It isn’t easy being a Registrar

by Meredith Braz, Registrar of the College at Dartmouth College 

Borrowing from Kermit, the Frog's "It Isn’t Easy Being Green,” and an idea sparked from Admissions, the Registrar staff experimented with the theme “It Isn’t Being a Registrar.” It resulted in personal stories, limericks, haikus, and musical lyrics. Try it!

It isn’t easy being a Registrar!  Students (and their parents) increasingly view education as a product and themselves as the consumer.  And why not?  We market and we price match just like any other business. We lure them to invest in what we honestly believe and they desperately hope will be a life-changing experience.  First-year students anxiously enter a new environment with multiple choices and pressures, and the Registrar steps up to help them navigate the path to success."  We reach out to say “Here’s the course schedule, how to register, and stop by if you need help!” We establish ourselves early on as the place to go for the authoritative answer to administrative rules. Advisors and faculty send students to the Registrar for clarification (or to complain) about how something works.  

Registrars symbolize the institution’s academic rules.  

While there are benefits to this view, it also leads to misconceptions, particulatly the prevailing and frustrating fallacy that the rules of the institution are “Registrar rules." They are certain that the Registrar has far-reaching power to simply change or overrule them if they put forth their “exceptional” (frequently not) circumstance.  Regretfully, no crown comes with the Registrar job -- which means the Registrar can quickly change from “helper” to “villain.” 

It is next to impossible to change the perception that the Registrar does not make academic rules.

The Registrar clarifies, enforces, and interprets, yes, but the rules are established by faculty (or sometimes others) -- not the Registrar. The Registrar is not all-powerful as perceived. However, those who did establish the rules are shielded by distance, time and the collective vote. Therefore if a rule is inconvenient, blame the Registrar!

Sadly, few know what the Registrar really does. 

It is not an easy role to explain.  While it is true the Registrar is the “keeper of the rules,” it is rare that institutional legislation is clearly written, adequately nuanced, or regularly updated. More often it reads like a cryptic phrase from Beowulf. Yet the pace of change and complexity of individual situations continues to accelerate, and Registrars must respond. 

Registrars must make frequent judgements about what is a rule vs. guideline vs. principle vs. practice, and which best applies to certain types of situations.

A Registrar becomes an institutional historian and creative problem-solver.

Registrars have a unique role requiring a deep understanding of the institutional culture which enables them to guide the continual flow of curricular decisions, processes and procedures anchored on the ethos of the institution. This means that the Registrar is an accomplished problem-solver--not someone who puts obstacles in the way of progress or change--always looking for the best solution to allow the student or faculty member to accomplish their goal within institutional limits. Sometimes the constraints are significant, and sometimes they involve resources.

The Registrar is particularly adept at problem-solving because they are curricular experts with technical expertise, generally work with very limited resources, and have a central view of institutional activity. All course information flows through the Registrar’s Office and detail is vital to the Registrar work ethic.  

It isn’t easy because the Registrar supports everyone. 

Everyone sees themselves as most important and their issue as the most urgent. Registrar's actions must be consistent and exact. Mistakes, however, are very public.  The invisible shield is lifted and the campus is reminded of the Registrar’s fallibility.  

It isn’t easy being a functional techie, change agent, implementer, translator/interpreter, negotiator, traffic cop, trainer, supervisor, data manager, and general preventer of chaos!  On any one day a Registrar might build a new course schedule, help a parent understand their child’s situation, respond to a news outlet about a famous alumnus, train staff on how to use new applications, partner with IT to implement a new system upgrade, or perhaps deliver data to faculty.  Maybe they would be working to develop the academic calendar, figure out how to fit courses into limited classroom space, certify veterans, review petitions, approve transfer credit, lead a new project, and the list goes on.  And maybe across campus a new rule has been established that everyone will soon think is a “Registrar rule."  

But while it isn’t easy, almost every Registrar I know sees it as one of the most personally rewarding jobs on campus. They patiently accept the villain role secure in the knowledge that what they do behind the scenes makes it possible for our students and faculty to achieve their best.