When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, the university built a posh outdoor swimming pool next to the campus’s main recreational facility. But it wasn’t a lap pool or an Olympic-style pool. It wasn’t built primarily for exercise. It was a lounging pool, with serpentine borders, tons of deck chairs, shady palms, and a snack bar. It looked in every way like something that you might see at a fancy resort, minus the booze. That pool, built purely for the purposes of coeducational sunning and fraternizing, represents an investment that UT-Austin made into the social experiences of students, arguably a distant remove from the university’s academic mission.
I suspect that when you have a high-end and highly identifiable brand, as UT-Austin does, that such amenities help to further “sell” the university to well-heeled undergrads. For better or worse, universities can and will maintain enrollments, at least for a time, not by (or not only by) improving academic experiences, but by improving students’ material surroundings and social experiences. The logic of such expenditures — which are common and ongoing on different scales at many campuses nationally — makes sense only if we view students as customers, as payers of tuition that colleges need to rope in with sweeter and sweeter deals.
We are undeniably in an era where the governing model of education is one that conceives of students as customers. In fact, this cognitive model of how colleges and students relate to one another, that of a business selling to customer, is currently so deeply rooted in how we see and discuss higher education that it can be difficult to even imagine other frames or metaphors for the relationship between educators and those who access that education. In our era of economic survivalism, students are not only customers, but, insidiously, are becoming marks, the unwitting victims propping up an unsustainable model of education.
Here are some of the symptoms of the corrosiveness of the student-as-customer model:
We woo students with slick advertising. Some people feel that, as an industry, higher education over-recruits students. I’m not sure that we do or don’t. Yet, instead of asking the question of whether or not we over-recruit, we simply invest more and more in advertising and public relations endeavors designed to recruit more and more students, perhaps unsustainably so. The fundamental thinking, writing, and analytical development that takes place within the core of liberal studies education (while atrophying, still the core collegiate experience that connects students of all majors at most colleges and universities) benefits all students of all majors, and even students in two-year degree programs. Instead of investing in the liberal studies or general education elements of curricular experience, we recruit, recruit, recruit. Our institutions focus on the point of sale, often to the neglect of the delivery of the educational product.
We extend these student-customers an astounding amount of easy credit. If students are customers, they need money to spend. The student-as-customer model allows us to rationalize (actually, rationalizes for us) the cycles of student-loan debt that increasingly appear to mortgage many young graduates’ futures. Such logic also allows us to write off as unwise those students who accumulate large debts on seemingly “impractical” degrees, without acknowledging the larger cycle of recruitment and easy-credit through which such students are convinced to buy into, literally, their university in the first place.The burden of debt has been shifted onto students in the first place, because state legislatures appear to be less and less inclined to subsidize education, despite it demonstrated long-term benefits, on the very logic that students are “customers” and that we ought not underwrite individual purchases. Not even educational ones that benefit the culture and state at large.
We turn universities into brands. Marquee universities (think state flagships and famous private universities) trade primarily on their brand names. This allows universities to sell the perception of what the university achieves, rather than focusing attention and resources on academics. It also justifies potentially corrupt and exploitative athletic programs in the name of brand recognition and alumni contentment. The impulse to protect the brand also frequently compels universities to shirk responsibility when missteps or scandals occur, rather than immediately taking responsibility and corrective action.
We focus on growth for growth’s sake. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to grow academic programs and colleges and universities. But too many institutions grow for the sake of growing itself, because it is the only way to increase revenue. Such growth is unsustainable, on a variety of fronts. For example, in my state of North Carolina, state funding is tied in part to enrollment growth, and in an era where the state legislature has cut budgets to the bone, one of the few ways for universities to see increased funding is to increase the numbers of students on their campuses, with predictable complications.
