If you want to see a bunch of community-college faculty members roll their eyes in unison, just stand up in front of them and utter the words "customer service."
At that precise moment, according to a survey conducted informally by me, approximately 67.3 percent of them will be thinking, "Not again." The other 32.7 percent are thinking, "For the last time, students are not customers."
Either reaction can lead to friction between faculty members and administrators at two-year colleges. A growing number of the latter group pride themselves on being "business oriented," with a focus on "customers." Meanwhile, the former feel they have been subjected to more meaningless customer-service initiatives than any group of higher-education professionals in the country, with the possible exception of instructors at proprietary institutions.
After 20 years as a community-college faculty member, I think I can speak for most of my colleagues when I say it's not the "service" part of that thoroughly despised phrase we object to. We all understand that teaching is, at heart, a service profession. That's why most of us got into it in the first place.
What bothers us is the suggestion that our students, while sitting in our classrooms, are customers. Because words have meaning, and that particular word carries some pretty dangerous connotations in an educational context.
For one thing, when students hear it, their first association is with that famous if not necessarily correct adage, "The customer is always right."
"If I'm a customer," the student thinks, "and the customer is always right, then why am I getting a C in this class?" The next logical step in that thought process is to visit the instructor -- followed by the department head and the dean, if necessary -- to demand an A, the way any other customer would demand satisfaction at any other place of business.
The other problem with the word customer, as applied to students, is its implications for faculty members. To understand what I mean, simply construct an SAT-type analogy: "Professor is to student as [blank] is to customer." How would you fill in that blank? Server? Clerk? Greeter? Is anyone surprised that community-college faculty members, with seven-plus years of graduate education, bristle at the comparison?
It's not that college students are never customers on a campus. At the registrar's office or when talking to a financial-aid counselor, students are customers of a sort, deserving of the same kind of treatment afforded patrons at the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Wait, maybe I should rephrase that.)
The point is that the customer-clerk analogy, while it may hold up in other areas of a college, does not adequately describe the relationship between instructors and students. Clearly, students are not always right, nor do faculty members have an obligation to provide satisfaction, if that is defined as giving students the grades they want or expect.
A colleague of mine put it this way: To the extent that a college really is a business, the type of business it most resembles is a health club. People pay to join a health club. In return for their membership fees, health-club patrons can expect use of the facilities and access to expert advice on fitness.
But they have not, simply by paying their fees, purchased a right to any particular outcome. Their health and physical condition will improve only as they avail themselves of the opportunity to exercise. Nor have they purchased any particular opinion on the part of the experts in question. The fact that they're paying to be at the health club does not mean a trainer is obliged to tell them their weight is fine when they're carrying an extra 40 pounds.
I like that analogy a great deal but it, too, falls short. For one thing, college professors, on average, are much more highly credentialed than health-club personnel. Moreover, the collective membership fees of a health club's patrons really do pay the salaries of its employees. The same is not true at a state college -- however much students would like to think so.
At a typical state-supported two-year college, far less than half the budget comes from tuition dollars. That means the state is really paying our salaries, not individual students (or their parents). It's to the state and its citizens that our real duty lies -- a duty to ensure that students can perform college-level work before we award them college degrees, regardless of whether the "customers" like that arrangement or not.
I propose, then, that we reframe the discussion in terms of "professional service," rather than "customer service." After all, that's what we're really talking about, isn't it? Faculty members serving students as professionals?
Then perhaps we can identify standards of behavior acceptable to faculty members and administrators alike, while at the same time enabling both groups to achieve their common goals of student recruitment, retention, and academic success.
For example, consider the concept of "friendliness," one of the cornerstones of the customer-service movement. That concept does not apply to a classroom setting the same way it might apply in a restaurant or a department store. Faculty members, to do their jobs well, must maintain a certain professional distance. They cannot seek to establish interpersonal relationships with students based on social equality, which is what the term "friendly" implies. In fact, getting too friendly with students can lead to serious problems.
Faculty members do, however, have an obligation to be civil -- a human obligation, at least, and I would argue a professional one as well. They should be courteous when addressing students directly. They should strive to avoid inappropriate language. They shouldn't call students names or otherwise belittle them. They should respond with restraint to even the most inane questions -- even if the answer is "We went over that in class on Tuesday. I'm sorry you weren't here." None of that has anything to do with "customer service." It's simply a matter of professionalism.
What about the consumer ideal of immediate gratification? Does that concept have any application in an academic setting?
To some extent. Certainly, faculty members should return tests and other graded assignments as promptly as possible. When I served as department chairman, students sometimes came to me at midterm to complain that their composition instructors hadn't yet returned any essays. Clearly, that's unacceptable and unprofessional behavior on the part of those instructors.
On the other hand, community-college faculty members are not "customer service reps," helping students install computer software or exchange a pair of jeans. They're busy professionals with heavy course loads and numerous assignments to grade, in addition to their other duties. As long as they're returning assignments in a reasonable amount of time -- a week or so, in most cases -- they're adequately fulfilling their professional obligation. Students, for their part, could benefit from learning a little patience.
In the end, when faculty members hold themselves to the highest standards of professionalism, there can be little question about the fate of the "customer." Because when community-college faculty members are anxiously engaged in doing what they do best, everyone involved -- student, parent, community member, taxpayer -- is well served.
Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He writes occasionally for our community-college column.