How Many Ways Must We Say It?

A tired meme that just won't die.
By Joel Thomas Tierno

I have heard a great deal of talk about my college being a business and my students being customers. This talk is both disconcerting and dangerous. There are very real risks when people in higher education take this talk seriously. I had only heard it from administrators, but recently I heard it from a colleague.

From administrators, such talk is annoying but unsurprising; from a colleague, it is deeply disturbing. We should denounce these claims as literally false and metaphorically dangerous. We can do so in at least thirty-one ways:

1. If the customer is always right, I am always wrong in conflict with my students. When my students want to hand in late work, I should accept it. When my students miss exams, I should give them makeups. When my students disagree with grades, I should change them. Nonsense.

2. Businesses deliver what their customers pay for. The notion that we provide a service or a product to our students puts the curriculum at the center of the university. The curriculum is quantifiable, measurable, and marketable. You can advertise it. You can look at it from the standpoint of numbers, adjust it to maximize FTE, use it to bait students/customers. The heart of the university becomes nonhuman. As teachers know, a static curriculum is not the center of a university; the most pivotal point of contact at the university is not that between those who schedule classes and those who enroll in them.

3. The most pivotal interface is between those who teach and those who learn. That is the heart of the institution; the institution is about learning. These points of contact are dynamic human relations. They are not customer-provider relations. Any aspect of the institution that does not facilitate what happens at this point of contact requires special justification. Any aspect of the institution that optimizes this point of contact needs no further justification.

4. In customer-provider relations characteristic of businesses, each party views the other as a means. When we see our students as means to our ends, it is time to fold up our tents.

5. As teachers, our focus is learning. Since knowledge and wisdom cannot be commodified, education is neither a service we provide nor a product we deliver.

6. In business, customers and businesses often have opposed interests: 

Business: Get the most remuneration you can for the least possible service or product.

Customer: Get the most service or product you can for the least possible remuneration.

Nothing like this goes on between university and student. This relation is cooperative, not competitive. All agree: the more learning, the better!

7. Models that alienate students from their universities are flawed. Yet this is exactly what the universityas-business model does. The business exists before the customer comes; the patron is not part of the restaurant. The fan is not a member of the team. The customer is not a partner. This model leaves the students-as-customers outside. What nonsense! Only those who know little or nothing of the classroom can spout such absurdities.

8. Suppose I sell art supplies and, on this basis, claim credit for the art, leaving out the hard work of the artists. This is what the university-as-business model does to students.

9. We teachers provide neither a service nor a product. We provide opportunity. This is all the difference in the world. It places responsibility where it belongs—on the students.

10. The opportunity teachers supply requires more than coming across with money—the essential act of the customer. It requires hard work and dedication. Few businesses make such demands. What customers would pay for the privilege of doing the really hard work? That is what good students do.

11. Suppose I open a restaurant and direct customers to prep the food, cook it, plate it, serve it, eat it, and then pay the check. All I do is supply the food, the implements, the recipes, the kitchen, and the dining room. All I do is supply opportunity. How long do you suppose my restaurant would stay in business? This is roughly analogous to what we do in universities. How do we survive? Simple: We are not businesses, and students are not our customers.

12. Good teachers depend on good students. Our students are more like partners, junior partners to be sure, but partners nonetheless.

13. Education is a process. The outcome of the process is a graduate—someone who no longer needs us. We hope to assist our students in a journey that makes us expendable. Do tailors teach their customers to sew? No. Do plumbers teach their
customers to fix pipes? No. Do bakers teach their customers how to make cookies and cakes? No.

14. Corporations routinely mislead and manipulate; they are monomaniacal in the pursuit of customer money. We should always be honest in the claims we make and what we offer to our students. Institutions of higher education should never reduce everything to expanding the “customer base” and improving the bottom line.

15. Professors are not technicians who provide a service or product. They join with their students in the activity of learning. They, too, are growing, changing, and progressing. They, too, are transformed by the processes going on in the classroom. This is not characteristic of business.

16. Education pays indefinite dividends, ongoing dividends, a multitude of dividends. These dividends defy measurement or quantification. Sometimes a single educational experience pays enormous dividends from the day of instruction until the end of life. Other educational experiences may take many years and a great deal of additional experience before they pay off.

17. The dynamics that characterize the classroom, including group activities and student-generated activities, have few analogs in the business world.

