The Wal-Mart ethos attracts few buyers among US lecturers

Staff chafe but administrators press on with efforts to instil consumer focus. Jon Marcus writes

January 27, 2011

"Have we served you well?" It may be a nice touch when shops pose this question on badges worn by their staff. But when a US community college asked its faculty to wear them around their necks, the friendly catchphrase sparked a furore over the role of higher education.

Prince George's Community College in Maryland, near Washington DC, issued identity badges bearing the contentious slogan to its academic staff as part of a customer-service campaign to help its 40,000 students navigate their degree courses more smoothly.

The resulting outcry has drawn attention to what some faculty complain is the increasing commercialisation of university education in the US, which they say is being treated as a product valued more for its job-training function than for teaching people how to think.

They also complain that it is making highly trained educators appear little more than glorified salespeople.

"I'm not selling shoes," Earl Yarington, a professor of English, said in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors. "It's the Wal-Martization of higher education and it's a disturbing trend."

But at the same time, administrators and increasing numbers of critics express amazement that faculty resist being reminded of their duty to help students.

Other universities are moving ahead with efforts similar to those that have caused outcry at Prince George's. Howard University in Washington DC has launched a Students First Campaign, and at Idaho State University, the ISU Cares Customer Service Initiative has run for two years offering cash prizes to employees for exceptional customer service.

At Fort Valley State University in Georgia, employees are required to hang in their offices a framed sign that reads "FVSU is Committed to Friendly and Efficient Service" as part of a drive "to compete in a truly customer-driven manner".

Employees there undergo two-hour "exceptional customer service" training sessions.

And Cornell University in New York offers a six-week course for faculty and staff called "Customer Service - The Cornell Way", which teaches that "a university has customers, internal and external, just like other organizations. Every interaction between alumni, a prospective or current student, faculty or staff provides the opportunity for our university to make a favorable and lasting impression."

The contentious customer-service movement is being driven by soaring costs and demands from students and their families to know exactly what they are getting for their money. And the push for service and accountability is likely to intensify, not fade.

Advocates of the approach argue that there is no reason why universities should not be held accountable to the public, in the same way that private companies have to answer to their customers. They liken universities with low graduation rates to manufacturers that produce defective tyres, for example.

"Year after year, colleges and universities turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent," said Marty Nemko, author of The All-in-One College Guide: A Consumer Activist's Guide to Choosing a College.

But at Prince George's, the administrators have relented in the face of faculty anger. It is now optional to wear the "Have we served you well?" badge.

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