It is becoming more and more common to hear about the “customers” of higher education. I will go on record, unsurprisingly, as saying that I do not like this language. However, since it is becoming so common, I think it’s worth reflecting too on who these customers are, and also what the product is that they’re purchasing. This is both philosophically important and practically so with respect to grade inflation, one of my ongoing concerns.
The presumption when this is raised is often that the customers are the students in the room. Hence we are to deliver a satisfactory product to those students who have registered for our classes. And, when it comes to grading, a “satisfactory product” often ends up meaning an A. This becomes all the more so when the syllabus is conceptualized as a contract between professor and student, such that adequate completion earns the full payment, the A. I far prefer adequacy to earn a B- or C, and exceeding adequacy to earn grades higher than that.
But I digress. Let me suggest that our customer is actually The Public — not its individual components, not the student body as a whole, not the alumni and donors, not the taxpayers, certainly not whichever students happened to register for a given course. For public and private universities alike, tuition dollars cover only a fraction of the cost of education, and sometimes (as at UNC) a very small fraction. But more importantly, virtually every university has a public mission and claims institutional, financial, and moral responsibility for that mission. So as we create, communicate, and disseminate knowledge, we should be thinking about the collective public as our customer, not about the students. In many cases we may serve our customer better by being more demanding and less accommodating to the students.
Finally, let me point out that even if you reject my case above, what we are supposed to be “selling” is education and knowledge — not grades or credentials. So serving the students appropriately often involves being less accommodating than we sometimes are!