Customer Relations in the Modern University

Satadru Sen has posted an interesting piece on his experiences teaching history at Queens College in CUNY. (I highly recommend Satadru’s blog; every single essay on there is literate and thoughtful.)  Because I wrote recently on completing ten years of teaching at Brooklyn College–and what I’ve learned from it— I thought I’d offer some thoughts triggered by Satadru’s article.

Many of the frustrations Satadru describes are familiar ones, some caused by the mysterious-to-faculty responses that  students have to syllabic requirements, some by the structure of CUNY’s pedagogical arrangements, which are geared toward administrative and bureaucratic efficiency. The latter, of course, is a common perception of the modern  university, which more often than not, is run in ways that have little to do with teaching or learning but everything to do with ‘management’, ‘maximizing resource utilization’ and other imperatives orthogonal to the educational process. (Consider, for instance, the three-hour night class, considered essential to the working student; I often wonder about its pedagogical efficacy.)

It is the students’ encounter with the university’s ‘system,’ which contributes to some of the students responses that Sen notes in his post; they have been exposed to the relentlessly bureaucratic structure of their supposed ‘institution of learning’ from the day they wandered onto its campus, and slowly but surely, they have internalized the most common response to the deadly impress of a grey, impersonal, bland and banal bean-counting culture: a state which is a halfway-house between reluctant acceptance and irate rejection. They sense the lack of concern with their education in the university’s arrangements; they respond accordingly. So, over the years, I’ve come to suspect that my syllabi, in which I strive for comprehensiveness as I detail the grade requirements, the reading list, and the varied administrative parameters by which I will conduct the class during the semester, are often viewed as just more ‘detail’, more official, and thus officious, requirements, which in the end do nothing more but build up just another fantastically complicated obstacle course, one to be deftly maneuvered through somehow.

The modern university too often functions like a modern corporation. (I don’t like comparing the university to a customer-serving corporation, but they insist on that analogy, so I feel duty-bound to comply.) In particular, it functions like those, that while ostensibly concerned about their ‘customers’,  are only really interested in the ‘first sale.’ After that you are a number to be quickly, efficiently, manipulated. Given this resemblance, it would make sense to note that customer-corporation relations are, and have been, at a notable low for a while. Part of the reason is that companies care little for customer service; it isn’t really an efficient money-maker.

And so,

The real problem may be that companies have a roving eye: they’re always more interested in the customers they don’t have. So they pour money into sales and marketing to lure new customers while giving their existing ones short shrift, in an effort to minimize costs and maximize revenue. [This is ] the “efficient relationship paradox”: it’s only once you’ve actually become a customer that companies put efficiency ahead of attention, with the result that a company’s current customers are often the ones who experience its worst service. Economically, this makes little sense; it’s more expensive to acquire a new customer than to hold on to an old one, and, these days, annoyed customers are quick to take their business elsewhere. But, because most companies are set up to focus on the first sale rather than on all the ones that might follow, they end up devoting all their energies to courting us, promising wonderful products and excellent service. Then, once they’ve got us, their attention wanders….

Apparently, if you try too hard to aspire to corporation-hood, you inherit its blemishes as well as its balance-sheets.

2 thoughts on “Customer Relations in the Modern University

  1. Samir, I liked this very much, but wonder if the pedagogical arrangements at CUNY are actually ‘geared towards administrative and bureaucratic efficiency,’ as you say. That might be giving the policy-makers too much credit. My sense is that the teaching structure at CUNY – as in any other large bureaucracy – emerges from (and as) ad hoc decisions that are based as much in ego trips, factional fights, compromises and misplaced good intentions as in anything else!

    1. Satadru,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I guess they aspire to that ‘efficiency’ – their failure to attain it is part of the problem, but we’re all caught up in the attempt!


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