We vocationalize higher education. In the student-as-customer model, students and their parents both begin to ask a “what am I buying?” question. A postsecondary education is not a guarantee of success. It is not the straight-forward purchase of a better future. It never has been. But when the entire educational system conceives of students as customers, a burden of responsibility shifts. It shifts from the student, whose responsibility might once have been to go out and put the education to use, to the university, which is increasingly seen as a half-way house to employment. Students, and those who “assess university success,” become fixated on their perception of the end product, a student seated in an office chair, and forget that education is a process, and one that students ought to continue on their own post-graduation. All sorts of higher order thinking is marginalized when we become exclusively fixated on getting students jobs. It is a prime example of privileging short term priorities over long term ones.
The student-as-customer model, because it is premised upon unsustainable growth and unsecured debt, and government abandonment of its responsibilities, is the human equivalent of strip-mining. It is a wholesale mortgage of the future in exchange for fleeting short terms gains. The problem is not even necessarily in having a student-as-customer model, but in assuming that growth, rather than sustainability and equilibrium, is the only forward motion available to higher education.
We know that within the cliché-driven logic of our culture that if students are customers, then the old main street American, folksy business mantra that “the customer is always right” can’t be too far behind. We see the manifestation of the “always right student-customer” everywhere in academe: in grade inflation (who’s going to pay top dollar for Cs and Ds?), in the resort-ification of campuses (come check out our 90-foot climbing wall and palm-shaded socializing pool); in the hesitance to hold students accountable for their behavior (pick your high-profile college athlete crime example, or laughable university honor code); and in the near-pathological zeal with which higher education seeks to turn elements of the curriculum into swappable commodities (think of states’ efforts to create universally transferrable courses or blocks of “general education” or “liberal studies” credits, essentially an exercise in reduction to the lowest common educational denominator).
On campus, the trite but powerful idea that the customer is never wrong also confuses the mission of our universities. In the language of business, the metaphor enables us to forget what our product is. The university itself becomes the product, rather than the education that the university provides. At one of my sister campuses, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, students have begun to speak out against a lavish new recreation center, arguing that it is an unnecessary cost and a distraction from the university’s primary mission.
Off campus, the same logic of student-as-customer cultivates another set of similarly alarming impulses. The mentality treats academic coursework as standardized parts within a Fordian, standardized academic assembly line. The metaphor drives legislation that treats universities as wayward corporations, rather than as the public infrastructure necessary to sustain a vital democracy.
If there’s an upside to thinking of students as customers, I think it is that the model reminds us that we and our universities are directly accountable to students. Ours is a role of service, direct service to the students we enroll, and indirect service to the society those students will populate and some day run. We are accountable to manage university resources — human, financial, and other — around the primary mission of providing education. We are and ought to be accountable to students and to taxpayers. But the student-as-customer model makes us accountable to the wrong values, to purely financial motives, and at the neglect of the many idealistic, ethical, and democratic motives for expanding access to higher education.
Nate Kreuter is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University and a career advice columnist for Inside Higher Ed.
The men who established the republic were no plaster saints of Red State moral uplift. Only one of the half-dozen figures Thomas A. Foster writes about in Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (Temple University Press) would escape denunciation by the Traditional Values Coalition if the Founders were around today.
Accusations of adultery or of fathering children out of wedlock (or both) were made against George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton; the last two admitted the truth of the charges. Gouverneur Morris managed to draft the Constitution between rounds of frequent, strenuous fornication -- exercise he pursued despite having a severely mangled right arm and amputated left leg.
Only the the tightly wound John Adams seems to have escaped any hint of scandal. By all evidence, he and Abigail were strictly monogamous and not averse to finger-wagging at the other Founders' morals -- especially Franklin's, which were particularly relaxed. Besides writing a notorious essay on selecting a mistress, Franklin lived with a common-law wife; later, he conducted a good deal of his work as ambassador to France either in bed with well-born Parisian ladies or trying to get them there.
He was also broad-minded in ways that would be fodder for cable TV news today. He seems to have been on friendly terms with one Chevalier d'Eon, a French diplomat who preferred to dress in women's clothing. Poor Richard's ventriloquist was, as it's put nowadays, straight but not narrow.
