Eduvation Blog

2010 PACRAO Conference – Calgary

Ken Steele attended the 2010 conference of PACRAO (the Pacific Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers), an international conference held in Calgary this November, and in this blog he captures some of the better insights and ideas he heard in the presentations. The conference played on its Canadian location with the title, “Cool Ideas Begin Here,” and coolness recurred as a theme in various ways throughout the conference. (One session even tackled the issue of coolness for Registrars.)

I didn’t take notes on the opening keynote, but TWU’s Grant McMillan did, so check out his blog here.

“Undergraduate and Graduate Retention: Two Concepts, One Outcome”
Maria Kohnke, Angela Naginey, & Cathy Alexander, California Lutheran University

Three representatives from California Lutheran University explained that student retention initiatives are not just good enrolment planning that makes fiscal sense for the institution, but are also the moral, right thing to do. They have calculated the dollars saved in recruitment marketing for every ten students retained, which helps make the case to administration for funding. Solid data gathering and analysis is critical to identify issues and justify investments. (“In God we trust; all others must bring data.”) Collaboration across campus, including faculty, financial aid, student services, residence, athletics and more, is also essential for successful retention activity.

There is considerable research published on undergraduate retention, but virtually none on retention in graduate and adult programs, and no national reporting as there is for freshmen, hence no accepted definition for retention. Adult students are much more likely to stop out, because “life happens,” and then return a semester or even a year later. While it was possible to develop one retention plan across campus for undergraduates, for grad programs CLU had one plan to tie together different plans across campus. Graduate retention objectives had to be developed much more individually and subjectively by program, since comparator benchmarks were not available.  They also needed to shift administrative attention from credits retained to people retained.

Tactical undergraduate retention initiatives included implementing early alert software, enhancing academic advising, improving customer service and communication in student services. At the grad and adult level, retention initiatives included orientation, follow-up, newsletters, mentoring, advising, housing, study skills workshops, adjunct faculty workshops, outstanding student recognition, and faculty evaluations.

“Administrative Speak: Communications Across the Faculty/Staff Divide”
Adam Pave, Pomona College

Adam Pave, associate registrar at Pomona College, led a discussion about “communicating across the faculty/staff divide.”  He warned us that he was focusing on negatives and challenges, although positives also exist.  Many faculty perceive administrators as academics who couldn’t make it in the classroom, and/or failed government employees interested in creating more red tape. Some faculty bloggers describe AdminSpeak as “a curious Orwellian-based language” in which what is meant is often the precise opposite of what is said. “Selective excellence” is a warning that budget cuts are looming.

In faculty speak, research is far more important than teaching, and service is something to be minimized as much as possible. Selfishness is rewarded on the tenure track: you must publish or perish in the first five years. There are about 10 tenure-track positions for every 800 PhD holders in philosophy of religion. To be considered a serious scholar, you must demonstrate a slight level of disdain for teaching and service. Tenure protects academic freedom, but can allow senior profs to become unproductive, with guaranteed lifetime employment. Advice books for grad students urge them not to serve on committees or subgroups that can eat up immense amounts of time with little discernible outcome, and no personal benefit. Some differences of perspective are caused because faculty are focused on their own individual success, and administrators tend to be focused on institutional success.

Attendees at the session offered many examples of the tensions between faculty and administrators on campus: faculty kindly admit too many students to their classes with insufficient equipment; tenured faculty refuse to learn to use a computer; departments change their own rules but not the forms; tenured profs resist business rules of the campus, such as “final grades being an optional sport”; faculty bending deadlines for students; insensitivity or cultural blindness to the reality of workaday administrators; faculty perceive policy as the arbitrary tyranny of administration, even when faculty senate created it; inappropriate grade changes; faculty who commit to an admissions committee but then fail to review the files; faculty associations who fight tooth and nail to prevent disciplinary actions, however egregious the sins; faculty committees that take months or years to deliberate without making any decisions at all; faculty making decisions about tests or exams without considering student rights; and faculty who believe that academic freedom trumps legislative requirements.

Adam proposed three simple “rules of engagement” (adapted from a blog on how to lose friends and influence no-one).  Three of the ten commandments essentially mean “don’t waste faculty time.” In committees comprised of 100% faculty, things actually progress smoothly, and in committees comprised of 100% administration likewise; it’s when a committee is blended that the fireworks happen. Faculty like to talk, but generally hate meetings, and report that administrator-led meetings are invariably longer than necessary. Faculty members need to understand that a committee is not the same as an academic conference — and that a committee is a commitment. The best way to streamline committee work is to talk one-on-one with committee members in advance.

Secondly, it’s also vitally important not to insult faculty intelligence.  Business style “need-to-know” management frustrates faculty, who want straight facts.  Major decisions are often known weeks in advance. Faculty despise the “infantilizing crap” taught in management,  and resent excessive jargon. Many strategic decisions require institutional buy-in, but faculty perceive it as meaning that administration intends to convince them, not that administration is open to input and better ideas. Faculty want a voice, and successful administrators will earn buy-in by listening to faculty.

The third rule of engagement is that administrators should not make important decisions in May, because faculty are unavailable at end of semester.  Faculty are also forgetful, but can be patiently retaught, over and over if necessary.

“A Blogload of Coolness: Who wants to be a Registrar?”
Grant McMillan, Trinity Western University

Grant McMillan, Registrar at Trinity Western University, presented on coolness, and how to restore coolness to a role that nobody understands. Some in the audience define the Registrar’s job as “helping students graduate,” while others see themselves as “defenders of the catalogue.” But as Grant observes, nobody grows up wanting to be a Registrar, and there isn’t a Registrar in the neighbourhood on Sesame Street.  Yet Registrars are ancient professionals — created in the middle ages — and can be seen as the “conscience of the institution.”

Grant started his blog, “Who wants to be a Registrar?“, in January 2009, to be more transparent about the role and help train staff and other institutional leaders. Surprisingly, there are few registrars blogging about the profession in general; one registrar in the UK blogs about university rankings, and another in Virginia blogs for students about the enrolment process.  The search engine on his blog is intended to allow registrars everywhere to dig up helpful information about hot topics, from cheating to diploma mills. Grant wants to encourage registrars to contribute guest posts with good ideas, like Stefanie Ivan’s post on mythbusting during orientation.

(I have to be honest, I’m not sure that I left the session with a clear sense of how to make Registrars cool. It seems to me that something about retaining the sense of mystery in the medieval title, like Bursars and Chancellors, would be part of it.  And maybe the fact that Registrars “know where the bodies are buried” and are “licensed to expell.” But I think Grant wants to encourage a sense of openness, transparency, and collegial dialogue — which is all well and good, of course, but I don’t know if it’s exactly “cool”…)

I’ll continue blogging tomorrow with more coverage of the sessions I get to see!  Feel free to comment below if you have other observations from the conference!

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