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 [email protected].