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Teleology: Why the End Justifies the Means

Teleology is examining a phenomenon and the purpose it serves, while focusing on ensuring that it’s a worthwhile endeavour.
Teleology is examining a phenomenon and the purpose it serves, while focusing on ensuring that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Everything the registrar’s office does must move the student experience forward. It’s important to know what to maintain and what to change to accomplish this goal.

Evo: What is teleology, and how does it impact the registrar’s role?

Carolyn Gentle Genitty (CGG): Teleology (pronounced tell-e-ology) is the examination of a phenomenon for the purpose it serves. It is an old term usually evident in the idea that the end justifies the means. The aim is to explore purpose versus cause and effect. In academic disciplines where the word is used regularly, it is juxtaposed with the term deontology. Deontology is essentially teleology’s opposite. When we do not look at something for its purpose, we inadvertently seek to assess what has caused it and whether it is good or bad. Examining both enables informed decision-making.

Historically, the registrar’s role is defined as duty-based, obligation-driven and morality-structured. A role often characterized by getting data out timely, sharing data ethically, speaking only when asked and listening to act and not react. The institution’s constituents define policies and structures on what and how to collect, input and report data. They all rested on how the individual in that role saw themselves fulfilling their obligations to the institution. But this has changed. Institutions have added a social mission to their institutional missions, causing the modern registrar to take on different roles. Adopting new technologies and maintaining a galvanized focus on student success has resulted in the need for registrars to think about the sum of the parts, thus necessitating a teleology or results-oriented frame of reference. Rather than having a personalized duty to the institution alone, they must now ask if the results are beneficial to students and whether the end justifies the means. So, it takes us back to that idea of focusing on our purpose, working for students.

Evo: Why is now the time to be having these discussions about the registrar’s changing role?

CGG: Purpose, technology and people have changed. To fulfill their roles, registrars are largely carrying out their duties in the “other duties assigned” portion of their job descriptions. This alone acknowledges the unwieldy and growing tasks yet to be named on their job descriptions.

Allow me to frame an analogy. Think of the registrar’s role as a taxi. In the past, it operated in a very structured way. A taxi was hailed to take a person from point A to point B, for which you paid a fare. The taxi had no other interaction with said person and no access to personal preferences. With technology, GPS, and social behavioral data collected through digital data sharing, the yellow cab is almost obsolete in the U.S., and industries like Lyft and Uber (and soon self-driving cars) have cornered the market. A person no longer has to accept the constraints of the old taxi, they can have just-in-time requests, picked up from and dropped off exactly where they need to be, pay on the spot or in advance, know their driver’s name, car, license plate and driving history before ever entering the car and be privy to customer review. They can estimate their time of arrival, look up alternative routes, share a ride to cut cost and a vast array of other options.

The innovation has nothing to do with the purpose. The purpose of getting from point A to point B remains stable, and it will be for centuries to come. It is the driver’s role and duty that has changed in light of access to technology, changing user needs and student expectations—none of which will slow anytime soon.

Now is the time because, like the taxi, the value of higher education is waning, as students find other platforms meeting their changing needs more readily, easily and cheaply.

Evo: Which of the registrar’s roles are being automated?

CGG: Many, but data collection is a main one. Many Student Information Systems (SIS) have been purchased to siphon data from a large number of sources into one place to use and apply to the student record. Even search engine optimizers and customer relationship management software (CRM) have been adopted. And other options for receiving and sending transcripts via pdf or XML data are in the works, all in an effort to support the emerging needs of students and institutions as more learning management software (LMS) become ubiquitous and we seek more application program interfaces (APIs) to foster communication between systems.

Evo: It seems like a shift towards being more student-centric, making things as simple as possible for everybody, including students, which is less work for registrars and less time spent waiting for the student.

CGG: You are right! The goal is to facilitate workflow for students—that’s teleology at work. When the purpose of what we do is for students, we see their best interests represented in every action, decision and reaction. If there is friction in the student journey that technology, workflow automations and shared communication can ease, then the end justifies the means.

Evo: How would you characterize the modern registrar in one word?

CGG: If I had to give a title to the new registrar, I would call it an INSIDER. They are informed, nimble, systemic, inclusive, data-oriented, equipped and responsive. They are poised for all academic conversations and to help the institution value data and student experiences and be truthful in advertising.

If we were to do an entity-relationship diagram, all roads would lead to the registrar because they touch every single part of higher ed. From the suspect to the prospect, from the enrolled to the graduated, staff and recruiters to students and faculty. Even those with stranded credit find themselves interacting with the local university registrars; they are all-knowing insiders!

Evo: You have discussed a three-trait orientation for registrars. The product, the purpose and the people. Can you expand a little on its benefits?

CGG: Registrars should simultaneously emphasize product and process informed by people, namely students but inclusive of all users (parents, staffers, faculty, employers, data seekers and so on). The visual is a series of circular arrows chasing each other; losing any one causes the system to fall apart. The product fuels the process, and the people (students) inform the speed, emphasis and output, not only because they are the consumers of the goods higher ed sells but because we use their data to make decisions for programs, workflows, growth, staffing and identify patterns to better serve and maintain the value of higher ed. Teleology asks that decisions be made on the backs of purpose; purpose is realized by paying attention to the three-trait orientation of product-process-people—attention to the relevance of the product we sell, the processes we use and the value of stakeholder (student) input.

So, no matter the new color of the yellow cab, if the taxi lacks the modern user experiences customers expect and the processes remain duty-focused, self-serving, antiquated and clunky, it means teleology is absent and stakeholder input is not valued. Such institutions and roles will cease to exist without innovation.

Evo: What can institutions do to be more student-centric in their daily operations?

CGG: Adopt a teleology frame of reference to give all a why. Then in everything, ask why. If the answer is not “Because it is in the students’ best interests,” define the friction and plan to respond. Do so by keeping tabs on the purpose of higher ed: providing access to education, meeting the needs of all students, and innovating for economic growth. Bring the utility of the registrar’s role to the forefront. Empower and compensate them as frontline experts. Embrace gradual change by adopting at least one new change annually to keep systems nimble and relevant based on students’ data trends for enrollment, persistence and completion. These philosophical steps in standard operating procedures will fuel the change needed to bring relevance and positive outcomes for all stakeholders, especially students.

This interview was edited for length and clarity

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