The Not So Usual Suspects

Hiring workers from the corporate world to work in admissions, registrars’ and other offices requires managers and employees alike to think differently, writes Chuck Hurley.


April 15, 2009

A number of colleges and universities are aggressively recruiting professionals from outside academe for various administrative roles. Many of these professionals come to our campuses from substantial corporate careers, with excellent aptitude for the job at hand, and are generally wonderful additions to our staffs. The test we often face as managers is to give these new staff members basic knowledge of what professionals in their fields – in my case, registrars and enrollment managers -- really “do.” Although very talented, many of the professionals from outside academe have little knowledge about the nature, culture and structure of higher education.

One of the first career counseling issues we face with new staff is to help them comprehend our work as a vocation. Many people who work in higher education still utilize the word “vocation” instead of “job.” They correctly view their responsibilities as having a much more profound impact on the world then a regular “job” would.

This is a new line of logic for scores of professionals. Often, being drawn to a vocation is already in their heart. In fact, I have discovered this is the primary reason why so many talented professionals leave the business world and join us in higher education. However, the expression of that vocation is still important for them to visualize and verbalize. Regular "touch base" sessions with staff can help facilitate the expression of such ideas and get them to open up. Such an expression leads to a far more dedicated and fulfilled staff member.

People new to the profession require specialized training to comprehend exactly who and what the registrar originally was at a university. The short answer is they were faculty members. The registrar's profession is an ancient one that dates to the medieval university. Medieval registrars were regarded as an academic officer from the faculty ranks who proclaimed messages, maintained records and executed the mandates of the university authorities. Understanding the raison d'être for the registrar is a critical comprehension for new staff.

As collegiate enrollments grew in the 19th century, a swift change came to the registrar profession. By 1880, 10 percent of the institutions of higher learning had full-time registrars, 42 percent by 1900, 76 percent by 1910, and over 90 percent by 1920. If staff members grasp how the profession originated, they have a much better opportunity to cultivate services and grown their career.

Training for such staff often has more to do with the function and philosophy of a college or university on the whole, rather than the specific operational mechanics of a position. Most professional staff are equipped to quickly deal with the operational challenges in an efficient manner. Often, it is the nature, culture and structure of higher education that perplexes them.

The culture of higher education is very different from the corporate world. I came from a corporate background to work at a university. That first year was quite a learning experience. When I was working in the corporate world, money was the sole decision making instrument. Professionals coming from the corporate world have lived within an apparatus where the only question to ask was, “Does this increase revenue?” Treating fellow employees or subordinates with disrespect was simply not a concern in the corporate world.

In higher education, most folks have little tolerance for treating people with disrespect. Whereas in private industry it is perfectly acceptable to dress a person down in public on multiple occasions, higher education has a different set of standards. One really must pick and choose very precise times to fight public battles. Staff members who do not hold the respect of their peers often have a challenging time succeeding. Actually, on balance this is one of the most attractive aspects of higher education to the outside professional. They are sick of being treated poorly, are looking for a new challenge and wish to strive for the internal fulfillment that a successful vocation can bring.

Mobility can be a great marketing tool for attracting new professionals into the registrar and enrollment management profession. Even during our challenging economy, one can click on the Inside Higher Ed jobs page and find numerous openings in the field of enrollment management. If you work at a corporation, mobility is quite limited. The accounting department only wants CPAs, marketing want staff who have worked for advertising firms, I.T. departments only want folks with at least three Final Fantasy posters and a Wookie costume.(fun line.)

Such constraints on mobility are not quite so limited at a college or university. Most institutions are like mini cities unto themselves. Jobs regularly go to internal candidates first. This means a person can switch positions, often without uprooting their entire life and family.

Attrition can be what a manager makes of it. In contemporary society, people are going to hold many positions in their lifetime. I am not looking for someone who just wants to plop down into a comfortable job for the next 30 years. I want a go-getter. A person who is going to work his or her tail off, wants to earn an advanced degree and move up the institutional ladder. That type of person is going to be an incredibly productive staff member. If I can just hold onto that individual for two or three years, I consider it a success. Then, I can go out and hire a new person just as driven.

One way to reduce attrition is to hire staff from outside academe with ties to the institution. Too often we look at our graduating seniors and alumni and say, “Why would they want to work here?” Most of these former students adore their alma mater. They would do anything to support their school, including take a position at a lower income than what they might earn in the corporate world. Several of the alumni who have joined our Office of the Registrar from the private sector report vastly increased job satisfaction. This allows for a dramatic increase in productivity and efficiency for the institution, and a decrease in attrition.

An attrition issue most institutions face with all staff members is salary. Higher education simply cannot pay what the corporate world offers. In the private sector, money is the ultimate status symbol and reason for staying with a company. Higher education pays fairly, but rarely can match the glamour of high salaries and bonuses available from major corporations.

In my experience, registrars and enrollment managers need to accentuate the excellent benefits that higher education positions typically offer. For example, our health care benefits often vastly exceed those of private corporations. Moreover, the educational benefit of taking classes at no cost or a drastically reduced cost is a major attraction. Finally, the controlled stress level of working in higher education means your odds of living a longer life significantly increase.

The point at which staff from outside academe integrate themselves into a registrar’s office varies by individual. Integration to the profession typically occurs when these individuals start making strategic decisions. Such decisions are often well thought out and nuanced at an important level. Rather than thinking solely in terms of revenue or self promotion, the staff realign their thought process to scholarship, advising, graduation rate and student-faculty satisfaction.

We now are in the educational postmodern era. New technology and financial pressures are pushing us forward. However, technologies and finances still need to be balanced with our traditional duties. Hiring well qualified staff from outside academe is an excellent way to tackle many of the contemporary issues we face in higher education.


Chuck Hurley is associate university registrar and interim director of summer session at the University of Notre Dame. He is presenting a version of this talk at the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers this week.


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