The Learning-Centered University

What would it look like if every decision at the university were made, explicitly, around the following question – How does this make the institution a better place for students to learn and develop?

Implicitly, maybe that’s already built in to many discussions, but I think that the explicit language we use to define what we are doing matters.

Today I will have a new piece at Chronicle Vitae on “customer service” at the university and the model I would like to substitute. Here’s some background, first, and then I’ll highlight a few points from the essay.


Last March, just as Spring Break was starting, a friend pointed out a job ad at Texas A&M Kingsville (TAMUK) for an early modern English professor. Job description: MUST PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE.

I wrote this blog called: THE END OF HIGHER EDUCATION. Hyperbole, yes, but I was aghast. My piece was quoted in a number of other blogs, got a few thousand hits (which is a lot for me), so I pitched a piece to the Chronicle that was more nuanced. The goal was to argue against the “customer service” model by saying that it shortchanged the students, not that it offended the professors.

They published it. It spent several days pegged to the “most viewed” and “most commented” (in part because of some trolls, but comments are comments!). I wrote two followup posts. I received many comments and emails, including from faculty at TAMUK, I kept digging at some threads and emailing TAMUK HR and PR for comments. And then I got a voicemail.

“Hello, my name is Steve Tallant, and I am the president of Texas A&M University at Kingsville. I understand you have some questions regarding how we run this university, and I’d like to tell you I’ve been keeping up with your blog.”

I admit that I panicked. I had been doing some commentary for a year or so, but had never gotten a response like this. Also, I am conditioned to fear university presidents as I am but a lowly prof. Once we got on the phone, however, I realized something. I’m the press and he wanted to make sure he made a good impression. And he did. He’s very thoughtful, well-intentioned, has done good work with his faculty hiring, and the university has grown. Still, this customer-service thing seemed like a problem to me.

Today’s Piece

So I found out from a confidential tip that there was a mandatory annual training in customer service that all employees, faculty and staff alike, had to take. In the course of my interview and followups, I was given access to that training (for which I am grateful. Again, Tallant and his staff were very helpful and I do believe TAMUK is working hard to be a great place).

I took it. It reminded me of being trained at Burger King.

I think this kind of thing, the language we use to define our identity, can be really important. In today’s piece, I argue:

The words we put at the center of our institutions matter, whether in mission statements, strategic plans, or even boilerplate marketing elements. They shape communication among the disparate elements that coexist within the school, especially between the leadership and the other employees.

I also say:

Corporate catchphrases flatten all tasks into the same kind of behavior—in this case, customer service. They challenge academic identity and threaten the seriousness with which faculty in particular regard their administrators. Business-speak emphasizes the growing gap between academics and the people who manage them. Like it or not, nothing engenders eye-rolls among academics faster than corporate sloganeering.

It’s also not the only way to build institutional unity. What if instead of devoting time and resources to making analogies about customer service, we put learning first? What if the conversations, the trainings, the memos, and even the job descriptions emphasized this simple question: How does what I do make this a better place for students to learn and develop?

Learning-centered comes out of assessment-speak, so has it’s own complex valences. And yet, what would it look like if “learning” trumped all other concerns.

I’m going to dream on that one for a day or two.

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