Decentralized Communication & Project Management: Insights From 3 Leading Registrars

Decentralized Communication & Project Management: Insights From 3 Leading Registrars

Three higher ed leaders share how the registrar’s office at their institutions approach cross-campus collaboration, how to communicate during challenging times, and how to overcome stalled initiatives.

At Coursedog’s Virtual Summit for Higher Ed, a panel of three academic leaders shared how things get done in their decentralized academic environments. Panelists included:

  • Kim Barber, University Registrar, Florida State University
  • Laura Clark, District Director of Academic Systems and Student Records, City Colleges of Chicago
  • Courtney Resnick, Associate University Registrar, Johns Hopkins University

We’ve shared some of the session content with you below. To learn more, view the entire video.

The registrar’s office is often at the center of facilitating cross-campus collaboration. Why is that?

Kim Barber (KB): Florida State is a large public institution with 42K students. A lot of times we find that our 17 campuses are focused on their own discipline-specific initiatives. So, when we try to do something across the university, it’s sometimes hard to collaborate.

An example of where the registrar’s office can come into play on larger-scale university initiatives happened when the state legislature changed our performance funding and preeminence metrics, putting specific focus on the 4-year graduation rate. To figure it out, the office looked at our graduation data and found that students were not graduating when they otherwise could because they decided to add either a second major or a second degree in their final year.

This is obviously going to affect time to degree, so we worked with the colleges to develop appropriate policy language to address when and under what circumstances students can add a second major or degree if they’re late in your 4-year plan. It’s been a core part of our academic policy for 4-5 years.

Laura Clark (LC): One of the other reasons we are in the center is that we represent process, policy, and procedure. So, when people are looking to implement something new, we want to maintain correct policies. Or if we want to change policy, we do that through the proper channels. So, they go through the registrar’s office to collaborate.

What are some of the biggest challenges associated with collaboration across your institution?

Courtney Resnick (CR): At Johns Hopkins University, we have 9 academic divisions, each with its own registrar’s office. We hired a university registrar to streamline and standardize processes across campuses through a student services excellence initiative.

The biggest challenges are related to decision making and existing systems and processes. A lot still happens in the division, and registrars don’t report to the university registrar’s office. They each do what they think best, which can lead to an inconsistent student experience. Some students have to negotiate different academic calendars, for example. Beginning this fall, we will have a consistent university-wide calendar, and we are also implementing a single course catalog, again because each division has their own.

KB: It’s been my experience that when one college has a problem or an accepted norm, they don’t realize it’s different for other colleges or campuses. So, when you start making policy or procedure changes to normalize across the institution, you could get pushback. So, you have to explain the rationale. Understanding where other colleges are coming from and that they don’t see the same things as the registrar’s offices, helps in these communications.

University staff members meeting together.

What practices have you implemented to help your projects and initiatives succeed, especially those that extend across institutions?

LC: Part of my job is to support the registrars at each of our 7 campuses, so communication and collaboration are very key. The biggest thing that’s helped is holding monthly meetings where we talk about general updates, bring up different problems, discuss potential solutions, and share experiences. Especially now that we are working remotely, we meet more frequently. Zoom is our best friend.

CR: We’re geologically dispersed, so it’s normal to send a Zoom link out with every meeting invite. For me, the transition to working from home was easy in terms of technology and getting set up, though it’s not easy with a 2-year-old.

How have you continued best practices working from home? What’s changed?

LC: One of biggest changes was how we support the registrar offices. To service students, we could transfer most processes online. But for other things, for example, verification that required a seal. After determining how often the colleges used a seal, we created an electronic version. We also encourage sending electronic transcripts rather than paper, for which we aren’t in the office to receive. We communicate that things may take a little longer, but we will fulfill requests as soon as we can. So, students know we are not ignoring them.

CR: Implementing a university-wide catalog requires lots of communication with divisions, and flexibility is required. Also, a staff member (who formerly scheduled events and worked on final exams) has been able to help the divisions with the catalog. We have to use creative thinking to keep projects moving forward when resources are stretched pretty thin.

What does your trust-building process look like during this time? Is it different?

KB: The difference is the formalized structures for communication are not nimble enough during a crisis. On my campus, we worked with the provost and formed two faculty work groups (40-50 people in each) around the finer performing arts program and labs/clinicals/internships. We help the groups understand the challenges and implications of protocols, so I can connect them with resources. It’s much more deliberative and thought out to build relationships and share information.

Are there times when projects are getting stuck? How do you unstick them?

LC: We collaborate with the colleges and IT. Right now, IT has had to shift focus, and is stretched very thin. So, things can get a little derailed with COVID. We work very closely with IT on implementation of many of our projects. And we make the academic side is aware of what’s going on and any issues that arise..

CR: Projects do get stuck. One thing being tossed around is centralized room scheduling software. We’re looking at our spaces to identify scenarios for when students come back. It’s been really complicated, and has exposed weakness when each unit uses different systems for different reasons. I hope to use the current situation to drive home the need for centralizing.

KB: What works for one person doesn’t work for another, so you have to show everyone the larger picture. It’s challenging to work remotely, so we have to cut the staff some slack. Until you work at home for an extended period, you don’t realize how insulated an office environment is. The classic 8-hour day doesn’t unfold in the same way, so flexibility is the byword.

To learn more, click here to view the entire 45-minute video.

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