Customer Service, or Provider Responsibility?

March 13, 2008

By now we are all familiar with the attempt from some quarters to push a business model, or more specifically a customer service model, on colleges and universities. We are also by now well familiar with the problems with such approach, not the least of which assumes that nonprofit universities should and can operate like businesses do. Many have articulated better critiques of this approach than I can. My favorite is the observation that students are not customers because customers pay a fair market value for products, while students’ tuition does not come close to covering the cost of college attendance.

Indeed, the briefest of literature searches turned up several articles and letters to the editor blaming this customer service model for all kinds of maladies in higher education, including identifying it as the primary reason for an asserted decline in the quality of higher education in the last generation (I’ll bet this alleged decline has been asserted in every generation).

Many professors fear, and probably rightly so, that a customer model is a “customer is always right” model, and that that won’t work in a teacher-student relationship in which the former evaluates the latter. Literally the student cannot always be right (otherwise, why go to college?).

Little is gained by exaggerating the dangers of the customer approach, however. Certainly the problems with this model when applied to academe cannot then allow us to ignore our responsibility to help students. If one were to follow the argument against the student as customer approach to its logical conclusion, there would be little reason to do anything for our students. Students pay at a deeply discounted rate, therefore we have little responsibility to offer them the best product, I guess it could be argued. All of us see the absurdity of this line of thought. And yet, sometimes I see evidence that we do not always provide the best service to our students.

“The Big Orange Screw.” I hate that saying. My blood boils when I hear students invoke it. But at my institution, the University of Tennessee (hence the orange), one still hears it in contexts such as this one: “I paid my fines, but they lost my check, and now because of the Big Orange Screw, I might not graduate.” Or, “I was enrolled in the course I needed, but the day before school started it was canceled, and now I’ve been Big Orange screwed.” If as vice provost I bury the concept of the Big Orange Screw, and do nothing else, I will retire happily.

All of what follows should be taken in the context that I know that students can be irresponsible, difficult and immature individuals (I know this because in addition to being a vice provost I am also the father of a sophomore in college). Sometimes, many times, they bring their problems on themselves through their imperfect actions. Furthermore, students will lie, to put it bluntly, such as when a student at our institution recently told his parents that he had not filled out the mandatory form X, and as a result “we” would not let him graduate on time. In this case there was no such form X, and instead he simply had not attended class, and failed a required course. And yet, oftentimes our actions, our bottlenecks, and our personnel and organizational problems place these same students in very difficult positions that encourage them to behave in the very manner for which we then criticize them.

A recent example of this on my campus led me to write this piece. A graduating senior, when she applied for graduation, was told that a grade of NR (No Report) for a two credit course she took as a sophomore would have to be removed before she could graduate. Annoyed, increasingly desperate, but determined to graduate, the student tried to track down the professor who had failed to file a grade (of course, the student was not without blame as the NR grade occurred two years ago, so why hadn’t she dealt with it then?). The instructor, a graduate student at the time, had left the university and the department did not have a way to contact him. By this point she had visited several offices, and still the NR had not been removed, and still she could not graduate.

At this point I became involved. I have to confess that I did not do anything, for it soon was determined that the student could graduate without these two credits, and the NR was simply removed. Of course, that meant that the student had paid for two credits for which, through no fault of her own, she never received credit. With her graduation assured, however, this did not concern her.

But it did concern me. It concerned me that we had asked her to resolve a situation that the institution created. When the NR grade became an issue it should have been our responsibility at that point, and not hers, to find the professor and produce the grade (or to uncover the solution that eventually was applied). That, now, is our policy, and maybe it is a painfully obvious one: when we create the problem it is our job to resolve it. If this is not customer service, it is at least a model of provider responsibility. We promised to provide a service, and we did so imperfectly. We, and not the student, were responsible for making things right, but instead we made it her responsibility to find a solution. Can we see the makings of a “big orange screw?”

When I talked to my boss about this matter he said something along these lines: “when an emergency arises we have to work overtime to get things done.”

That is the definition of provider responsibility. It is also common sense. In complex organizations, with multiple offices and overlapping responsibilities, sometimes such common sense gets lost. Professors are busy, staff is overworked, and quite frankly all of them hear stories from students seeking to avoid taking responsibility for their own mistakes.

And yet, sometimes the difficulties are not their fault, and as such we should approach every such encounter with an open mind. Listening to our students, even when pointing out their lapses of responsibility, is the basis of, if not customer service, at least provider responsibility.

Bio

Todd A. Diacon is vice provost of academic operations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville

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