18. Maximizing efficiency is a basic business value. It can be counterproductive at institutions of higher education. Education takes place in fits and starts; it is asymmetrical and untidy. Its lessons depend on experiences in a student’s life—at home, in relations with friends, functioning as a citizen in society, and functioning as an employee at work. It is not nice and neat like having your rugs cleaned or your lawn mowed. Outcomes of educational experiences defy quantification and measurement.

19. Can you imagine a business that takes, on average, five years to deliver a product? Can you imagine a business that asks former customers for financial support? Can you imagine a business seeking charitable donations from other businesses or philanthropists?

20. Institutions of higher education benefit everyone. The most obvious beneficiaries are the students, but the institutions also seek to create a cultural environment beneficial to professors, staff, members of the administration, and the wider community. Professors are aided by institutional libraries; in many places, they have research assistants. The institutions often provide professional development opportunities and sabbaticals. The wider community benefits economically
and culturally from activities on campus. Businesses rarely provide a hundredth as much.

21. Students are often subsidized by monies that come from the county, state, or federal government. Customers rarely receive such support.

22. Students have widely divergent needs and goals and participate in defining them. This is uncharacteristic of customers. Customers at a restaurant are looking for food now; they can make very few suggestions about the menu. People come to us to learn, but they chart their own ways through the wide array of possibilities we offer. Businesses rarely accommodate such diversity; we must to meet our mission.

23. We try to create opportunities for extensive changes in students’ lives. Is that what the people who sell them oil try to do? Is that what the people who sell them lunch try to do? Is that what the people who sell them cars try to do?

24. How can we prepare students to succeed in the working world if we treat them as customers? Curriculum, again, is not the heart of the university; it is human relations that are central. We model appropriate behaviors. We demand that our students conform to a code of conduct and a set of strictures laid out in the courses we offer. Businesses rarely make such demands.

25. It is our responsibility to help determine the information and skills our students will need to enrich their lives and succeed in their careers. The idea is that we know this better than they do. If we do not, we are unfit. Nothing analogous to this goes on at most businesses.

26. The customer’s role is largely passive. The university-business analogy places the locus of activity outside the students. We become the actors; they become the audience. When I go to the barber, I expect him to do all the cutting. I just sit there. When I get my oil changed, I bring a book to read while it happens. Yet universities cannot succeed without the active participation of students.

27. It is not characteristic of businesses to be seriously concerned with the welfare of customers, but good institutions of higher education have a deep, abiding interest in their students. Higher education is not about research; it is about student learning and about transforming lives and changing the world. When our goals become as narrow as the goals of businesses, we shall no longer be justified.

28. Faculty are charged with maintaining and advancing the discussions that collectively constitute our disciplines. Is anything comparable happening in businesses?

29. The goal of business is a satisfied customer. Businesses succeed or fail on customer satisfaction. I have been teaching for more than twenty years. I think I do my job quite well, but I have never aimed at maximizing student satisfaction. I have never thought about assignments, essays, or tests in terms of how happily the students will receive them; I have always aimed at providing a course that good students will be glad of five years down the road. As teachers, we often question students’ fundamental assumptions. Students cannot reasonably expect to broaden their awareness and deepen their comprehension without being disquieted. Nor can they reasonably expect these changes to leave their most cherished beliefs and deepest sentiments undisturbed. Education is transformative: it does not leave you as it found you. Some students recoil from this in anger. Is their dissatisfaction a sign that I have done my job poorly? I do not think so; it is a direct result of doing my job well. Teachers do not aim at the kinds of outcomes that drive businesses. Sometimes a dissatisfied student is the direct consequence of excellent teaching.

30. The obligation to prioritize the economic interests of shareholders, and the corresponding obligation to place profits above all other considerations, have proven disastrous. They have turned employees, customers, and even the earth itself into means to corporate ends. The results include inadequate working conditions, wages, job security, health care, and retirement, not to mention intrinsically inadequate work. The results include a planet staggering under the weight of our carefully cultivated compulsion to consume. Rather than mimicking the mindless and morally bankrupt chatter of people in the business world, rather than applying their myopic vision of what they do to our activity, we should be imploring them to abandon that model in relation to their activity.

31. If universities are business and students are customers, then administrators must be managers and those of us who teach must be their employees. This seems backward. The administration exists to facilitate what I do. The administration, far from directing my activity, is obligated by the ideal of academic freedom to keep its nose out of my classroom. I do not think that I work for the administrators at my college. I think I work, first and foremost, with my students.

