Do Universities Have a Customer Service Problem?

sandeferwebThis column first appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

Recently at the University of Texas, and at many other universities around the country, there has been quite a bit of discussion about privatizing administrative tasks necessary to keep the institution operating. The overall discussion is a good one aimed at improving efficiency in a time of tight budgets. But it also has raised an important problem in how people think about higher education. And it boils down to two words: customer service.

Why is this bad? Isn’t it always a good idea to focus on providing good customer service? In the business world, yes. But universities are not businesses—and they do not have customers.

This idea runs contrary to the views of many in our overly business-oriented culture, where everything from government to hospitals is expected to run on the business model. But it is an important point, because it raises the issue of how we should think about public institutions.

Is a public university a business and, thus, should it be run with the idea of pleasing customers and providing a service to students? Or should it be run with a different mind-set? The answer is clearly that a public university (and most privates as well) is not a business. Universities and colleges are institutions of learning and research that do not have customers; instead, they have multiple stakeholders, including students, faculty, administrators, parents and the public.

These stakeholders support the institution in a variety of ways by paying taxes, providing labor and paying tuition. But at no time is anyone a customer of the institution.

When I write the tuition check for my son, who is about to go off to college, I am not buying his education; I am helping support the institution where he has a responsibility to use the resources to learn and improve his understanding of the world. The institution has the obligation to provide a strong environment so that he can access the ideas available.

In business, the bottom line is measured in profits; at a university the bottom line is measured in the extent to which we promote the common good through research and teaching. Students do not come to purchase an education. They come to learn in a community of people devoted to the support of learning.

Think of it this way. When you go out to buy a new pair of pants, you do not apply to the store and ask for permission to enter on the basis of your merit as a consumer. You just walk in and buy the pants. That’s what customers do. Students, in contrast, must be admitted to the university on the basis of their accomplishments before they can access its resources. They are not paying for their education; they are paying to support the activities of that academic community. The difference may be subtle, but the distinction is real and should be maintained.

A customer-oriented model at a university is the death knell of that institution, because it changes the atmosphere from one where students are challenged to succeed and take advantage of all that they can as part of an intellectual community to one in which they view their education as a process of purchasing grades so that they can get a good job. And that, in turn, leads to the dangerous mind-set that students (or, increasingly, their parents) should be able to negotiate and manipulate their way to better grades, even when they do not do the work and do not learn.

Emphasizing ideas like customer service contributes to generating the wrong idea about what is going on at universities because it infuses the image of the institution with the overall tone of the business model. This degrades the mission of a public university, which is to promote the public good and improve society through research and education.

Should universities like UT be efficient? Of course, because that opens up more resources to support the needs of the various stakeholders—most importantly the students. But thinking in terms of customer service deflects attention away from what we are—a community of people interested in learning and creating knowledge that promotes the improvement of our society.

John W. Traphagan is a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Illustration by Tomer Hanuka.



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