As the language and models of customer service creep into the discourse about higher education, it prompts a series of questions about the role of administrators. If students are customers, receiving a product from faculty, it threatens to turn administrators into managers. And turning administrators into managers will transform their relationship with faculty in ways that do not serve the larger aims of the university.
Writing earlier this year about the creep of corporate language and models into ads for faculty positions in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. David Perry made a series of cogent points about why regarding the student as a customer disrupts and corrupts the relationship between faculty and students. It is a model that has rippling effects across the university. It led me to wonder, what impact does such a model have on the role of university administrators, specifically the academic chair?
When I became an academic chair I saw my role (very) broadly as one where I would promote the mission of my departmental curriculum and programs and advocate for my faculty. You might immediately be struck by the fact that this description does not include the word “student.” That’s not because I don’t think the students matter. They do. But it’s because I believe that if I do those two things well, the students will be well-served. An engaging, well-designed curriculum and co-curricular activities create opportunities for student learning and growth and promote their confidence in the department. Advocating for faculty certainly means supporting their efforts and communicating their achievements and concerns to the upper administration (supporting their applications for merit pay or arguing for appropriate teaching workloads, for example). But advocacy also means helping them identify areas to work on (e.g. promoting pedagogical initiatives designed to enhance their teaching, creating writing groups to help them move their research forward) and then providing professional development opportunities and resources to help them do that work.
In 2013, for example, I got support from our Provost’s office to work with a group of department faculty on how we teach writing in our survey courses. Our survey courses require a heavy writing component and this is often a stumbling block for our first-semester students. This project allowed us to focus on that element of these courses in an effort to improve teaching at the department level, but the project also ultimately serves the university’s larger goal of improving student retention.
The five faculty who piloted this project responded enthusiastically, worked collaboratively, and provided their students with a richer learning experience. Faculty who are led and supported in these ways will be engaged, motivated, and well-equipped to serve their students.
Curiously, this is even an approach that some parts of the corporate world have embraced. Herb Kelleher, the then-CEO of Southwest Airlines, once famously responded to a disgruntled customer who wrote letters of complaint after each flight: Dear Mrs. Crabapple: We will miss you. Love, Herb.” His point was not to be rude to this customer, but it was to suggest that the customer is not always right and that he supported his employees over the unreasonable demands of customers. In other words, he was taking seriously the experience and morale of the people who worked for him, with the knowledge that their satisfaction would translate into a positive experience for the people boarding his planes.
Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it makes a broader point. If the goal of the university is to educate and transform lives and create a responsible citizenry then we should take seriously the question of how to accomplish this. One of the best ways to ensure that students have a rich and rewarding experience is not to focus on them as customers, but to invest in the people entrusted with providing that experience: the faculty.
If we adopt a “student-as-customer” driven model, the role of the department chair is completely transformed and shifts to one of manager. Rather than promoting their departmental mission and supporting their faculty, chairs would manage student expectations and complaints, and monitor the faculty to ensure that they were delivering a satisfactory experience.
In the same way that this cheapens the experience of faculty and student interaction, it threatens to change the relationship between administration and faculty in unpleasant and unproductive ways. This does not mean that administrators should ignore student complaints or problematic faculty behavior. But if we reduce the student to customer (and as David Perry so persuasively argues “Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.”) we transform the culture in which we adjudicate and resolve these conflicts for the worse. Administrators become managers, wagging their fingers at an increasingly defensive faculty worried about student complaints, instead of leaders and facilitators (which is what I believe the best administrators are) working to help faculty realize their full potential.
The question, then, is not either/or. We should not choose between the faculty and the students. We should, however, make a deliberate decision about the kind of department cultures we want to create and where we want to put our (finite) energies. If I have done my job right behind the scenes and outside the classroom and worked to cultivate an engaged and motivated faculty, the students–hopefully conceived of as something much more significant than mere customers–can only benefit.