As Tom Black becomes Johns Hopkins' first university registrar to coordinate and facilitate efforts across the institution's nine academic divisions, he sees the function as much more than keeping track of enrollments and transcripts. "I look at the registrar position as a craft," he says. "If done well, I believe it can enhance people's lives."
The leaders of the university's Student Services Excellence Initiative agree with the view that the way the university addresses key functions—including registration, career services, admissions, billing, financial aid, and academic advising—can improve the student experience at Johns Hopkins. As part of the multiyear effort, SSEI leaders determined that students consistently expressed confusion with the various processes and calendars that overlap across the university's different schools. In response, the registrars of those divisions called for a designated leader to help simplify and unify the function.
"We saw a demand for someone who could help all our registrars make registration more seamless," says Kevin Shollenberger, vice provost for student affairs and co-chair of the SSEI effort. In bringing Tom Black aboard, he says, "we can tap the expertise of a real thought leader in this profession who is nationally recognized for holistic approaches and innovative thinking on how to use technology."
Black, who began as JHU's assistant vice provost and university registrar on Oct. 2, has spent four decades working in related positions, including 10 years as university registrar and assistant vice provost at Stanford. Before that, he held registrar posts at the University of Chicago, Duke, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"Creating this new role struck me as a capstone for my career trajectory," Black says. "I saw that I could take all of my experience and apply it to this endeavor."
At Johns Hopkins, Black will work with the registrars who continue to serve individual schools and coordinate issues of broad interest to students. A top priority will be reducing the complications that can arise with cross-registration—a need that's become pressing as more students vary their course load among different schools.
Black also will join the ongoing efforts of the SSEI work group to create a "common calendar" that will better align the 24 academic calendars that currently exist across the university.
Black says he sees Johns Hopkins as an ideal lab for exploring new technologies in registrations and records—a focus that has defined his career thus far. At the University of Chicago in 2007, Black helped develop a pioneering model that became common practice across the nation: PDF transcripts that could be signed online.
More recently, Black has seen promise in tools such as e-portfolios, which serve as digital collections of students' learning experiences, and in digital platforms allowing on-demand access to verified credentials such as diplomas. He's also been exploring innovations in transcript formats, digital signatures, and constituency relationship management systems. At Stanford, he helped create a new platform for tracking accommodation requests from students with disabilities.
Over 40 years in his field, Black has seen the technology of choice progress from paper to phone to internet to mobile—and looking forward, to artificial intelligence. He says the challenge of keeping pace is what keeps him intrigued in a profession defined by order and precision.
The tasks of registration, he says, are ones that "can be done artfully to improve the experience for students, faculty, and staff."
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