Now, let us consider a possible objection: Our students have certain rightful expectations in relation to our institutions, and we have certain obligations to them. These corresponding expectations and obligations may resemble the terms of a business contract. We have an obligation to clarify degree requirements in a timely fashion. We should monitor progress and point out when failure to enroll in particular classes will delay graduation. We are obligated to make required courses regularly available. We are obligated to accommodate the students appropriately. The spaces we create for them should be clean, well-ordered, properly appointed, and safe. We are obligated to provide students with adequate library services, adequate tutorial services, and contemporary learning technologies. We are obligated to supply the best supports we can to foster student success.

It is easy to see how people could get the idea that these and other obligations to students make them our customers. They do not. Parents have obligations to their children. That does not make children customers. Politicians have obligations to their constituents. That does not make citizens customers. Priests have obligations to their parishioners. That does not make congregations customers. Police and firemen have obligations to the people in their communities. That does not make those people their customers. Charitable organizations have obligations to both contributors and recipients, but they do not have any customers.

The nature of our obligations to our students actually counts against the conclusion that they are customers. In the mad world we have created, the primary responsibility of a big business is to advance the economic interests of shareholders, to protect and expand assets. Corporations are obligated to extract all they can from their customers in the context of providing goods and/or services. The corporation is remiss if it fails to get the highest possible return.

We should never look at our students in the way corporations look at their customers. We should seek out any and all means of lightening the economic burdens of our students. We should make access to our institutions as affordable as possible. Of course, the economic security of the institution should be protected with the same zeal corporations attach to the bottom line. But at colleges and universities, rather than giving as little as possible and getting as much as we can, we should give as much as we can and extract as little as possible in return. Are there any businesses that follow this model? I have never heard of one.

The fact that we have numerous obligations to our students should not muddle our thinking. In spite of these obligations, they are not our customers.

I hope these points are persuasive. I hope you will copy this article and display it at your institution. I hope that you will push back against this talk in meetings and workshops. I hope that you will tell anyone who will listen that, as a teacher, you know, and have always known, that universities are not businesses and students are not customers.

Joel Thomas Tierno is a professor of philosophy at the College of Southern Nevada; he has also taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Erie Community College, Buffalo State College, and Elmira College. He is the author of
Epistemic Evil: A Third Problem of Evil. He can be reached at Joel.Tierno@csn.edu.

Comments

Thank you, Dr. Tierno.

Like you, I have a degree in the remotest part of humanities-ville, and have seen my fair share of that half-wondering, half-pitying look from others that tries to hide the question, “What does one DO with that?” Like you, I bemoan the transformation of the academy from a place of learning to place of training. I firmly believe that ideas have power and that institutes of higher learning ought to be the fertile soil in which ideas can grow, be challenged, and test their mettle. I think it would be impossible to reduce a student’s learning to a single product at a particular price.

But even though my idealism may not be very different from yours, Dr. Tierno, our assessments of the aptness of the business model when applied to institutions of higher learning do seem to differ. If the roles in a typical market exchange include the buyer, the product, and the seller, then here’s how I would cast the various university players:

THE BUYER. Well by definition customers are the ones who pay for goods or services. In the world of higher education, then, there are parents who pay tuition and donors who financially support the institution. We can consider them the customers and the shareholders, respectively. Students are rarely, if ever, in either category.

THE PRODUCT. Since “learning” is not a good or service that can be provided, it cannot possibly play the role of the product in this model. Perhaps, then, people are really buying something else, such as a name, an opportunity, a hope for a better future, prestige. Our work in the trenches gets little play in glossy brochures -- how could true learning be represented in a photo anyway? No, it's the new swimming pool or cafeteria or duck pond or virtual reality lab or (fill in the blank here) that catches the customer's eye.

THE SELLER. Who stands to profit? The school as a corporate entity (with the trustees as the board of directors). This is done by means of its CEO (the administration in general, and the president in particular). We professors are not the businesses hoping for a bottom line in the black. We are the art supplies. Just look at how many faculty are part-time and contingent compared to full-time and tenured. These differences in compensation make no sense if universities were not following a business model.

You are correct: higher education's most important interface is and should be the one between the professor and the student. But when the administration does the selling and the parents and donors pay the bill, the product will be redesigned to meet the expectations of the buyer. The customer is, after all, always right.

You begin by saying, “But even though my idealism may not be very
different from yours, Dr. Tierno, our assessments of the aptness of the business model
when applied to institutions of higher learning do seem to differ.”

You say, in closing: “You are correct: higher education's most important interface is and
should be the one between the professor and the student. But when the administration
does the selling and the parents and donors pay the bill, the product will be redesigned to
meet the expectations of the buyer. The customer is, after all, always right.

