students are not customers

Colleges and universities commonly talk about serving “customers.” For example, Tufts University officially promotes a “Customer Focus” for its employees, which means: “Pay attention to and focus on customer satisfaction • Develop effective and appropriate relationships with customers • Anticipate and meet the needs of both internal and external customers.”

I understand and even endorse the motivations here. Students and others pay us lots of money, and we should try treat them respectfully, efficiently, and in a way that satisfies them. We can draw lessons from consumer-oriented businesses. For example, we mustn’t make students wait on long lines for no apparent reason, as was traditional in higher education even 20 years ago.

But we aren’t actually a business, and we don’t have customers. Our main products are education and new knowledge. That means that the people we “serve” include students, readers (and other users of our research), and collaborators in research or educational projects. Students and readers are not customers, because the customer is always right. His or her preferences should be met, if possible. In contrast, our job is to challenge, guide, and assess, whether the student or reader wants that or not.

Further, a customer is basically passive. Consumers actively choose what they want, but the company produces it for them. In contrast, our students, readers, and community partners actively co-produce knowledge with us. They are colleagues rather than customers. We need to teach them to see themselves that way (not as people who have purchased services).

We also have obligations that are not to any individuals but to abstractions, like truth and fairness.

Finally, the implication that we are providing an expensive customer service leads not just Tufts but the whole sector (including public institutions) to spend lavishly on things like residences, student activities, and support services. Harvard, for example, employs 5,102 “administrative and professional” staff (excluding clerical and technical workers and those in “service and trades”). Harvard has 112 full-time professional and administrative workers in its athletics department alone. This compares to 911 tenured faculty (or 2,163 total faculty). Harvard students no longer have personal servants assigned to them, as their predecessors did in the Gilded Age. But they have a similar number of service workers at their beck and call.

Meanwhile, the cost of higher education has far outpaced inflation for several decades, and four-year colleges have ceased growing even as the young-adult population expands. I am not sure that their core educational mission benefits from all this spending, but problems of access are becoming acute.