University registrar keeps Yale ticking

Ligato_registrar-93
Photo by Lorenzo Ligato.

The records of students’ lives at Yale are in new hands.

This July, Gabriel Olszewski became the first University Registrar at Yale. This position replaces what was the registrar for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and gives him a higher profile than registrars of years past. With over two decades of experience in student services at both private and public universities, Olszewski now is responsible for both safeguarding student records at Yale and devising new online tools to meet the academic needs of students and faculty.

The registrar’s office underpins much of the academic experience at Yale: it assigns courses to rooms, handles class registration, receives grades from professors and creates student transcripts. The office compiles records of students from the time they apply to Yale until they graduate, and keeps them in perpetuity.

Yet when the Office of the Registrar does its job well, its workings are hardly noticed, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said. For all the components behind class registration and a student’s final transcript to come together, she said, “a lot of magic has to take place in the back room.”

Equipped with knowledge of what Dean Plummer, project manager from financial planning and analysis, described as “best practices” in registrar offices nationwide, Olszewski now manages a team of about two dozen from his third floor office at 246 Church St. He also collaborates with administrators and faculty across Yale’s graduate and undergraduate academic programs as well as Information Technology Services.

The job requires Olszewski to think about how new technologies can best serve Yale students and faculty; he sees himself as an intermediary between academic departments and the information systems they need to organize classes and grades.

“I’m fundamentally a record keeper, but I spend most of my time developing and creating tools,” he said.

Spending six to eight hours in meetings each day, Olszewski said he hopes to understand the culture of Yale and then help the University run even more efficiently than it does now.The main function of the registrar’s office is to maintain information pertinent to a student’s time at Yale.
Olszewski calls himself “the steward of student records” — records that include everything from basic information about students’ names and physical addresses to their grades, financial aid information and admissions profiles.

“A critical thing that we all rely on is absolutely accurate academic records, for students and the university, so that transcripts are absolutely accurate and available on a timely basis,” Plummer said.

One of the biggest transitions in registrars’ offices nationwide in the last few decades has been the switch from paper to electronic records, Olszewski said. Yale still maintains old paper records in its archives, but has also created electronic images of records dating back to the 1850s. Yale introduced its first electronic record system in the 1970s.

Olszewski said keeping track of student information remains central to a registrar’s job, even as the form of records changes over time. Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said the maintenance of records is “essential” to any student who, upon graduating from Yale, needs to provide a transcript to a future employer. He added that collecting data over time also allows the University to track academic trends.

“People always think of a lion guarding a vault, and we don’t really do it that way anymore,” Olszewski said, adding that records are “cared for carefully in servers behind many firewalls.”

Some of the changes he hopes to make first are to enable professional school students to order transcripts electronically — an option already available to college and graduate school students — and to introduce electronic transcript delivery.

But he was hired for reasons greater than his record-keeping prowess. Olszewski comes to Yale with over a decade of experience in registrar positions: he served as university registrar for both the University of California at San Diego and the University of Chicago and also held positions at UChicago related to technology and institutional research.

Members of the Yale search committee that chose Olszewski said he distinguished himself at previous institutions as a skilled manager of people and an innovative thinker.

“We were looking for someone with experience developing organizations, someone with experience implementing technology,” said Ernst Huff, associate vice president for student financial and administrative services.

At Stanford University, Olszewski facilitated a transition from a barely-automated office to a highly-automated office, which required shifting the responsibilities of staff, Olszewski said. Similarly, at the University of Chicago, Olszewski said he implemented an online grading system and then realigned staff — who no longer needed to spend time entering grades by hand — to work in other areas.

“He’s viewed within the national arena of registrars as one of the top leaders and one of the top registrars,” Huff said.

About ten years ago, the University attempted to introduce an automated system for assigning courses to classrooms, with unsuccessful results: “There were some courses that were booked for the same location, there were some courses booked for storage rooms, there were some cross-listed courses that were given separate locations,” Olszewski said.

Situations like these serve as reminders that information systems need to be carefully designed and tested before they are put into use, he said, explaining that even a small number of errors in matching courses to rooms can disrupt the schedules of hundreds of students and dozens of faculty.

Though many processes for class enrollment and grading are automated at Yale, after the failed attempt a decade ago, professors and courses still are assigned largely by hand to rooms.

One of Olszewski’s major roles is to “facilitate the teaching experience.” Here, he said, is where he sees room for improvement.

Olszewski said he would like to introduce an online tool that tracks students’ progress toward distributional requirements and the requirements of their major, which he said would be useful both for students and their advisers. If students and faculty can view this information online, advising could become “less about counting courses” and more about identifying and guiding students’ aspirations, he said.

Another important project will be to revamp the Online Course Information site so that students can browse it more easily, he said, adding that this is especially important as the Blue Book stops coming out in print.

Martina Munsters, dean of the humanities division at the University of Chicago, where Olszewski served as university registrar for the last three years, said that he is a good listener and would take into account the opinions of students, faculty and administrators when making changes. Susan Art, dean of students in the college at the University of Chicago, said Olszewski was “attuned” to the needs of UChicago’s community.

“He’s visionary and he’s strategic,” Art said. “He’s able to take a longer view about what an institution needs, and then he’s able to figure out what are the intermediate changes you put in place in order to accomplish that goal.”

Since assuming his position this summer, Olszewski said he has devoted much of his time to familiarizing himself with the “community and its culture” at Yale. He has been reaching out to the people he will work with in efforts to learn what expectations and desires students and faculty have before getting to work on new projects.

“He’s got a kind of gentle and polite manner, but he also has a strong sense of the direction in which his office needs to be moving,” Gordon said.

Olszewski assumed the position of University registrar on July 18.

Comments

  • Tedjazz

    I am currently looking for a career change after working in the financial industry for over 25 years. Being a well organized record keeper and an innovator, working as a registrar seems a natural fit. Anyone have any ideas about breaking into this academic industry perhaps as an assistant registrar and learning the ropes?