I think one problem here may be the word “aptness.” A model may be apt in some ways but not in others. I do not deny that there are some ways in which colleges are like businesses. I do not think there are many, but there are a few. So we might say that, in a small way, the model is apt descriptively. To a limited extent, as a matter of fact, colleges parallel businesses. I am afraid that these points of resemblance may increase as time goes by. That is what is happening. That was one of the prime motives for writing this piece. It is best, I think, that these points of similarity not be expanded. The values and practices of businesses do not apply well to our activity. In fact, as the influence of the business model has expanded, the quality of education in the United States has declined. I would not be at all surprised if these facts were related.

In laying out your model, you say, “THE BUYER. Well by definition customers are the ones
who pay for goods or services. In the world of higher education, then, there are parents
who pay tuition and donors who financially support the institution. We can consider them
the customers and the shareholders, respectively. Students are rarely, if ever, in either
category.”

This is a telling remark. One can pretty safely infer what sort of institution you work at and what sort of students you encounter there. There are other sorts of institutions and different sorts of student populations. Most of my students pay their own tuition. Most of my students work. Many of my students work full time. Some of my students work multiple part-time jobs. They all attend a publicly-funded institution that receives few donations and depends significantly upon the taxpayers. If not for public funding of education in Nevada, as anemic as it is, few of my students could afford any higher education.

Further, I do not think we really can consider these folks customers in any ordinary sense. The donors receive no direct compensation from the college in exchange for their donations. They are nothing like customers. Some students’ parents pay, but that does not make them customers in any ordinary sense. They may never even set foot on the campus. They may never actually hear a single spoken word at the college. It is really peculiar to call them our customers. I never have anything to do with them!

You say, "THE PRODUCT. Since “learning” is not a good or service that can be provided, it
cannot possibly play the role of the product in this model. Perhaps, then, people are really
buying something else, such as a name, an opportunity, a hope for a better future,
prestige. Our work in the trenches gets little play in glossy brochures -- how could true
learning be represented in a photo anyway? No, it's the new swimming pool or cafeteria or
duck pond or virtual reality lab or (fill in the blank here) that catches the customer's eye."

First, these goods, again, intimate an element of unconscious classism. My students are not looking for or even thinking about duck ponds and virtual reality labs. They are thinking about getting an education within a car drive of home today so they might have a chance of affording a home and being able to fed and clothe their children later.

Second, this point seems to muddle your model. Your customers are not the one’s receiving the product. The duck ponds, so far as they either motivate or materialize, accrue to the students, not their parents or the donors. Of course, I understand that many administrators prioritize essentially gratuitous labs, duck pools, and other photo-sensational projects with little to no instructional utility, over investment that would facilitate learning. This, however, is inherently undesirable.

Further, learning is our reason for being and your model leaves learning right out. It doesn’t figure into your discourse at all. That is very strange at a college. It is very strange, but it makes perfect sense on the business model of colleges. I can hardly imagine a more fatal flaw in a model for schools.

Finally, learning is our reason for being and it is not a product or a service. That is simply fatal to this analogy between schools and businesses.

You say, “THE SELLER. Who stands to profit? The school as a corporate entity (with the
trustees as the board of directors). This is done by means of its CEO (the administration in
general, and the president in particular). We professors are not the businesses hoping for a
bottom line in the black. We are the art supplies. Just look at how many faculty are
part-time and contingent compared to full-time and tenured. These differences in
compensation make no sense if universities were not following a business model.”

First, boards of trustees are not like boards of directors at major corporations. The latter are paying positions. That is actually another important point of disanalogy between schools and corporate businesses.

Second, a few points of similarity rarely make a good analogy. When there are all kinds of more consequential offsetting disanalogies in play, they amount to little or nothing.

Third, the disgraceful disparity in pay for instructors at our institutions, the increasing course load of part-timers, and the creation of the category of non-tenured full-timers are all products of the expansion of the business model. They have been disastrous in virtually every way. They have led to shifting power relations on campus. The power of administrations has expanded while the power of faculties has diminished. On the whole, this too is bad. It is bad, first, because the quality of educational administration is declining. It is bad, second, because more and more of them have little to no experience as educators. This shift in power weakens academic freedom since tenure is absolutely essential to secure the effective exercise of this freedom. This shift weakens shared governance as fewer and fewer people in the faculty have effective voices. This creates an underclass in our profession that is, to put it bluntly, overtaxed and under-compensated while they are denied the full privileges of full-time faculty. It is morally outrageous at institutions that pretend to be defenders of sweetness of light. The idea that a person can teach eight college courses in a year and qualify for food stamps is a pure and simply disgrace. The institutions that exploit these people are no better than Wal-mart. This disgrace is a product of the business model and we simply have to do better than this. We have to reject this model once and for all.