Tabloid history? No, though much innuendo about the Founders did appear in frankly sensationalist publications of the day. (Negative campaigning goes way back.) Foster, an associate professor of history at DePaul University, is innocent of any muckraking intent. Everything in Sex and the Founding Fathers is a well-established part of the historical record, and in the case of Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, you'd have to have spent the last 20 years on a desert island not to have heard about it by now.
The author isn't interested in revealing the character or psychology of the early American statesmen. Rather, the book is a metahistory (not that Foster uses such jargon) of how their sex lives and their public roles were understood during across the past 200 years or so. The biography of a major political figure is itself a political act. Historians and others writing about the Founders have dealt with their peccadilloes in different ways over time, the shifts in emphasis and judgment reflecting changes in the national political culture.
George Washington, for example, seems the most austerely virtuous of the country's early leaders, thanks especially to the moralizing fables of Parson Weems. Recent biographies suggest that he had a number of romantic relationships, consummated and otherwise, before marrying Martha. Writers of historical fiction depict the six-foot-three, athletically built military man as exerting powerful animal magnetism upon the colonial womenfolk. (Like Fabio, but with wooden teeth.) In real life, Washington addressed passionate letters to a married woman. If no further improprieties occurred, it was not for want of trying.
Foster notes the tendency to assume that earlier images of the first president were "disembodied" idealizations which have "only recently been humanized." But the record is more nuanced: "Even the earliest images emphasize both his domestic life and his military and government successes," Foster writes, with some 19th-century biographies and paintings "establish[ing] Washington as the romantic man" as well as "head of a prosperous household." But on that last point, one fact was somewhat problematic: Martha, who was a widow when they met, had a number of children by her first husband but never conceived with George.
"No early account hides the fact that he had no children of his own," Foster notes. "But 19th-century writers do not dwell on this aspect of his life, leaving some readers to their own devices to determine this aspect of his private family life." Biographers in the Victorian era "could not anticipate that readers would ever expect an answer to the very personal question of why he had no children."
Refusing to acknowledge the question did not make it go away, however. The lack of progeny was a seeming defect in Washington's status as embodiment of masculine ideals. One answer to the problem was sentimental: The couple could be depicted as blissfully compatible yet saddened by their plight, even without any evidence of it. ("Americans," Foster remarks, "have never hesitated to speak definitively about the loves and inner lives of the Founders, despite a lack of documentation.") Unfortunate as the situation was, Washington finally transcended it by becoming "father of his country." Another solution was to deny that Washingon's virility was compromised at all, by claiming that he had an illegitimate son by the widow of one of his tenant farmers. See also the rumor that Washington died from a cold he caught "from leaping out a window, pants-less, after a romantic encounter with an 'overseer's wife.'"
No other figure in Sex and the Founding Fathers occupies so markedly paternal a role in public life, but in each case Foster brings out the complex and tightly knit relationship between sexual and political life. Even with Benjamin Franklin -- whose flirtatiousness is well-known, as is his earthy advice about the benefits of dating older women -- the author finds aspects of the record that add some nuance to the familiar portrait. I never appreciated just how disturbing a figure he was to his countrymen in the 19th century, when a senator struck his name from a list of candidates for a proposed national hall of fame on these grounds:
"Dr. Franklin's conduct of life was that of a man on a low plane. He was without idealism, without lofty principle, and one side of his character gross and immoral.... [His letter] on the question of keeping a mistress, which, making allowances for the manner of the time, and all allowance for the fact that he might have been in jest, is an abominable and wicked letter; and all his relation to women, and to the family life, were of that character."
Abominable? Well, he wasn't a hypocrite, and that's always a risky thing not to be. Consider also Alexander Hamilton. When accused of financial improprieties involving public funds, he denied it but admitted to having had a fling with a married woman whose husband then tried to blackmail him. "He chose to discuss the affair, in print, publicly, and in the greatest of documented detail to save his public honor," writes Foster. "He was not divorced. His wife did not denounce him. [George] Washington publicly supported him, as did others."
