Faculty Members Are Not Cashiers

Why the 'customer service' lingo in academe is bad for students


March 17, 2014

This month Texas A&M University at Kingsville posted a new job ad for a faculty member in early-modern/Renaissance literature. The first line of the "job summary" reads, in all capital letters: "PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE." A bit lower, the job description mentions that the selected candidate will have to teach four courses a semester while remaining "active in research, professional development, and service to the university and profession."

The ad represents a culmination of dangerous trends in higher education that threaten to erode the single most important relationship we form in our profession: the complex, multifaceted one between teacher and student.

For years now, corporate language and thinking has invaded academe, correlating with many other trends—the decline of public funding from states, the rising price of tuition, the amenities arms-race in student housing, the administrative bloat, the demands of assessment culture, and, most of all, the general saturation of corporate-speak into academic life. Institutions, especially branch campuses of public university systems and small private colleges, feel perpetually strapped for cash and desperate for tuition revenue.

In that context, the attempt to shift the world of higher education into the business paradigm seems rational to administrators: Without customers—i.e., students—faculty jobs will be cut, programs shuttered, and staff members "downsized."

Meanwhile, students (and their families) are taking on ever-increasing amounts of debt, paying higher tuition, and fearing that they will never earn enough to make those costs worthwhile (although a recent study from the Pew Research Center found that "for millennials, a bachelor’s degree continues to pay off"). It’s no wonder that American students in particular bring the cult of "the customer is always right" to the college campus. They’ve paid their money—or they will over the next 30 years or so—now they want service.

But public discourse has consequences for how we think and act. Tell faculty members that they are obligated to treat students like customers, and the instructors will either eschew rigor in favor of making satisfaction guaranteed or work defensively lest they be harangued by the irate customer. Tell students that they are consumers, and they will act like consumers but ultimately learn less and perhaps not even receive the credential that they think they are buying.

Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.

Customer service implies participating in a system of transaction or exchange in which one side provides a service to another. While plenty of money changes hands, universities don’t really sell a product, not in the sense that "customer service" implies, anyway. At most, I think we might argue that students are purchasing a well-structured opportunity to learn or obtain (we hope) meaningful credentials. The "well-structured" point is critical. When I hear students explicitly define themselves as customers, it’s often in the context of perceived bad teaching, a sense that the structure surrounding the learning opportunity is somehow deficient.

It’s not just that students want simply to buy a degree. Students place reasonable desires—faster grading, fewer lectures, more lectures, more preparation, clearer grading standards, etc.—into the framework of commerce. It’s a way of reversing the power dynamics. A customer holds a special place in our society. They have the right to complain, pressure, and go over the head of the worker to the management.

I sympathize with students who employ the language of commerce in order to get redress for real problems, even as I resist the ones who demand customer satisfaction in the form of easy As for little-to-no work. But I can’t blame those students for unrealistic expectations when it’s the institution itself that has introduced business-speak to the education process. As Melonie Fullick noted in a 2012 essay, "Can Education Be Sold?," once a student has been indoctrinated into the discourse of education as commerce, it’s difficult to then say, "’You’ve paid $6,000; now you have to do the work,’ because that arrangement simply doesn’t fit with consumerist logic."

Education is created, not consumed, but we cannot expect students to believe that when every message from academe itself tells them that they can just buy it.

In addition, any short-term power that students gain over their professors by introducing a controlling commercial metaphor into the classroom dynamic is more than mitigated by the losses. Faculty members respond to the student-as-consumer by teaching defensively, fearing the management that we formerly referred to as administration. But administrators administrate on behalf of the faculty. Employees delivering customer service get managed.

The syllabus is one place where the defensive crouch of the customer-service professor hurts student learning. Many faculty members and some teaching centers talk about the syllabus as a contract, an explicit use of the corporate-speech in the classroom. The contractual model has some positive aspects. It’s a way of increasing the stakes in order to push students to actually read the syllabus and try to create a sense of reciprocal obligation. In a contract, both sides are obligated to hold to its terms.

I’m not at all sure that works because, in my experience, students actually treat the syllabus more as an End User License Agreement—something for which one glances at briefly, clicks "agree to terms," and moves on to the product without reading any of the document.

In any case, I don’t think encouraging notions of reciprocity lie at the heart of the emergence of the lengthy, faux-legalistic syllabus-as-contract. Instead, such a document functions as a form of pre-emptive defense from lawsuits or disciplinary complaints lodged by students upset about their grades, wanting special exemptions, or otherwise responding to challenges in the classroom—much like a customer angry at a business for providing lousy or incorrect service.

So we wonder: Maybe the syllabus as end-user agreement is the right model? After all, we know many students don’t read the syllabus, and in a dispute we can wield it like lawyer underlining the fine print. And in hearings and lawsuits, the defensive syllabus works pretty well. It just doesn’t help with learning.

A learning-centered syllabus, like a learning-centered class, offers a well-organized (one hopes) plan and an opportunity to learn. It’s not a defensively legalistic document or a way to trick students into agreeing to your terms.

Some of my absolute best classes have resulted from enabling the students to shift the trajectory of the course over time, an approach that’s difficult with the language of contract hemming us in. As a teacher, my goal isn’t to sell a product or to "PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE." At my best, I push my students, encourage them, beg, plead, cajole, debate, critique, and praise. Perhaps I’m a romantic, but I believe in teaching as a vocation and a craft, not a sale. I believe that it’s possible to turn a class into a microcommunity of learners and teachers. Such an approach yields some of the power back to the students and makes us collaborators, all governed by expectations, feedback, evaluations, and conversations.

So let’s move past this language of customer and service. For all that we need revenue, students are not mere customers to be wrung out for tuition in the short term and donations in the future. Faculty members are not cashiers, ringing up the bill when students check out with knowledge—and not because that would be demeaning to the professor, but because the responsibility of a teacher to his or her students is far greater than the employee to the customer.

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog, How Did We Get Into This Mess. His Twitter handle is @Lollardfish.