Bravo, Dr. Tierno, for wiggling a stick in this particular open wound, however much it may hurt.

There are two models of assessment: one is the consumer-product model; the other is the unilateral contract model.

Students increasingly tend to use the consumer-product model. The idea comes from the last 50 years of consumerism (and Black Friday is today! already, even though it is still supposedly Thanksgiving. The line-ups have started) that education is a "product", a "thing" that can be bought over the counter, and like all other products, it comes with warranties. If we look at education in this way, a student pays X dollars and is entitled like any other consumer to the very best. That means perfect A grades. If the consumer-student does not receive the very best, he or she demands an explanation and even a refund, because the provider has not lived up to the standards expected by consumer product law.

Under this model, a student can submit any kind of draft and require the professor to bang it into sufficiently good shape for an A grade. The "consumer" has paid for an A and is entitled to the product. If the instructor "fails" to point out exactly how a perfect grade can be obtained, then the consumer contract is breached and it is the university's fault that the student does not have a perfect 4.0 GPA.

HOWEVER the unilateral contract model is, to my mind, in fact a better way of looking at university education.

A unilateral contract is one where X says, "If you perform a task, such as capturing a criminal, or finding a lost dog, or mowing my lawn, I will reward you." For example, I might offer a reward for my lost dog; you may indeed spend all weekend looking for the dog, and go to much trouble and effort, but if you do not find my dog then you cannot claim the reward -- regardless of the disappointment involved. I set the criteria and you must perform to the criteria before the hard work pays off.

Educational recognition is not a "product" but a reward. Fees entitle students to a seat in the classroom, not to A grades - and once in the classroom, they are expected to perform. Only if they perform to the standards expected will the reward (good grades) be paid. What this means is that the student is never absolved of responsibility for work, as Dr. Tierno mentions. An instructor hopes the student will do well, and steers the student in the right direction, but ultimately it is the student's own responsibility to clear the hurdle, not the instructor's responsibility to ensure that the student can do so.

It also means that the University doesn't "produce" a product, which detracts from the student's efforts. The students are creating something. They are producing. If there is a product in all of this, it comes about as a result of the student's efforts, not the university's.

How is a university different from a business, overall? Try not "competing" to deliver your best, quality content to the students and putting your all into your "product", what you have to offer. What about brand loyalty? Just as employees and business owners should have pride in there product, their model, what they work for. And so should professors and students of their university. See how many students come back for the second round if you don't focus on simple things like this. Both businesses and educational environments are based on exchange. Students pay you to deliver content. They work to take everything they can from that experience, just like a customer wants to make the most of their new product.

Businesses and owners work together to create a product. How many times does a product change as a result of customer feedback? If a business has a healthy following, customers play a valuable role in the development and growth of the company. The same goes for the university. Students often can change the workings of a university based on feedback and input. In this aspect, they are no different.

There are so many holes in this piece, and anyone who is looking at this from the perspective of the core values of a business could pick it apart. I understand this piece was not written to be picked a part and is simply a man's opinion, but I imagine a similar piece could be written on what values could be taken from the business world to improve university relations, just as business could take educational values to improve on their own model. It goes both ways, and THAT needs to be considered. Without the business model, there is no working relationships. Yes, the relationship between students and professors is different than business and customers. But that's not the argument. Universities, as a whole, should most definitely be operating like a business.

But the main point is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with treating students as customers, if you're looking at a business model that encourages a healthy relationship between business and customer. In fact, it should be encouraged. Once again, I understand the good intention of this piece, but the inaccuracies are glaringly obvious. Those 31 ways to denounce claims could so easily be turned into 31 reasons why a university should operate as a business.

Taylor's comment might involve "looking at the bigger picture," but I would rather describe it as "looking at a related picture." It finds elements common to both good business practices and good classroom or university practices ("doing our best", "paying attention to others involved in our common project"), but then assumes that these good practices in education should be understood as a kind of business practice. But isn't it more likely that these two practices (running a business, running a school) are instances of some wider social practices that humans engage in? After all, showing that A and B share certain features certainly doesn't imply that A is a subset of B; it doesn't even imply that A and B overlap. That would be like concluding that dogs are really just a kind of walrus, since they both have backbones and kidneys.