For a long time, biographers treated the matter evasively. They airbrushed the details out of his portrait as much as possible. Nowadays, Foster says, we get "warts-and-all hagiography -- ones that present failings only to dismiss them or have them overshadowed by an overarching theme of national greatness." Either way, he argues, the statesmen of the early republic stand apart from more recent politicians embroiled in sex scandals in one important way. Our contemporary lotharios can skulk off the public stage after a while, while the Founders never can. Their dirty linen hangs out for everyone to see, forever.
Santa Clara University has announced that it is standing by a decision announced last year to end employee health coverage for elective abortions, Bay Area News Group reported. University officials have said that they are trying to uphold Roman Catholic teachings. But many faculty members have objected, saying that they were hired with the university knowing that they didn't necessarily embrace Catholic teachings, and that the university was sending a message that it does not value the diversity on its faculty.
When Kevin Roose’s New York Magazine article on the Kappa Beta Phi induction ceremony was published, I naively dismissed its significance. TL;DR, as they say (too long, didn’t read). As articles about the event, a celebration of a secret society of very wealthy and powerful people, multiplied, I decided I should probably pay attention. Paul Queally, a University of Richmond alum and member of the Board of Trustees, made a few comments at the event that many have appropriately deemed offensive to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The event also featured jokes about working-class and poor people, liberals, and a little bit of nostalgia for the Confederacy, as well as forcing KBP inductees to wear drag, supposedly as good-fun humiliation.
When news broke about Queally’s comments, he remarked that his “jokes” were in the spirit of the event – but that those zingers about the politicians Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barney Frank were not reflections of his own values. Unfortunately for him, he found himself in the hot seat again upon news about a picture on Facebook featuring his use of the term “fag.”
Queally’s comments were offensive, and his participation in the ceremony is questionable. But he has donated generously to the University of Richmond, enough that the business school bears his name, as does the new Center for Admissions and Career Services. Thus, it does not surprise me that the university has not jumped to dismiss Queally from the Board of Trustees. It does surprise me, however, that the only statementreleased from the board reaffirms a commitment to “inclusivity, civility, and respect,” yet says nothing about Queally’s comments.
President Edward Ayers further emphasized that the board shares the values of the university, which have been laid out in the Richmond Promise -- an initiative he created and successfully advanced. This response has left many students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni underwhelmed. Yes, the university, including the Board of Trustees, is committed to diversity and inclusivity; but what is it going to do about this controversy, which has received national attention?
The personal significance of Queally’s comments and the limited response from the university finally sank in by the week’s end. As a trustee, Paul Queally will be one of the last individuals to decide my professional fate: tenure. I am a queer man, and some of my research is on the lives and well-being of LGBT people. And I just began my first year as a tenure-track professor at the University of Richmond. Life on the tenure track is already stressful and scary enough. Now, add to that the possibility that at least one person has indicated, at least to me, a level of hostility toward me, my community, and my research. After a tight knot formed in my stomach, I felt I needed to lie down right on my office floor. What is the point of working toward tenure over the next six years if the odds are already against me?
Sure, that may sound paranoid or overly dramatic. But I encourage the heterosexual majority to understand that LGBT people, as a means of survival in a hostile society, must look for signals regarding the social and political climate. Are we safe from prejudice, discrimination, and violence? The absence of anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination does not necessarily indicate the presence of LGBT-friendliness and inclusion. This is why many colleges and universities have Safe Zone programs, which indicate places on campus that are making intentional efforts to be safe and inclusive for LGBT students. So, the slightest hint of hostility – say a joke about Barney Frank, or the use of the term “fag” on Facebook – sends a message to LGBT people to be on alert for the possibility of more, and more extreme, hostility.
