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.

Registrar 101: Definition of a Cross-Listed Course

Posted in Definitions with tags , on January 15, 2015 by Grant McMillan
Cross Listed Course

Cross Listed Course

Sometimes we registrars can use some pretty obscure and technical language. I will never forget the first time I became a Registrar in an institution that had just completely deconstructed its registrar’s office. There were precious few people left (ok, there was one administrative assistant) who knew what was going on. I had never worked a day in academic administration, and I needed to learn a whole new vocabulary, but who was going to teach me?

To this day I try my hardest not to assume people know what I’m talking about when I use jargon like cumulative GPA or credits.

Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to create a category of blog posts called “Definitions” under which I would define some of the commonly used terminology of our profession. These might seem really basic to some of you, and I hope that’s the case. Other people might be in a similar situation as I was and have few places to turn to without looking stupid. Perhaps this series of posts will help. I can tell you right now, they will be in no particular order. They will be in whatever order they come to my mind and probably reflect something I’m working on at that moment.

First definition: what is a cross-listed course?

A cross-listed course is one that is offered by more than one discipline, department or faculty, but has the same content and in which students should expect to have the same or similar experience.

Example: ANTH 302/COMM 302 Cross-cultural Communication.

These courses have the same name, they’re offered at the same 300 level (in this case they share the same number), and they have an identical course description. Students can enroll in either the Anthropology or the Communications number depending on which one will best help them meet their program requirements or which one they would prefer on their transcript. The courses are offered as one class, not two classes, and the students from both disciplines learn together.

What are the rules around setting up cross listed courses? They are very few, although you will probably hear different requirements from different institutions. Most of the rules are set in place to help registrars manage these courses and will depend upon technology and educational philosophy and economics (yes, filthy lucre has an influence here) of the institution.

There are only two hard-and-fast rules for cross-listed courses. The first is that students must have the same learning experience for a course to be a true cross-list. The second is to ensure that students cannot get credit for the same course twice (i.e., under a different name). [Thanks to Lauren Charlton, Registrar at UVic, for this one.]

However, here are a few other suggestions to consider when setting up cross-listed courses:

  • It is nice if the course has the same name and number. That way, students who are looking for the course in whatever discipline they need can more easily recognize it and register for it. But this is not necessary. Our university has approximately 50% of its cross-listed courses with the same name and number.
  • It is nice if the courses are offered at the same level (100 level, 200 level, etc.). See first suggestion for a rationale. This does not mean you can offer the course as both an upper and lower level course, however. At my institution, we have a strong difference between courses offered at the 100/200 level and those offered at the 300/400 level. Students at our university must have a different learning experience in a lower level course than an upper level course. Consequently, we do not offer cross-listed courses that cross that boundary. You will not see a course such as ANTH 200/COMM300 at Trinity Western University. Ain’t gonna happen.
  • One final consideration: will you allow students who are enrolled in two majors to use the cross-listed course to meet the requirements of both majors? We allow students to do this at our university, but this is up to your institution to decide – there is no right or wrong answer, although you probably shouldn’t allow the student to count the credit hours twice.

Have I missed anything? If so, please comment and add to our wisdom and knowledge.

Service and the Hospitable Registrar

Posted in Service with tags , , on January 7, 2015 by Grant McMillan

Customer service in a highly regulated environment like a university can be tricky. We have all heard the phrase, “The customer is always right” and cringed. How can this be when students ask for impossible things? Here are some of the more out-there questions that I or people in my office have been asked over the years:

  • I’m not happy with my grade point average and I’d like you to increase it for me please.
  • I didn’t know there would be final exams and I’ve already booked my flight. What can you do for me?
  • I haven’t completed all of the courses for my degree, but I’m pretty sure I can still graduate, right?
  • I failed a few courses, but I should be able to choose the courses I want on my transcript, shouldn’t I?

True stories.

We all know that the customer is not always right. It’s unfortunate that this phrase became the mantra of customer service because it has never been true. And how could it be when students are not yet experts in how universities work?

An unfortunate consequence of following a mantra that we know isn’t true is that we can slip into a cynical mood. How easy it is to think, “This customer is a moron! But I have to treat him as though he is a king because we can’t afford to lose a paying customer.” And then, around the water cooler, stories are shared that mock customers who are obviously idiots. And soon we mock our own organization for catering to such obvious fools (what a foolish place to work!). And then the next obvious fool shows up at our front desk… sigh…

That isn’t a culture that is going to help!