While there are commonalities between running a shoe store well and running a college or a classroom well, the disanalogies between these two practices —many of which are highlighted in Prof. Tierno's essay — make the reduction of education to a business model not only unhelpful but positively damaging. Treating students as customers misses the very point of what they are supposed to be doing in the classroom.

I don't deny that certain parts of colleges and universities act like businesses, insofar as they sell and rent textbooks, or meal-plans, or living spaces. But the heart of the university, and without which it would become merely some strange hotel or summer camp, is what happens between teachers and students — and that relationship has nothing to do with financial transactions. Indeed, any such transaction would be a severe professional breach! There's no money involved and no bartering. It has nothing to do with the world of the marketplace. It is as different as the relationship between a prostitute and his or her trick, and that between two people in love with one another. Anyone blind to the difference here is blind to an essential aspect of the human condition.

In the end I can speak only from my own experience, but this experience is pretty straight-forward: My students are not buying any good or service from me. They are there for a number of reasons, of course, and some of them might even view themselves as a kind of customer. But that is a misunderstanding on their part that I would hasten to challenge. Ideally, when things are going as they should, we are all of us engaged in a common pursuit of learning. The attempt to view this as some kind of market transaction strikes me as singularly misguided.

Before this long response begins, I want to say that I think the prior responses are excellent, but I am a critical thinking teacher, and I cannot help myself.

You ask: “How is a university different from a business, overall?”

I have actually outlined many specific ways in this piece and there are more.

You say, “Try not ‘competing’ to deliver your best, quality content to the students and
putting your all into your ‘product,’ what you have to offer.”

This is an odd point. I am not sure what is intended by it. Let me say, first, I think many people in academe deliver their very best to their students, but I cannot pretend for a minute that we all do. In any case, I do not see how this bears upon the question of the best model for conceptualizing the institutions at which we work and the work that we do. Furthermore, my experience does not tell me that people in business consistently deliver their best. In fact, on the whole, I would say we have a greater sense of calling than they do. We, on the whole, deliver better than they do.

You say, “What about brand loyalty? Just as employees and business owners should have
pride in there product, their model, what they work for. And so should professors and
students of their university. See how many students come back for the second round if you
don't focus on simple things like this.”

First, simple things like what? We certainly do focus on our classes, on models for our institutions, and what we work for. What does this have to do with brand loyalty and how are these values unique to business? As Nick points out, they are not. Second, I have never really thought of my college as a brand. Is it a brand because it has a reputation? I do not think so because I have a reputation at my college, and I am not a brand.

Perhaps the idea is that we should have a sense of allegiance to our schools. If so, I cannot agree in an unqualified way. Colleges and universities are human institutions. They are capable of error and they actually err. At times, under particular administrations, it becomes impossible to support the official policies of these institutions. They are repugnant. Some institutions of higher education have considerable histories of such misconduct. When the institutions at which we work take courses of action that are pointlessly destructive or wasteful we should criticize them. [Dry-erase boards are an excellent example of a feature for which colleges should be criticized on functional, economic, and ecological grounds.] If they fail to respond, we are justified in criticizing them further and leaving. When the institutions at which we work adopt policies that can be expected to have adverse consequences to students, we should criticize them. [Disallowing late registration would be an example of this.] If they fail to respond, we are justified in criticizing them further and leaving. When the institutions at which we work adopt policies that can expected to have adverse consequences for us, we should criticize them. [Increasing course loads or course caps are examples.] If they fail to respond, we would be justified in criticizing them further and leaving. When the institutions at which we work change their priorities in ways that marginalize our work, we should criticize them. If they fail to respond, we would be justified in criticizing them further and leaving. The bottom line is simple: There are times when there is little or no room for loyalty.

If the idea of brand loyalty is to ‘talk up’ the institutions at which we work, I reject it on principle. I think we should speak accurately to potential students about what we have to offer and to each other about what goes on at our institutions. We should praise ourselves where we have earned it and recognize where we could be better. One of the things I have noticed in official talk surrounding higher education is the tendency to inflate institutional achievements out of all proportion and to be blind as bats when it comes to institutional weaknesses.
Of course, we should take pride in our work and care about the institutions we work at, but so should people who work for churches. So should people who work at public libraries, public museums, and public hospitals. So should people who work for charities. Heck, so should people in families. This is not uniquely true of business settings. So, this point seems irrelevant to the issue.

