As COVID lingered into the early months of 2021, Dave Detrow found himself in a bit of a tight spot. Plans to retire in the summer after 44 years serving Eastern Mennonite University, almost all of those as registrar, were reappraised and delayed: Leaving the institution he had served for all of his career in the midst of such uncertainty was not a good option.
With fall semester looking more like semesters of the past, he looks to the calendar and sees time flying, as fast as it has in these pandemic-focused 18 months and apace with how the last 44 and half years have gone.
‘The heartbeat’ of EMU
In what we know now as the last semesters of Detrow’s long devotion to his profession and to EMU, he continued to earn esteem among colleagues who already loved and respected him. Setting that giant ship of EMU sailing forward into multiple COVID-time semesters meant challenges at every step to the philosophies and processes Detrow had developed and mastered over the years – the giant four-dimensional puzzle of logistics, collaboration, and communication at all phases, from class scheduling to registration, including faculty, facilities management staff, student success staff, advisors, and then finally students.
“We are going to miss Dave Detrow in ways we don’t even understand,” said Professor Melody Cash, chair of the nursing department. “I am sure we can find someone to be a registrar, but no one will ever replace him.”
Jan Kauffman, registrar at Goshen College, also shares a unique appreciation for Detrow. The two collaborated to bring all Mennonite college and university registrars together for a 2016 conference and their relationship has grown over many a workday and Saturday morning phone call.
“I have often felt that EMU was so fortunate to have such an amazingly gifted person in the role and someone who has worked tirelessly to help faculty and students,” Kauffman said. “Dave is the heartbeat of the institution with his vast knowledge of how things work, his care and concern for students and all people, and his many many hours of service beyond what anyone even knows to keep things running smoothly and efficiently.”
‘Part accountant, part information technologist, part counselor’
How do you calculate the impact of an entire career spent with one institution? For Detrow, one measurement stands out. Before any undergraduate student is conferred a degree, Detrow carefully reviews their academic record to assure that grades, credit totals and coursework meet required standards. His personal signature on a form showing the student’s academic history indicates final institutional approval that the degree should indeed be conferred. From 1982 to the present, Detrow has signed such a form for more than 10,600 undergraduates.
This is just one measurement of the registrar’s impact and influence across the university. But there are many more: One way of thinking about the registrar’s role is “an academic accountant, keeping track of the education records of all students,” says Kauffman, Detrow’s colleague at Goshen College.
She continues: We are often the keeper and enforcer of academic policies and procedures, for example, drop/add and withdrawal deadlines, incomplete policies, latin honors criteria, general education requirements, satisfactory academic progress, transferring of credits, transcripts, new course numbers, academic curriculum, and graduation requirements….We assign rooms and keep an eye on enrollments. We work with many departments as they assist students: admissions, financial aid, accounting, athletics, academic success center, retention, academic dean and provost offices, and student life. We help with new student orientation and summer advising. Most importantly we confer degrees and award diplomas.
Detrow sees the registrar’s role as “part accountant, part information technologist, and part counselor,” and sometimes more one than the other. “For example, there is a certain way to tell a student that they need to take this class instead of that class, or that your graduation at the end of this semester depends on you choosing this path or that path.”
Keeping this intricate system working smoothly is dependent on many others, Detrow says. “It’s not good enough to just get along,” he says. “We want everything to function smoothly, and people in my position cannot help to make that happen without good people on the other end.”
Those “good people” include advisors, deans and faculty across all disciplines, and facilities management staff. “That’s part of what makes it so fun, and that’s probably why I’m here so many years later. I don’t do the same thing two days in a row. And what we do now and the way we do it is not the same as it was 20 years ago.”
Guiding EMU through change
Detrow has skillfully guided the registrar’s office through many complex changes: the introduction of adult degree and graduate programs, many requiring revision of existing practices; changes from paper-based registration and degree audit systems to online registration and automated advising worksheets; the launch of the student portal Campus Web, now myEMU; and recently, the move to virtual methods of carrying out business in response to COVID. Through this, Detrow’s main objective has not changed.
“I want EMU to be about people teaching and learning. And what we do in our office is help that happen without all the logistical friction that could possibly get in the way, so those teachers are not distracted because their classroom isn’t adequate or those students aren’t able to graduate because the classes they need are offered at the same time,” he said. “We’re like the grease on the wheels of the whole machine. If we are doing our job right, all of the cogs of all the wheels are aligned and smooth, and our faculty and students are able to do their best teaching and their best learning.”
Amy Springer Hartsell, executive advisor to the president, names working with Detrow as one of the “top highlights” of her professional career. Like Detrow, she started as an admissions counselor, but moved into and then up the ranks of the undergraduate dean’s office in more than 20 years at EMU. Hartsell says Detrow is a “master craftsman, with finely tuned skills of serving students, working with faculty and supporting academic programs.” He brings “an exquisite attention to detail, utmost integrity and rock-steady demeanor,” all qualities that have contributed to his wide fan base across the university.
Hartsell, Cash and other colleagues say what they value most about Detrow is his capacity for servant leadership — to the mission and vision of the institution and to those who live and learn within its space.
“He is entirely student-centered,” says Assistant Provost for Student Success Zach Yoder, who logs multiple phone calls and emails each day with Detrow. “We work on advisor and advisee concerns and do a lot of problem-solving, always trying to default to what is in the best interest of the student in as many situations as possible.”
In his office, Detrow keeps mementos from some of those students, including several handmade ceramic cups, mugs and pitchers and a drawer full of thank-you notes. One from a transfer student captures his impact: “You have always been a friendly face eager to help us plan out our lives and change our schedules, only to [have us] come back the next week with more problems. Your patience and helpfulness was a major factor in my choosing to come to EMU after Hesston, and I was not disappointed.”
Detrow’s legacy at EMU echoes two other family members with long careers in Mennonite higher education. His uncle, J. Harold Yoder, taught physical education and coached baseball at Goshen College in Indiana for more than 30 years. And for nearly 40 years, his great-uncle Maurice A. Yoder taught natural science and Bible at Hesston College in Kansas. (“Someone needed to make a run for it here,” Detrow quips.)
As he prepares for life after EMU, Detrow and his wife Charmaine look forward to spending more time participating in living history and history education events. They want to travel around Virginia, particularly to the Eastern Shore and to the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Detrow will continue his frequent appointments as a platelet donor with the Red Cross, and eventually, when the time and job seem right, he thinks he’ll find some low-stress work.
“I like to think that those I’ve come across at EMU over the years have benefited in some way from my work, whether they know it or not,” he said. “What I’ve done is not always apparent, but I hope it’s made a difference.”
Editor’s note: Congratulations and anecdotes of Dave’s impact on your life are most welcome. Please share in the comment box below and we’ll make sure Dave sees them.