I have spent the last 6 months reading and researching the concept of hospitality as a service model, and I like it much better. I watched a video interview of Danny Meyer as he described his frustration with the idea that the customer is always right in his restaurant. He introduced me to the idea that hospitality is not about being right or wrong, but rather about creating a feeling. Does the client feel cared for? Do they feel that you listened and you are interested in them and their circumstance?

Think about it from your own personal life. If someone is hospitable enough to invite you to their home for a meal, what does that tell you about your relationship? They trust you enough to open their door and let you in. Presumably they spent time preparing the meal and set the table in such a way as to create an atmosphere because they care about you. They showed interest in you. When this happens how does it make you feel?

Is that how you expect to feel when you deal with the Registrar’s Office? Perhaps considering ourselves to be gracious hosts will help us avoid the right-versus-wrong office culture and instead help us treat those who engage with our services like they are as important enough to make them a nice meal.

When I posed this idea to the people in my office, I received this very thoughtful response from Andrea:

“It’s remembering to have grace when you’re asked the same question over and over and over again. I have people tell me all the time that they don’t bother remembering because they know they can just ask me. So then you have to find the balance between trying to train them to learn the things they need to know, and answering with grace so they still feel like they’re getting good customer service.”

What suggestions do you have for me about how the hospitality model of customer service could be helpful? How can we “set the table”, so to speak in our customer relations? Please leave a comment with your suggestions!

The Resilient Registrar: Part Three

Posted in Definition: Registrar, Guest Post, Registrar 101 with tags , , , on October 27, 2014 by Grant McMillan

Registrars are often called to be policy-keepers, enrolment managers, and experts in customer service. Essentially, it is our job that people feel valued and important, even though sometimes we have to tell them they can’t do something. That can be exceptionally challenging!

Sound familiar? A lament we received from a fellow Registrar certainly resonated with four seasoned veterans of the profession. I’ve already posted two responses to the lament, one from Glenn Keeler, and one from me. Today’s post was written by Bev Ross, the Registrar at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta.

To refresh your memory, here are the questions again:

I am wondering if you find that, as Registrar, the majority of your job is trouble shooting and being the “bad guy”? Does this cause you stress? If so, I wonder how you personally deal with it?

The reason I ask is that lately I have been finding myself very short of patience and easily frustrated. I think this might be due to the fact that most of what I deal with during the day is problems. Also, I find myself having to keep everyone to the rules and confronting those who don’t follow policy – sometimes it feels like I’m banging the same drum all the time.


Bev Ross responded here:

I like challenges and I am not afraid of change.  A Registrar must be willing to promote change, as needed.

Many things have changed on our campus in the last few years and I have had to coordinate many of these changes as they relate to faculty, staff and students.  I began my tenure here asking the question, “why?”  I wanted to understand why we did things the way we did.  What was important?  I then thought much about how we might approach some of these matters differently.  Would the changes make a difference for those involved?  Would they help?  I then went through the appropriate channels to make the changes that I thought were necessary, after extensive consultation.

Reading the last response by Grant to these questions, I was reminded that one of my priorities when I came here was to spend time getting to know people (faculty, staff, students).  I take advantage of every opportunity to spend time with each of these groups.  I take advantage of every opportunity and responsibility to build rapport with faculty, students, staff.  I have worked very hard to build rapport, so that people feel free to come to me with their concerns and questions.  This has been very important to me personally and to the functioning of our institution.

Attending WARUCC, ARUCC and various Alberta government meetings has also given me a clearer perspective, a better understanding of the various issues we face.  This has given me some objectivity and helped when trying to explain these matters to others.

I mentioned to someone this weekend that I really enjoy my job and she was surprised and said that it is unusual to see someone who likes what they do.  I am by nature a detailed-oriented person.  I think that a registrar needs to be happy taking care of details, but also looking at the broader picture.  I think a person needs to understand deeply what this position entails and needs to understand who they are as a person.  If there is a fit, then most days will be fulfilling and some not so much.  I don’t like having to enforce the rules.  But it has been helpful to me to understand the reasons and then be able to explain those reasons to the person I am dealing with.  The refining of some of our rules and processes has also helped to break down some of the barriers.

It has also been helpful to ensure that the teaching faculty are aware of why we do things the way we do.  It is vital that our office is supported by the teaching faculty.

Above all else, I think a Registrar needs to be a patient person.  As they say, Rome was not built in a day.  I see my “job” as a whole lot more than just a job.  It really is a ministry to me.  I can influence others at all levels in ways that many others on campus cannot.