You say, “Both businesses and educational environments are based on exchange. Students
pay you to deliver content. They work to take everything they can from that experience,
just like a customer wants to make the most of their new product."

Here is a major point. I cannot ‘deliver the content.’ I can create an opportunity, but the students must be active—they must work hard—to realize it, and, in realizing it, they will make it their own! This is not like providing a service. They must work to cash it in and the harder they work the more they walk away with. When I call the plumber, the baker, or the lap top maker—I do not expect to do the really hard work myself.

You say, “Businesses and owners work together to create a product. How many times does
a product change as a result of customer feedback? If a business has a healthy following,
customers play a valuable role in the development and growth of the company. The same
goes for the university.”

Here is a direct consequence of the model in evidence. You place the curriculum at the very center of the institution. The curriculum is what can change as a result of feedback from the students to better suit their desires. Again, this neglects the critical point of interface at the college—the dynamic relationships between professors and students. The curriculum is fairly static from the standpoint of any individual student—it changes little.

I am not, of course, recommending the curriculum be fixed by student desire. In fact, that is crazy and actually highlights another difference between schools and businesses. We should not change our curriculum in response to the desires of our students. We should evolve the curriculum in response to the evolving scholarship of our various disciplines. Again, there is nothing analogous to this in business.

You say, “Students often can change the workings of a university based on feedback and
input. In this aspect, they are no different.”

This can, does, and should happen. But it is the exception rather than the rule and it should stay that way. Our institutions should, for the most part, be molded by our expertise rather than student desire.

You say, “There are so many holes in this piece, and anyone who is looking at this from the
perspective of the core values of a business could pick it apart.”

This is rhetoric with no specific content. Please do not talk about how one could rip the piece apart. Start ripping!

You say, “I understand this piece was not written to be picked a part and is simply a man's
opinion, but I imagine a similar piece could be written on what values could be taken from
the business world to improve university relations, just as business could take educational
values to improve on their own model.”

We can imagine all kinds of things, but that too counts for little to nothing unless we get specific about what should actually change. We need real reasons for specific business values and practices we could adopt to our benefit. References to unidentified reasons for adopting unspecified practices from the business world are neither very useful or very persuasive.

You say, “It goes both ways, and THAT needs to be considered.”

What goes both ways and how does it relate to our subject? If you are claiming that business values or practices can improve instruction, study, and/or learning, fine. Now stop talking in generalities and set down to brass tacks. What are those values or practices? What specific educational practices can be improved by adopting those values or practices? If you cannot do this, it is impossible to take your claims seriously.

You say, “Without the business model, there is no working relationships.”

Is the idea that all productive relations are in the business domain? That begs the question here and is also manifestly false. People have come together on countless occasions to be productive when they were no material benefits to be had. This idea is also historically untenable. The overwhelming bulk of human history predates the onset of modern corporations and their business practices. We still worked, and we still traded. We do not need to do economy the way we do it now, but that is a different topic.

You say, “Yes, the relationship between students and professors is different than business
and customers. But that's not the argument.”

You are right, this is not an argument. This is a claim. It is one of my central claims and you admit that it is true. You presumably admit that this relation is the critical point of interface between the people who work at colleges and the people who attend colleges. It is not a business relation, and it is dangerous to think of it that way. You are dangerously close to admitting the central point of my argument.

You say, “Universities, as a whole, should most definitely be operating like a business.”

Okay, now. Reasons please! Why? What are the benefits? In what ways is that better or best? There are still no genuine and specific reasons in play here.

You say, “But the main point is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with treating
students as customers, if you're looking at a business model that encourages a healthy
relationship between business and customer.”

First, this “main point” seems to directly contradict the claim that “the relationship between students and professors is different than business and customers.” Second, where are the major corporations that consistently model business-customer relations that we should emulate to inform and upgrade the quality of our dealings with our students? What are those relations? Do they really capture the heart of what we do?

You say, “In fact, it should be encouraged. Once again, I understand the good intention of
this piece, but the inaccuracies are glaringly obvious.”

Okay, so stop talking about the glaringly obvious inaccuracies and point them out. Do not leave me in my condition of misapprehension. If you are not prepared to point to these inaccuracies, then you should not mention them. Doing the latter without the former is rhetorical and sophistical.

You say, “Those 31 ways to denounce claims could so easily be turned into 31 reasons why
a university should operate as a business.”

