In many universities and colleges the Office of the Registrar is deemed to be the keeper of academic policies. This can be a daunting task, particularly if the institution is one that relies heavily on policies and upholds them as almost equivalent to law. Policy manuals can be a black hole of administrivia: thick, heavy binders that are difficult to find specific policies in, difficult to keep up with, and threatening when pulled off the shelf (because they’re symbols of power).
I’ve seen it too often: policies can be the tail that wags the dog. They can be the ultimate in red tape tying up processes, hindering actions, or they can be helpful tools. There are several reasons for the tendency for policies to become a hinderance.
First, because policies are often symbols of power, there is a temptation for administrators to invest real power in the policy and to abdicate decision-making processes to the policy. We can see this when a new job position becomes available and there is an ideal candidate available for the job, but the HR administrator says that policy must be followed and several months will pass with the proper procedures checked off before a decision can be made. In cases like this, the policy can limit an opportunity.
Second, policies can become a scapegoat for gutless administrators. When an administrator hides behind a policy (“Oh, that’s not possible because the policy says…”) and doesn’t offer an alternative, or a way forward, you know you’re dealing with a Kafka-esque bureaucrat. Your only hope at this point is to ask to speak to a superior (and there will always be one in this situation). The policy has become the boss in this case, and limits an opportunity.