I recall walking down the hall of a university with a senior faculty member (I was merely tenure-track), when a student asked him for help with a small matter. He refused to help, noting that it was not currently his office hours. He was rude and condescending toward the student. To her credit, the student protested, but he still refused.
I knew he could have helped her quickly with the matter. He acted this way because he could (and often did). I later found the student and apologized, but it didn’t mean much to her. His explanation to me was muddled, but suggested that he was not “here” to meet the needs of the students.
I was reminded of this event recently when a social media “friend” recently asked how we can best reconcile the disjuncture between great customer service and academic integrity and standards. It’s a great question, in part, because it suggests – accurately, I think – that these two goals are often thought in higher education to be natural enemies; we can’t have both it is assumed, at least not at the same time. And the issue is more important today because of the need of many colleges to compete for and retain students.
The overriding logic seems to be that if we concern ourselves too much with the student’s experience, then we are merely another business. But we are not businesses, they argue, and they are not customers. We are educators and the students need to meet our expectations, if they are to succeed.
Although I was embarrassed by the rudeness of my colleague, I sympathize with the logic that is behind his behaviour. I don’t think the solution is to treat education as a business, and students as consumers. We need to learn from the best of business (as well as from other fields), but education works best when it is not approached in the common vendor-consumer relationship.
Education should be approached as a collaborative engagement between people in which we each bring to the table different skills and needs. Students bring insights and perspectives that teachers need to embrace if they are to keep learning. Educators bring deep expertise in their fields that can stimulate student interest and engagement – the basis of learning.
At the same time, though, it is frankly stupid to adopt the logic represented by my former colleague. Academic integrity is not dependent on maintaining an indifference to student needs. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.
When I moved into the management side of higher education I was forced me to deal with the issue of customer service in a whole new way. My management colleagues and I had little control over the academic side of the student’s experience. We had to focus our energies and investments on those parts of the student experience that we could control.
We discovered that there were many parts of the student experience that are independent of academics that could improve the student’s overall experience and even help them achieve academically. We sought to make it as simple as possible for the student to carry out all of the activities that are required to succeed as a post-secondary student, except those that clearly fall under the category of “academics”. With our approach, for example, we succeeded if the student spent as little time and energy as possible doing things that were unrelated to learning. We succeeded if the process of registering was straightforward; if understanding what is required of them to complete their academic work does not involve trying to decipher an incoherent syllabus, or navigating a badly designed LMS.
We focused on what we could control. But what we discovered is that much of what actually constitutes the total student experience falls outside of academics. The time spent learning is only one part of what makes up the life of a student. And by making other parts of the experience simple, convenient, inexpensive, etc we are increasing the likelihood that the student will stick with their studies; that they we will feel welcomed by the institution and respected.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s certainly better than treating students like crap in the name of academic standards.
Cross-posted from the Higher Education Management Group, originally published Oct 16, 2011.