Confessions of a conference junkie

Maureen Skinner, like other delegates at the meeting of America’s university administrators, shared her troubles in song amid the talk of tough times

May 29, 2009

It’s Not the Way That I Want

(to the tune of You’re the One That I Want)

I’ve got chills. They’re multiplying

’Cos this room’s too damn cold

It’s on the fourth floor, no elevator

It’s mystifying!

It’s not the room that I want! Oo-oo-oo

Honey, not the one that I want! Oo-oo-oo

Not the one that I need… I’m a PhD!!!

I’ve got grades. They need submitting

And you’re saying: do it online

But that’s not how I’ve always done it

You’re out of your mind!!!

It’s not the way that I want! Oo-oo-oo

It’s not the way that I want! Oo-oo-oo

It’s not the way that I need… I’m a PhD!!!

Writing songs, albeit ones that reflect the travails of the university administrator, is not what delegates to the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) might have expected.

But my personal highlight of the Chicago meeting was the session entitled: “AACRAO’s Greatest Hits”.

The conference handbook promised much. “Humour takes many forms. Join us in a creative endeavour to develop songs (parodies) that reflect the joys and traumas of our professional workdays,” wrote Christine Kerlin and John Snodgrass in the handbook.

We were divided into groups and given one hour to write new lyrics to the tune of any well-known song. The results were astonishing. One group came up with a song about the budget director to the tune of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands; another presented You Are a Slacker (aimed at work-shy colleagues) to the tune of We Will Rock You; one team offered Hover Parents to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club; and my group performed Conference Blues to the tune of Ring of Fire.

The Chicago meeting, “Charting the path to institutional and student success” was the fifth annual AACRAO conference that I had attended on behalf of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) – AACRAO is one of the AUA’s international sister organisations.

Scheduled immediately after the AUA national conference in Exeter, it was an ideal opportunity to reflect on our own conference and to absorb ideas from across the Atlantic. AACRAO conferences are generally attended by well over 3,000 delegates and usually take place in huge hotels or convention centres. This year, we were in the vast McCormick Place, south of the city centre and a bus ride away from the conference hotel.

Like the AUA, AACRAO suffered a drop in delegates to its conference this year – which was unsurprising considering the impact of the economic downturn on institutional budgets and pressure to reduce spending on travel, training and other non-essential expenses. While we might argue that this is the very time to invest in staff development, we can’t avoid the fact that soft budgets will be vulnerable in these uncertain times. The Chicago conference had its fair share of sessions to suggest ways of dealing with the downturn, although in the US the impact on students’ families and their ability to support upfront fees is perhaps more immediate than in the UK.

As usual, I was spoilt for choice in terms of working sessions, which, like those at the AUA’s meeting, are very focused on practical issues. Indeed, The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that, notwithstanding the “continuing financial meltdown… the focus remains on the day-to-day challenges facing attendees – how to forecast enrolment, comply with Ferpa (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act), spot transcript fraud, and so on”. I attended one such session led by Allen Ezell on “Transcript and Diploma Fraud: Detection, Protection and Resources”, which covered a huge range of websites (more than 70) selling counterfeit diplomas and transcripts, including sites with fairly unmistakable titles such as PhonyDiploma.com, NextDayDiplomas.com, The UniversityShoppe.com, BackAlleyPress.com and even eBay. Ezell, who was employed by the FBI for 35 years, founded and headed the agency’s Dipscam diploma-mill task force. He is the author of Degree Mills (Prometheus 2005) and, more recently, Counterfeit Diplomas and Transcripts (AACRAO 2008).

Strategic enrolment planning has long been a speciality of AACRAO, and it runs an annual strategic enrolment management conference. It views retention as an integral aspect of enrolment, and while it is true that attrition rates in the US, particularly among ethnic minorities and poorer communities, are significantly higher than in the UK, we can learn much from the American experience; attrition rates in the UK remain stubbornly higher for non-traditional students than for students with three good A levels. Other sessions provided a unique US perspective on targeting “at risk” students (both academic and financial), methods of communication with students, student campus employment schemes, the impact of social networking sites, study abroad and the perennial US concern over the Bologna Process. Many of these topics also feature in AACRAO publications, including recently published, mighty tomes on The Registrar’s Guide: Evolving Best Practices in Records and Administration and The College Admissions Officer’s Guide.

Despite the economic downturn the Chicago conference still hosted a sizeable exhibition, with more than 100 exhibitors. And next year AACRAO is celebrating its 100th anniversary, with the annual meeting taking place in New Orleans in April 2010, timed to coincide with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

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