Okay, so go ahead and do it. Do not mention 31 points that could be develpoed form these in support of the business model. That counts for nothing rationally. Formulate those points. Complete your argument with genuinely substantive claims that can be critically examined for soundness. Otherwise it is better to be silent.

but Taylor, why do you assume that the human needs to experience passion, to give one's all, to form relationships, are the special property of "business"? those desires are far, far more ancient and fundamental to human experience; that you give "business" any special credit for them suggests that your perspective is.....well, just a little limited.

Most students are making considerable investments, both money and time, in their higher education. Many will be paying back student loans for years and even decades. Some know that they may retire or even die before they finish paying back their student loans. How can we not consider them to be customers? I feel uncomfortable in saying that we allow them to pay us a lot of money so that we can provide them with "opportunities" to learn.

Times are changing. We have to stop thinking that we in higher ed are just so special. K-12 teachers are being assessed based on their students' academic performance, not on the educational opportunities the teachers provide. Why should college professors be assessed differently? It is pretty obvious that our society seriously questions the value of higher education. Of course we will continue to live in our "ivory towers" while the world around us increasingly discounts our value to society.

Dear John (I just could not help that!),

You say, Most students are making considerable investments, both money and time, in their higher education. Many will be paying back student loans for years and even decades. Some know that they may retire or even die before they finish paying back their student loans. How can we not consider them to be customers?

I have given many reasons to support the view that students are not customers and you have ignored them all. That is not the way we do this business. It is no doubt true that nearly all our students pay tuition and accrue debt. I am uncertain how their investment of money and time makes them customers. In fact, I think it begs the question here to assume that the act of paying tuition is sufficient to make students into customers. Moreover, many students are subsidized by financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships. Customers rarely receive such support. Colleges even give full scholarships. Such a practice is unimaginable in business. Businesses do not, in the regular course of events, simply give away products worth thousands to tens of thousands. So, though students undeniably pay tuition, these subsidies and scholarships distinguish students from customers even in this narrowly economic aspect.

You say, "I feel uncomfortable in saying that we allow them to pay us a lot of money so that we can provide them with 'opportunities' to learn."

Uncomfortable feelings are not arguments. Student tuition helps support the institution. It helps pay for buildings and grounds and operational costs. It affords students access to the classes they take. We provide all of this. Their activity as students, their actual study, they do themselves or with classmates. We can help. We have experts to assist with rough patches. We can also formalize your studies, mandate certain courses for certain degrees, etc. But learning is the primary reason for schools, and students are the primary learners. Students, with the assistance of their instructors, do the essential work of the college. To my way of thinking, that means they are much more than mere customers. Treating students as customers is actually a horrible failing. They deserve better!

You say, "Times are changing. We have to stop thinking that we in higher ed are just so special. K-12 teachers are being assessed based on their students' academic performance, not on the educational opportunities the teachers provide. Why should college professors be assessed differently?"

You are right. The world does not stand still. Times are always changing. But what we do in higher education IS pretty darn special. We should never forget this. Further, many k-12 educators are pretty special too. Small miracles are performed in their classrooms on a virtually daily basis. Go talk to those folks about the value of the outcomes-based assessments you appear to be recommending for higher education.

You say, "It is pretty obvious that our society seriously questions the value of higher education. Of course we will continue to live in our "ivory towers" while the world around us increasingly discounts our value to society."

You are right again. There is a deep anti-intellectual streak in American culture and there always has been. But I do not think we should let our practices be dictated, directed, or evaluated by those who ‘Got no use for book-learning’. If continuing to live in our “ivory towers’ means believing in the power of liberal education to change lives, believing that the core values taught by liberal education can change society, and believing it is our mission to defend liberal education intellectually and advance these values practically, then PLEASE count me in. I could not agree less with the idea we should reconstruct our educational “product” to win the praise of people in the so-called “real world.” We should work tirelessly toward changing society’s attitude, one mind at a time, until people have a better appreciation of the value of what we do. But this is only the half of it. To borrow a metaphor from Martin Luther King: Our function is more on the order of a thermostat than a thermometer. We should be more than a mirror that reflects and reinforces the values people already possess. We should nurture people in the birth of visions of a better tomorrow and assist them in making those visions into realities. Looking at the world we live in, I would say that people’s values could safely bear some reexamination.

In closing, I repeat, our schools are not businesses and our students are not customers. These ideas are both literally false and metaphorically dangerous. They result from a failure to think deeply and well about schools and students. They are also pernicious. They lead to harmful practical failures at every level of the institutions we are charged with protecting. They have to go!

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