perhaps even strongly recommended) but not absolutely required. When this is the case, computer systems have challenges in managing them. We have chosen to have our computer system manage these as strict requirements, but we allow faculty members to waive the requirement for individual students (but not whole classes). Students can simply make a request to the faculty member, who can grant what is called an “Authorization to register” which basically overrides the pre-requisite requirement for that student. The student can then register for the subsequent course without a lightning bolt zapping them for not having the proper prerequisite.

If we learn that a pre-requisite is really soft (i.e., no one cares to enforce it), then we push it to the faculty or department and request that they review it for the next academic calendar or catalogue.

Do these definitions capture your understanding of these two terms? If not, help us all by suggesting some improvements by leaving a comment.

Hospitality is Openness

Posted in Service with tags , , , , , , , on February 2, 2015 by Grant McMillan
Come for Dinner

Students & Friends for Lunch

Change can be difficult for anyone. Multiply that by a thousand employees and 10,000 – 30,000 students and it can be unfathomable. Let’s do the math… [clicking keys on calculator] … that’s 10,000,000 – 30,000,000 difficulties! And before you question my math, keep in mind that no one has only one problem with change. I stand by the numbers.

Why would anyone attempt change against those odds? That’s some serious demotivation. However, I believe that unless we change we are dead, and the fear of death can overcome the demotivating factor of 30,000,000 problems. Fear eats status quo for breakfast!

The Registrar’s Office at Trinity Western University has gone through a large change over the past 15 months, which has proven to me many truths about change. We implemented a major (10 years in the waiting) upgrade to Jenzabar EX, and all of the collateral changes that resulted from doing so. This meant a new finance system, a new student portal, a new faculty portal, a new general ledger structure, a new… and a new…. This past 6 months have meant implementing a new scheduling software Ad Astra. All of these changes have had huge ripple effects that our students, faculty, and staff feel to some degree of discomfort. (Wait, how do I enter grades again? Last time it was here, but now it’s gone. HELP ME!!!!) These were changes that were forced upon us. Upgrade or lose the system: our choice.

Hmm, an ERP or paper… the choice was clear. Change was inevitable.

I have a lot of respect for John Kotter (O he of Harvard Business School fame) and his theory of how to lead change, but his model, and most others like it, can run amok through people’s feelings. Ignore how people feel about change at your peril. Ignoring how people feel about change says something about our beliefs about what it means to be human and what we believe about education.

I believe that change (and education too) is greatly facilitated when we take into account how people feel about it. Change is hard. Change is work. Change is discomfiting. And what if it is just change for the sake of change? What if the change makes your job easier while it makes my job harder? Do you really care that little about me? Are you just a power-hungry jerk? And if you make me feel this way, YOU MUST MAKE EVERYONE FEEL THIS WAY! [Flips the bird, walks away.]

Ignore how people feel about change at your peril.

We have chosen the model of hospitality to help us frame our response to change and serving others through change. Hospitality carries with it the ideas of openness, humility, and transparency, all of which are very helpful when it comes to dealing with people’s feelings towards change. Oh, and food. Food affects people’s feelings maybe even more than music. Food is good!

Think with me. Hospitality involves opening your home and inviting others in. In my case, it is humbling to let others see my too-small kitchen with old, dingy cabinets and squeaky floors. It is hard for me to be transparent and let others see through my outside walls into my home – with all it’s dings and scratches, saggy couch and, really, is that your TV? It’s so small I think I’d need binoculars to watch it!

We take risks by inviting others into our homes. Being hospitable about change means inviting others in to make the change with us. Openness, humility, and transparency are necessary to defuse tension, build trust, and to learn from others. These are critical to managing change well. Hospitality demonstrates that we care about others – that we trust them enough to take a huge risk and let them in. And by doing so, we show that we are trustworthy too. Having the humility to learn from others is difficult, but if that is not who we are as universities and colleges, then we are not true educational institutions.

Having an attitude of openness, humility and transparency can have a dramatic influence on the whole experience of change because we are letting others help make the change. In this, I have learned a lot from my wife Kathleen. When we invite others over to our home for a meal, the question always arises, “What can I do to help?” Usually, my wife hands the person a cutting board, a knife and a bag of veggies. Invariably, having a meal together involves all of us working together in the kitchen, bumping into each other while carrying sharp knives and delicate dishes. It is risky, but the whole experience is enriched and we always have a great time.

Change can be enriching, even fun – a bit of a rush, actually. Not everyone will see it that way, but it sure helps if we invite, include, and involve those affected. Being hospitable can change the potential for tension to the potential for a much better experience. People understand the inner reasons for it and are more willing to overlook the work and discomfort for a better future for all. In the best of examples, they work with us to accomplish the change.

Especially if there is pizza involved.


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