A few weeks ago a friend alerted me to a job ad for a Renaissance/Early Modern English professor at Texas A&M – Kingsville (TAMUK). The job summary read: PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE. I reacted (with some hyperbole) with a blog piece about why the retail model of customer service, in particular, didn’t serve the students very well.
Today the Chronicle of Higher Education published an expanded and, hopefully, refined reaction to the job advertisement. There’s plenty to complain about the way such a model treats faculty (and, as I’ll say below, the negative consequences for administration too!). But I focus on students and learning.
Here are a few followups:
1. Someone is going to get this job. Given how many early modern lit grad students I know, it could even be a friend of mine. It’s a solid, if busy, job (4:4 is hard, especially with research requirements). I wish all my friends the best and hope whoever gets it will thrive there.
2. I have reached out to TAMUK for comment, sending to both HR and faculty (and promised the latter anonymity). I asked HR, both over the phone and email:
I am writing a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the use of business or corporate language throughout higher education. I’ve come across your job advertisements and the inclusion of the phrase, “Provide excellent customer service” in nearly all of them, including in positions for professors, administrative assistants, coaches, etc. I was wondering if you, or someone in HR, might be willing to comment on what you mean by that phrase in the context of academic hiring? Who are the customers? What does service mean in this context? In what ways is the significance of that phrase conveyed to job candidates and new hires? Finally, to what extent is customer service used as a category for weighing tenure and promotion?
They have not responded. I’ll let you know if they do. Are these the right questions?
UPDATE 3/18 6:00 PM: I received a voice mail with a comment about Customer Service from someone in Human Resources. The comment is:
“We put [the phrase about customer service] in every job because we consider
outside people, our students, as customers, and if they weren’t coming here
they wouldn’t be our customers, so we want to express our excellence of service
I’m not quite sure what that means. I’ve asked for clarification.
4. More importantly, though, is the management vs administration shift which I articulated as follows:
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.
These lines compress a lot of issues.
First: My argument is that once you move to the student as customer model, the faculty shift into the employee role, and administration shifts to management. It’s bad for everyone. It’s bad for education.
Second: I am fortunate to be surrounded with administration in my job who work collaboratively with the faculty. They do administrate us (I don’t think the verb works that way, but whatever) and for us. I do not feel managed. This isn’t to say that I agree with every decision or that sometimes I don’t feel the gap between the faculty perspective and the admin perspective. This gap is by design and wholly appropriate. Admin must look on a macro level. Faculty should concentrate on the classroom, department, advisees and scholarly-field level. A well-functioning university finds ways to empower both of these fields of vision. When we disagree, which we will, the goal is to let the different perspectives lead us towards a useful synthesis rather than hostile division.
Third: Academics don’t want to think of themselves as labor. In many ways, academia embodies precisely the kind of relatively high-status occupation for which collective organization and bargaining works very well. But despite the pressure from above, academics are loath to think of themselves as employees needing to organize. I assume it’s cultural, but haven’t really studied this issue. As the landscape of higher-ed changes, as more and more faculty work as contract labor (adjuncts), the labor model is going to be increasingly important for us to adopt. Collective organization, however adversarial, is the only way that a managed workforce with increasingly smaller shares of the financial pie and increasingly smaller roles in governance can change the dynamic.
I’ve reached out to a business professor and wonderful teacher to tell me what I get wrong about customer-service in my piece. I’ll be back with more later as it comes up.