I decided to seek out motivation of the caffeine variety to keep working. I am still doing my best to adjust to life as a professor, which really means I am simply too overwhelmed to stop work to have a mini meltdown over this controversy. At our campus coffee shop, I ran into my dean and a director of one of the social justice offices on campus. They both hugged me and expressed sympathy for my precarious position. There is news of homophobia at the highest rung of the university ladder; they were right to assume how troubling this is for a new, queer professor who studies sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. And, to my surprise, my dean noted that the college would support me, including any efforts to right this wrong that has occurred at the university. I did my best to hold back the tears that threatened to come forward as I returned to my office; I felt such a deep sense of relief after bumping into them.
Why was I surprised? This is not the first time I have heard from colleagues – including people who will decide my professional fate in a few years – that I am supported as a scholar, teacher, and advocate for social justice. I have been reminded on a couple of occasions that one of the very reasons for which I was hired as a professor was to contribute to the university’s mission toward inclusivity and diversity. This even includes my work as a blogger, making my and colleagues’ research publicly accessible, and, at times, criticizing norms and practices within academia that constrain the well-being and scholarship of marginalized academics (like myself). In the midst of other universities cracking down on professors’ social media use, advocacy, and teaching on difficult subjects, I have found a job at an institution that supports my own efforts.
The university has made great strides in the past few years toward inclusion of and support for LGBT students, staff, and faculty: hiring an associate director of LGBTQ campus life; creation of a living-learning floor in LGBTQ studies; creation of an office for LGBT students; recently hosting the first-ever conference for LGBT athletes; solidified a major and minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; revamping and subsequent campuswide adoption of the Safe Zone program – just to name a few recent advancements! This year’s book selection for the One Book, One Richmond program is The Laramie Project – a play depicting the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and its aftermath.There are several on-campus events associated with the book, which included a talk by Matt’s mother, Judy Shepherd, in October.
When I interviewed for this job, I did my homework about the institution. I saw these initiatives, and scoured the archival project of graduating senior Dana McLachlin (a phenomenal student!) on the history of LGBT life and activism at the University of Richmond. I found, given the tremendous progress in just the past decade, I had little reservation about joining the Richmond community.
The comments by Paul Queally are troubling. And the response thus far from the university about this controversy is underwhelming. But I do feel the commitment to diversity and inclusion is genuine. I see that in hiring staff and faculty who not only are LGBT or allies themselves, but clearly bring energy and visions that will propel the university even further toward LGBT inclusion and support. However, this controversy leaves me a little worried that some of the top leaders may not be nearly as inclusive as the students, staff, and faculty – a fear I am certain is shared by colleagues at other institutions. The University of Richmond (like many colleges and universities) is a work in progress that I, as a queer professor, stand by.
Postscript: After I wrote this piece, but just before it was published, Queally issued more of a full apology and the president of my university sent a campuswide statement that went well beyond what the university had said earlier. While I'm pleased with those statements, I still ask: Should it have taken a week to figure out that this was much more than bad humor?
Eric Anthony Grollman is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond. He also maintains a blog for marginalized scholars, ConditionallyAccepted.com.
Lesley University adjuncts have voted to form a union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, becoming the second group of Boston-area adjuncts to do so. Tufts University adjuncts voted in favor of a union in September, as part of SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign to organize adjuncts and improve their working conditions across multiple U.S. cities. Lesley's adjuncts voted 359 in favor and 67 opposed.
Norah Dooley, an adjunct instructor of business management and communications and Lesley graduate, said in a news release that the issues surrounding adjunct labor in higher education -- such as relatively low per-course pay compared to tenure-line colleagues and little to no benefits -- are “complex” but “not intractable.” And as an alum, Dooley said she wanted Lesley to take a “leadership role in this movement.” A Lesley spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In today’s Academic Minute, Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut continues his examination of the chemistry of the show "Breaking Bad." Today he discusses Walter White's use of acids to make evidence disappear. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
In today’s Academic Minute, Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut begins a three-day examination of the chemistry of the hit television show "Breaking Bad." Learn more about the Academic Minute here.