As a Christian, I am very comfortable with who I am in Christ and His love provides me great comfort and peace in the midst of the challenges we face.  I know I can trust Him!

Bev Ross

The Resiliant Registrar: Part Two

Posted in Definition: Registrar, Registrar 101 with tags , , , , , on October 23, 2014 by Grant McMillan

Yesterday, I posted a couple of questions from a younger Registrar, and followed that up with the first response from experienced Registrar (and now AVP) Glenn Keeler. Today, I offer a second response written by me. Later, I will post a third and fourth response from other also experienced Registrars, so check back soon to see what they say. And please feel free to share this with others who are facing similar challenges in our profession.

To refresh your memory, here are the questions again:

I am wondering if you find that, as Registrar, the majority of your job is trouble shooting and being the “bad guy”? Does this cause you stress? If so, I wonder how you personally deal with it?

The reason I ask is that lately I have been finding myself very short of patience and easily frustrated. I think this might be due to the fact that most of what I deal with during the day is problems. Also, I find myself having to keep everyone to the rules and confronting those who don’t follow policy – sometimes it feels like I’m banging the same drum all the time.

My experience and emotional response is similar to Glenn’s. I have not yet resolved some of them in my mind and I hold them in tension. Sometimes I’m frustrated beyond reason. At times I may have been depressed. This role of Registrar is not an easy one, and there are very short line-ups of people looking to take our jobs. Here are some thoughts of mine on the questions posed.

Since coming Trinity Western University, I’ve learned that some faculty truly believe it is their job to hold administration in check, that administration does not understand the true nature of the university and therefore they oppose me by virtue of my position and role, not because they don’t like me. I’ve learned that these people occasionally push me in good directions, so it’s worth listening to them. I’ve also learned that when asked what they would do they almost never have an answer. I hold their opinions lightly. This doesn’t mean I don’t respect them. It simply means that they are lay people who are not in the profession and therefore don’t work in the same regulatory environment.

My predecessor used to say, “We don’t make the stupid rules – we just have to enforce them.” I find this humorous, but not very helpful. It robs us of appropriate power and responsibility. If I think the rule is stupid it is highly likely someone else does too. I take the time to research, build a case, get the key players behind me, propose the change, solidify the value of the change (afterwards), and re-articulate the rationale even years after the change was made. I make sure I’m in the decision-making circles for rules I’m asked to enforce – I negotiate that with the Provost (my boss) on a regular basis and he comes to me when he believes I should be part of a decision. After a while, getting rid of stupid rules becomes much, much easier, provided there’s no big political force in the background that takes you by surprise. To avoid surprises, see “take the time to research.” I don’t tackle all the stupid ones at once, either. Timing is everything.

I was once reduced to a “gate-keeper” by a previous boss. It annoyed me to no end! But it was my own fault (see the “stupid rules” comment above). I blogged about it here: https://gvmcmillan.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/521/ In summary, if you want an expanded definition of your role, enlarge it yourself!

There are two things I’ve learned about problem-solving and rule-keeping:

  1. I’m never going to be big enough, omniscient enough, omnipotent enough, etc. to do this job. I’m not God. I must stop trying to be Him. Even God has a team around him and he has delegated a surprising amount of responsibility. Build a coalition of people to do this job with/for you, starting with your staff and office colleagues and broadening out to key players in the faculties and schools. If they’re not willing to join you, maybe the rules aren’t important enough to enforce or the problems aren’t big enough to worry about.
  2. Stories are more powerful than rules, rationales, and registrars. Get in front of the groups that need to hear them and forget about running through a PowerPoint list of policies and regulations. Tell stories about how students are being put in bad situations. Share all the potential evils that could result. Tell these groups how they can help solve the problem presented in the story. Use this time to glorify a problem-solver from the history of the school. If you’ve got a faculty member or well-known student who’s participated in the solution, laud their efforts. Spread out the efforts, share the glory and the pains. And then give the people you’re talking to a chance to respond publicly to the story. You might be amazed at their response. Use this weapon wisely!

One final thing for young impatient, frustrated, stressed registrars: this doesn’t happen overnight, or in a fortnight,or  in 6 months, or two years. Only after building up a long history of trust will this get easier. Be patient. Put the problems where they belong (not in your heart). Like Glenn said, focus on your centre. These things are not your centre.

Grant McMillan


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