By Joe Tate
The efficacy of academic policies intended to promote student and institutional success is a function of the effort invested to evaluate their merit and feasibility. An academic probation policy designed to improve student retention may not have the desired impact if policy owners fail to consider its need for “teeth” in the form of real consequences for neglecting participation in intervention activities (Amundsen, Atwood, Hutson & Kamphoff 2007). Likewise, a proposed admissions requirement calculated to reinforce student preparedness for the rigors of an academic program may have the unintended consequence of creating complications in the admissions process if it is implemented without confirming the necessary logistical support of systems and staff.
Policy owners are not ignorant of such implications when proposing changes, but being so closely connected with a policy tends to diminish objectivity. More significantly, however, is the reality that most individuals in a position to own or propose an academic policy are subject matter experts who are not expected to possess an intimate awareness of the full breadth of all affected institutional operations. Thankfully, the typically flexible and broadly defined nature of the registrar’s role is tailor-made to address these deficiencies.
Since the turn of the new century, university registrars seem to be opining with increased frequency on that subject, echoing recommendations made as early as 1926 by former University of Minnesota President Lotus D. Coffman (2016). Gerald Pugh (2001) observed that the “role of a contributing academic officer may be the one role that is most uniquely that of the registrar” (p. 34). David Lanier (2006) identified an emerging awareness among higher education professionals that the registrar’s function was changing to include a “greater role in recognizing patterns and possible policy changes” and a “greater responsibility to evaluate policy as good or bad” (p. 16). More recently, Barbara Blaney (2009) cited Lanier in reaching the conclusion that “policy review with an eye toward student success is a positive and potentially significant way for a registrar to contribute to institutional retention efforts” (p. 56). These sentiments convey an evolving recognition in higher education of the benefits of a registrar who not only operationally executes policy decisions but also is a partner in policy development and analysis.
By contrast, a structure in which the registrar’s office is sidelined in the policy development and implementation process invites unnecessary impediments to institutional success in the form of academic policies that are poorly conceived, implemented, and maintained. Students, faculty, and staff are better served by an institution that empowers the registrar to engage with academic policy in the dual roles of cultivator and curator. The policy cultivator assiduously vets and prepares newly proposed policies, and the policy curator dutifully examines the ongoing relevance and effectiveness of existing policies. The registrar can establish these policy caretaking roles as an integral part of academic policy governance through a collaborative review both before and after implementation.
The Policy Cultivator
The ubiquitous impact of academic policy changes warrants their consideration by multiple institutional perspectives, suggesting the value of review by a cross-functional committee of stakeholders. The role of the registrar’s office in policy enforcement and as a link among many different departments within an institution renders the policy-cultivating registrar ideally suited to convene and facilitate a policy review committee. The policy cultivator can use sound process engineering principles (e.g., those promoted in Lean & Baldrige practices) in the design and execution of a systematic approach to conducting such reviews. Considering the voice of the customer (i.e., students, advisors, faculty, support staff, etc.) and recognized standards of institutional effectiveness—within the context of an institution’s mission—will clarify the appropriate criteria to include in a policy review checklist.
Identifying the voice of the academic policy “customer” may be as simple as looking to the various grievances finding their way to the registrar’s inbox—which is a particularly rich source for such feedback given the registrar’s role at the “center of the university’s administrative life” (Coffman 2016, p. 33). Are students complaining about inconsistent or unfair policies that are inhibiting their academic progress? Are academic advisors echoing those complaints or voicing concerns of their own about policies that are gratuitously tying their hands when it comes to providing students with a rational and attainable path to degree completion? Has the institution implemented policies that operations staff do not have the human or technology resources necessary to properly support? Is the academic governing council repeatedly remanding proposed policy changes to be revised or reconsidered for the same reasons?
Feedback from academic policy customer groups can be refined when evaluated in comparison with recognized standards of institutional effectiveness—some of which are universally relevant by virtue of their association with the shared goal of student success. The published standards of regional accrediting bodies such as the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (2018), the WASC Senior College and University Commission (2018), the Higher Learning Commission (2018), and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (2018) are reputable sources for identifying broadly applicable student success factors. The accreditation criteria these bodies have in common suggest that a policy review checklist ought to at least address such priorities as student impact, academic quality, technology resources, support staff resources, policy clarity, and regulatory compliance.
Inquiry into a policy’s benefits to students will focus implementation stakeholders on how the proposed policy will contribute to each impacted student’s accomplishment of individual course and overall program objectives. A student-centric perspective on the merit of proposed policies ought also to include an analysis of student impact generally, including business intelligence reporting leveraged to identify how each impacted segment of the student population will be affected (Blaney 2009). Developing strategies for deriving optimal student benefit from a policy’s implementation is more likely to succeed when undergirded by data-driven analysis.
Student impact should also be considered from the perspectives of faculty and staff who are most familiar with student behavior. These individuals often have an eye for the unintended consequences of a policy change—thus providing preventive control against the “cobra effect” of an academic policy that has the best of intentions. For those unfamiliar with the term coined by economist Horst Siebert (2001), it derives from an anecdotal story of the British colonial government in Delhi attempting to solve a cobra infestation by announcing a bounty for every dead cobra turned in to the authorities—which incentivized locals to start breeding cobras. When the government became aware of the breeding, the bounty was canceled and the suddenly worthless cobras were released into the village. Sometimes a change in policy may be proposed to solve a problem like the cobra infestation, and faculty and support staff will frequently have the insight to identify whether the proffered solution will lead to an unanticipated (and undesirable) impact on students.
