Developing Professional Excellence in the Registrar’s Office

Given our role as higher education leaders, the professional development of our staff is often high on our priority list. We want our staff to continue growing and developing their skills and knowledge.  We want them to enjoy work and thrive in their positions.  And given resource-constraints we often need them doing more with less.  Yet, despite these ambitions, many registrars are at a loss when considering how to move forward.  Two of the major obstacles we run into involve determining what we really ought to do to advance our staff’s professional development and finding the time and resources to do it.  At the University of Utah we recently embarked on a year-long journey in the pursuit of professional excellence that may serve as a model for how you might implement something similar on your campuses.

For context, the Registrar’s Office at the University of Utah consists of 35 staff members.  Of this number 11 are salaried and considered “professional staff” and 24 are in full-time hourly, clerical positions.  One of the challenges we realized was that many of our professional staff, though hard working and knowledgeable about their areas, seemed to lack a broader vision for how their worked fit within the contexts of enrollment management or student affairs.  Some appeared dissatisfied with their work while others were too comfortable with the status quo.  Others performed as if they were still in clerical positions, albeit rewarded for their dedication with better income.  In response to this situation, our University Registrar, Tim Ebner, and I set out to develop a program that would address these challenges and hopefully inspire our professional-level staff to embrace all that being a leader and professional entails.

To help inform and guide efforts we drew upon three different theoretical sources.  First, we considered the idea that adult, professional learning should be approached differently than with traditional aged college students.  According to Knowles (1976, 1990), andragogy (adult learning) involves beginning with the that adults are self-directed learners pursuing knowledge from their intrinsic motivation to better themselves and understanding the role of teacher as facilitator of learning rather than transmitter of knowledge.  Knowles further suggested that work-related relevance critical for adults.  This prompted us to involve the professional staff in the program design to ensure ownership and commitment.  Next, we followed a basic cycle of learning at work suggested by Taylor and Furnham (2005) which entailed seven components:  (a) analyze needs, (b) select participants, (c) write learning objectives, (d) design content, (e) facilitate, (f) evaluate, and (g) modify as needed.  And finally, we agreed with Van Velsor and McCauley’s (2004) assertion that leader development includes a process of assessment, challenge and support as well as a variety of developmental experiences.

Together with the professional staff we committed to 17 different learning outcomes in the areas of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be strengthened over the course of 14 different meetings throughout the academic year.  Some of the knowledge outcomes involved gaining an introductory understanding of basic student development theories and better understanding self and others.  We expected that participants would advance their skills related to modeling and communicating professional excellence as well as establishing or strengthening mentor relationships both on and off campus.  Some of the attitudes we sought to deepen were valuing continuous improvement; seamless navigation; and the removal of barriers to student success and taking responsibility for maintaining trust, respect, authenticity and fairness.

The only costs incurred besides the investment of time and relationships, involved purchasing the short film series by Marcus Buckingham entitled, Trombone Player Wanted as well as access codes for the StrengthsFinder assessment.  The six motivational clips in the film series lasted about 10-15 minutes each and provided an excellent opening for conversations about what it means to embrace our strengths and thrive at work.  In one of our sessions, an Academic Advisor and our Associate Director of Career Services debriefed the StrengthsFinder and led the staff in exercises to help embed the StrengthsFinder methodology in our everyday conversations.  In other sessions we interviewed a Registrar from one of our benchmark institutions by teleconference, our Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management, and the Director of a Student Affairs graduate program.  In these interviews we learned about the professional journeys of these colleagues and they offered practical advice for our participants to embrace their own journeys.  In other sessions we invited colleagues from various Student Affairs divisions at the University to introduce our group to student development theories and explore how they might be utilized to better inform our work with students and others.

Three meetings remain before the conclusion of this program.  However, mid-point feedback from participants indicated they are all satisfied with the sessions and believe this is a good use of work time.  All of the responders stated they were learning more about themselves and how to develop as professionals.  At the conclusion of the program we will conduct a more thorough assessment but even now we are quite pleased with the success of the initiative and have noted a marked shift in the teamwork and enthusiasm with which our professional staff operate.



  • Buckingham, M.  (Producer). (2006).  Trombone Player Wanted.  [DVD]. Available from
  • Knowles, M. S. (1976). Separating the Amateurs from the Pros in Training. Training & Development Journal, 30(9), 16. Retrieved from:
  • Knowles, M. S. (1990). The Adult Learner:  A Neglected Species. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Co.
  • Taylor, J., & Furnham, A. (2005). Learning at Work:  Excellent Practice from Best Theory. New York, NY: Palgrave McMillan.
  • Van Velsor, E., & McCauley, C. D. (2004). Our View of Leadership Development. In C. D. McCauley & E. Van Velsor (Eds.), The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development (pp. 1-22). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Michael_SantarosaMichael Santarosa, Ed.D. has worked in higher education for approximately 20 years at institutions in California, Alaska, Indiana, and Utah.  Since 2012 he has served as the Associate Registrar at the University of Utah overseeing student service operations, professional development, and assessment projects.   On August 1, he will transition to serve as the Registrar at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

Author’s Comments:  A version of this article appeared in AACRAO’s Connect Field Notes on March 23, 2016.

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