As a first-year faculty member, I’ve been thinking a lot about how higher education operates in the United States, the directions it’s heading not only in terms of technology, but in the basic overall structure of the university system, what it’s role (perceived and otherwise) is in society, etc. – you know, the small stuff. Certainly, I’d been thinking about these things long before I completed my doctorate – I was confronted with some basic questions regarding what students expect of higher education vs. what I thought they should expect when I was a teaching associate at the University of New Mexico while I completed my dissertation. Even my dissertation focused on higher education reform and forced me to work out my own understandings of higher education, its operation, its role in society, etc. etc. So really, some issues that already mattered are just thrown into relief more or have become even more important to me as I begin my life as an academic.
All that said as a (very long and rather navel-gazing) prologue, DJW has some great thoughts on the idea of students as consumers purchasing a commodity. I think this passage in particular is fair and cuts at the issues (ideological and practical) that cut to the heart of many of the questions regarding higher ed’s status today:
There is a sense, obviously, in which students are analogous to consumers, and there’s no point in denying that. The enrollment management office is engaged in a form of sales, and the faculty are part of the overall package that’s being sold. There is no denying they are purchasing something, and we’ve got an obligation to provide quality instruction in return. I think this needs to be acknowledged in order to narrow in on what’s wrong with the ‘consumer model’ as it’s frequently sold to many faculty, in practical rather than theoretical terms.
The problem with the consumer model arises when the “customer is always right” mentality (they want their widgets purple! With salsa dispensers!) is pursued. One reason it doesn’t work is that the outcomes we’re pursuing often make it difficult to identify when the student/consumer should be listened to.
This is one of those things I vaguely thought about before becoming a professor, but find myself really thinking about a lot now, wrestling particularly with the idea that I am in many ways a commodity, not just in terms of needing to ‘sell” my work to publishers, but even being part of the package “sold” to students to recruit them to one university or another, and I suspect I’m not the only new professor in the country who is wrestling with these issues. DJW raises some interesting points and, as with any good post, he raises even more questions than he answers and prompts further reflection on higher education in the United States. And that’s a good thing.