The existence of a logical academic rationale behind proposed policy changes may be taken for granted, but requiring policy owners to expound on the “why” of the proposed change will yield instructive insights into the proposal’s academic quality implications. The driving rationale behind some requested policy changes may subsequently be determined to be non-academic at its core (e.g., revising policies to address operational challenges). The existence of something other than a strictly academic motive does not necessarily warrant an automatic rejection of the proposed change, but responsible academic governance requires a clear explanation of how the policy change enhances—or at least does not diminish—the institution’s academic quality. Systematically identifying and conspicuously documenting the academic rationale may therefore be a sensible prerequisite for moving a policy forward in the review process.
Evaluating policies for their potential impact on the institution’s technology infrastructure will establish appropriate expectations for technology integration. A clear understanding of those expectations as early as possible in the process enables decision makers to properly consider the technology investment required to support the policy; allows for better planning on the part of those sponsoring the policy; and ultimately contributes to a more harmonious relationship between the institution’s academic and technology divisions.
Support Staff Resources
Changes in policy may mean significant changes to support processes, and these may lead to operational inefficiency and diminished capacity—especially when technology resources are unavailable to support automated solutions. Operational concerns should not be the only determining factors in whether a policy change is implemented, but decision makers should be fully aware of those institutional costs. In addition, support staff will benefit from the advance notice for planning and training purposes.
If a proposed policy is worded in a way that makes it confusing or unclear, the implementation effort ultimately may be for naught. Poorly worded policies lead to inaccurate advisement, inconsistent application and enforcement, frustrated students, and the rework necessary to clarify the policy. Wording deficiencies can be addressed by soliciting feedback from stakeholders with a talent for written communication and a thorough understanding of the rhetorical situation of policy publications.
Academic experts proposing new and updated policies may not be well-versed in regulatory compliance, but proposed policies should harmonize with both the letter and the spirit of all relevant state, federal, and accrediting body standards. The registrar also may not be the ultimate authority in all regulatory matters but can provide a forum for those who have the requisite expertise to provide early input on regulatory implications in such important areas as accessibility, non-discrimination, FERPA, financial aid, and the alignment of pre-licensure programs with state licensure requirements (to name a few).
The Policy Curator
The pre-implementation effort to support well-executed academic policies still runs the risk of allowing outdated or ineffective policies to linger on the proverbial books if a post-implementation evaluative process does not also exist. The prudent registrar is an objective cultivator of effective academic policy and an active policy curator, providing “analyses, alternatives, options, conclusions, and recommendations as a result of regular or special reviews of academic policies...” (Pugh 2001, p. 30). The curator role of a registrar does not call for an entirely new set of processes and review criteria distinct from those of the cultivator role; rather, the criteria and subject matter experts that are most important in evaluating proposed policies will likewise be of importance in evaluating existing policies.
The policy curator’s reviews can be accomplished by itemizing existing policies within a comprehensive inventory and scheduling reviews at regular intervals. The review process can be conducted in much the same way as a policy proposal review, evaluating the policy in collaboration with its owners and other relevant stakeholders against the same criteria that were evaluated under the policy cultivator role. The policy curator can thereby contribute to policies that adapt and evolve with the institution in response to ongoing changes in student needs and higher education trends.
The policy curator can also provide a steadying influence in the process of institutional adaptation to external changes by analyzing how a relatively new policy compares to industry standards, best practices, and peer-reviewed research. For example, a first-year experience (FYE) policy may warrant some reconsideration and refinement when institutional student performance data are analyzed in conjunction with research like that conducted by Cavote and Kopera-Frye (2007) on the actual impact of FYE on the persistence of different types of postsecondary students. The policy curator can provide a forum in which to engage academic leaders and other policy stakeholders in such discussions and ensure that exploration into unfamiliar policy territory remains tethered to broadly accepted academic quality criteria and the assimilation of sound approaches to implementation.
The quality of academic policies may not be the first consideration that comes to mind when institutional leaders are strategizing for improved student persistence, retention, and graduation rates. Ongoing changes in how, when, and where twenty-first century postsecondary students are choosing to engage with higher education nevertheless suggest the benefits of a pragmatic approach to academic policy development buttressed by the deliberate and methodical consideration of policy implications. The registrar who is empowered and motivated to both cultivate and curate what can otherwise become an unwieldy thicket of policy confusion and frustration will be one of an institution’s most valuable resources in rising to the challenge.
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Blaney, B. R. 2009. The registrar and retention: A tribute to the dotted line. College & University. 84(3):53–57.
Cavote, S., and K. Kopera-Frye. 2007. Non-traditional student persistence and first year experience courses. Journal of College Student Retention. 8(4):477–89.
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Higher Learning Commission. 2018. Criteria for accreditation. Chicago, IL. Retrieved October 19, 2018, from: hlcommission.org/ Policies/criteria-and-core-components.html
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Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. 2018. Accreditation handbook. Redmond, WA. Retrieved October 19, 2018, from: nwccu.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Accreditation-Handbook-2017-edition.pdf
Pugh, R. G. 2001. The registrar as an academic officer. College & University. 77(2): 29-34.
Siebert, H. 2001. Der Kobra-Effect: Wie man Irrwege der Wirtschaftspolitik vermeidet. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.WASC Senior College and University Commission. 2018.
WSCUC standards of accreditation. Alameda, CA. Retrieved October 19, 2018, from: wscuc.org/resources/handbook-accreditation-2013/
Joe Tate is the Director of Program and Policy Implementation in the Registrar’s Office at University of Phoenix, and an ASQ Certified Quality Auditor. He has a Master of Arts in English from Northern Arizona University, a Master of Business Administration from University of Phoenix, and a Bachelor of Arts from Arizona State University.