The question of whether higher education institutions should adopt a customer-service mentality when it comes to working with students is effectively moot.
Amazon, instant gratification, the so-called ‘me generation,’ worldwide competition, technology and just plain common sense dictate that higher learning institutions understand and practice customer service.
A customer is one who buys a product, and we do produce a product. We also charge mightily for it. We have even adopted a form of ‘airplane seating’ in our pricing schemes. We seek talent and strategists to help us target our market. We entered willingly into this hospitality business prodded by increasing competition and, yes, the proverbial bottom line.
We acknowledge our ‘customer’ by rolling together once disparate services such as parking, bookselling, tuition payment, financial aid resources and course registration. For adult students arriving hungry and tired to our campuses, we keep facilities once shuttered by 4:30 p.m. open later. Sometimes we even stay open on Saturday. We cross-train our staff to answer questions outside of their immediate expertise and put electronic information signs up on the campus. When the Internet took firmer hold of society, we cajoled the IT department into making it easier to log on and we capitulated to Gmail. Everything, especially the library, was 24/7, and even the oddest dietary preference was accommodated.
Our main web pages are state-of-the-art and it’s becoming de rigueur to register online. With trustees, legislators and the federal government at our heels screaming about retention and graduation rates, we hired customer service representatives known euphemistically as ‘student success specialists.’
Although some might argue that customer service such as eliminating bill-paying, scheduling and registration hassles frees the student up to study and concentrate, the truth is we have unleashed a Medusa of entitlement that has spilled into academics.
We allow those who didn’t or wouldn’t complete their coursework to ‘walk’ at graduation without actually graduating. Deans and directors stand at attention when confronted by the institution’s president who was just contacted by an irate student or parent for the most heinous infraction; the egregious insult of awarding an A-. The supposition is that paying tuition entitles one to an A and nothing less. Grading, especially in the social sciences and liberal arts, always tinged with subjectivity, has succumbed to rubrics that discourage creativity and are airtight enough to thwart contesting. The once innocuous question of, “What’s on the test?” can cower the adjunct who needs strong evaluations to be hired for the next term.
When applied to academics, the student-as-customer opens up a plethora of concerns. With a student success specialist at one’s side, whose responsibility is it to succeed? What happens to the reputation of an institution when a student with an inflated GPA fails miserably in the field in which he or she received a degree? How can faculty stretch minds and ideas if the course evaluation is the primary key to the faculty’s success? Why do grades have to be turned in so quickly that evaluation of student work can only be cursory? Can we no longer deviate from a syllabus to enhance an opportunity for learning?
Medusa was, according to Greek mythology, once beautiful. She became ugly — very ugly — when she crossed a boundary and broke her vows. The gods turned on her and transformed her to a creature with snakes in her hair and a face too horrifying to look upon.
In our quest for customer service — a beautiful concept — we have inadvertently crossed the boundary into academics and are breaking our vows to educate, to prepare people with the necessary foundation to succeed in a complex world, to instill creativity and foster curiosity.
And who can forget the tragic Greek ending: Medusa turned all who looked upon her to stone.
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