Influencing policy making

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at 

by Cindy Suter, Registrar at Heidelberg University

Influencing policy should not be interpreted as subtlety manipulating a committee to agree to one’s own thought or idea. Rather as a registrar, influence policy by becoming an advocate to create fair and equitable policy for all students. Most often, curricular or policy proposals are fairly straight forward and move through the process quickly. Although, not all committee work is clear and sometimes presents conflict so it can be a challenge for registrars to facilitate conflict resolution especially as the process unfolds so that our help is not seen as inhibiting the process or viewed as being negative, pushy or overstepping in shared governance.

The Curriculum Management and the Role of the Registrar (2016) discusses how registrars are involved with curriculum development and in many ways can be translated toward policy development. As higher education looks to find ways to reinvent its programs to remain ahead in this competitive market, registrars are seeing proposals for creative program offerings. In many instances, creativity means creating substantial staff support or processes and quite possibly even student confusion so we are in a position to be flexible and embrace creativity while keeping integrity for our students.

Preparing for policy development

When transitioning into committee work or if reform is on the horizon, consider taking a SWOT analysis approach as membership is voted. This process may assist with a clearer understanding for how to interact with the membership.

Strength- returning members is a positive, historical knowledge about current policies

Weakness- committee turn over, lack an understanding of current policy history

Opportunities- new ideas, willingness to review current policy challenges

Threats- Members who have an agenda

Questions to ask during policy:

  • Why do we need the policy?

  • Who does it serve?

  • Is there a similar policy already in place but it is ineffective requiring review?

When writing policy consider:

  • Clear, concise, simple language.

  • Write in a positive voice.

  • Address the rule rather than implementing the rule.

  • Create the policy and then the process: document the process to guide students and advisors.

  • Be clear what authoritative body oversees the policy.

  • Avoid names; use titles or reference an office/department.

  • Avoid rigidness to lower the risk for exceptions

Immersing yourself into a committee

Serving the committee as a resource and offering to write draft statements will assist in moving a policy much more efficiently. While this tactic may assist in moving the policy creation more quickly, an effective policy should not be rushed in an effort to mark it off the checklist. An effective approach is sending a draft prior to meetings providing members time to research and think about concepts to have more meaningful conversations during meetings.  While this is ideal, recognize this isn’t always possible. Realistically, the registrar does need to be comfortable hearing that the policy isn’t what the membership envisioned or that it is wrong.

While there isn’t anything wrong with having a difference of opinion about a policy, sometimes there are distinctive differences among the membership for how a policy should read or when there are curricular requirements that appear to be cumbersome to students which can lead to challenging interactions with the membership. Finding the line and determining when to cross it during policy development isn’t clear.

Have we gone too far?

So, how far should we take student advocacy or even requesting the need to have clear policies? Being a great registrar can be quite challenging when determining how long to fight the fight especially when progress is not being made or a compromise isn’t on the table.

For me, using the help of my colleagues in the AACRAO membership gives me another perspective and quite often minimizes the research time exploring other institution’s policies. A secret to my success is that I don’t have to be an expert every day; by seeking assistance from my colleagues allows me to work smarter, avoiding road blocks. However, the proverbial line crossing isn’t the same more than likely for any one of us. My threshold is to ensure that any confusion or inequality is made clear. Ultimately, the faculty will call the vote and decide for themselves how much they themselves want to challenge policy development; we are only one piece of the pie and may not even be voting members.

As much as I want to have an answer to this question, I know that one does not exist and the culture of our institution heavily drives the outcome. Although, using the Curriculum Management and the Role of the Registrar guide helps to shape our interactions if you find yourself asking ‘how far is too far?’ in an upcoming committee meeting.