Management or Administration?

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, on my first piece about customer service, I made this comment:

“Faculty members respond to the student-as-consumer by teaching defensively, fearing the management that we formerly referred to as administration. But administrators administrate on behalf of the faculty. Employees delivering customer service get managed.”

It’s kind of a throwaway line – an idea meriting its own essay. Fortunately, Tales Told Out of School has written just such an essay that explores this theme more fully. The author of Tales is a departmental chair at a public university. The piece begins:

If students are customers, receiving a product from faculty, it threatens to turn administrators into managers. And turning administrators into managers will transform their relationship with faculty in ways that do not serve the larger aims of the university.

I’m pleased to see this kind of declarative sentence off the bat. You should read the whole article, as the author argues forcefully against admin-as-manager and explores the consequences of thinking that way.
Here’s the point I want to emphasize – when we adopt corporate norms, we not only screw up our educational mission, we do it BADLY. We take worst practices from corporate America and graft it onto our institutions.

Here’s the example from this essay, talking about administering FOR employees, rather than managing to please customers.

Curiously, this is even an approach that some parts of the corporate world have embraced. Herb Kelleher, the then-CEO of Southwest Airlines, once famously responded to a disgruntled customer who wrote letters of complaint after each flight: Dear Mrs. Crabapple: We will miss you. Love, Herb.” His point was not to be rude to this customer, but it was to suggest that the customer is not always right and that he supported his employees over the unreasonable demands of customers. In other words, he was taking seriously the experience and morale of the people who worked for him, with the knowledge that their satisfaction would translate into a positive experience for the people boarding his planes.

I like this a lot. One of the comments I’ve received in reaction to my original piece is that the model of customer service with “the customer is always right” is NOT indicative of the best practices in the corporate world. Higher Ed not only is adopting ill-fitting corporate models, we’re doing it badly.

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