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Weber and all that jazz

Interestingly, Max Weber in comparing American and German universities (Science as a Vocation) said this: "The American's conception of the teacher (...) is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father's money, just as the green grocer sells my mother cabbage."

Marcus Arvan

@Weber: Great quote, though it's worth noting that the attitude may not be distinctly American.

I learned in the following biography of Godel that in the German-speaking world at the time, new PhDs standardly got otherwise *unpaid* privatdozent positions at universities where their only compensation came directly from students for sitting in on their class. If anything, that seems even more like selling cabbage at a market to me.


education is building, not consuming

@Weber, and to be clear, Weber is *criticizing* this model.

William Peden

I don't understand the terms well enough to answer, e.g. I don't know what a "privilege" means in this context.

However, I do know from teaching business ethics that there are multiple ways of thinking about one's customers, just as there are different ways of treating employees, and different ways of treating staff as a customer. Commerce neither requires nor tends to be benefit from people being cruel or selfish. So one useful subquestion to reflect upon is "What do I think constitutes a customer/seller relationship?"

For example, I think that people often dislike the impersonality of some markets. If you are buying a coffee at an airport that you will only ever visit once, then you and the seller can be polite to each other, you can be honest with each other, but you cannot form a unique relationship.

In contrast, if you are buying coffee from your favourite local place from an employee who is happily working there long-term, then you can form a unique personal relationship with them. You are not just another anonymous customer and they are not just another anonymous coffee seller. Your experience would be diminished by their replacement and so would theirs.

Yet both are customer-seller relationships from a legal and economic perspective. So not all such relationships are equally valuable to us, in terms of answering to our most fundamental human desires - meaningful relationships, meaningful action etc.

I can absolutely understand someone who worries that a customer-seller conception of higher education is going to create an anonymised. On the other hand, customer-seller relationships also tend to have features like rights of exit, mutual arbitrational powers, and contractual entitlements. Some of these aren't part of the stereotypical patriarchal teacher-student relationship, e.g. maybe I am wrong, but I imagine that it was easier for academics in the past to be abusive towards their students, and that some degree of bullying by teachers was seen as a quid pro quo for the "privilege" of education.

On the other hand, just as there are different customer-seller relationships, so there were different uncommercialised teacher-student relationships. And, of course, it's possible that there are happy mediums that are somewhat commercialised but avoid some of the features of customer-seller relationships that academics very sensibly want to avoid.

Sorry if this is indefinite: my main points are that we should recognise that there are many ways of treating someone as a customer (or a seller), that there are flaws in other models of teacher-student relations, but that this doesn't imply we should embrace a customer-seller model - only that we should be very careful in our reasoning about it.


While there probably is some sense of "customer" in which a college student is a customer, I (a professor) am not the vendor.

Bill Vanderburgh

The thing that "students are customers" gets right is that universities exist to serve students' interests. I don't mean serve their whims or give them what they think they want. Rather, we should be trying our best to give them what is actually in their interest (part of which is helping them learn what their interests are, and how interests differ from desires). This is partly a value for money claim, since universities are increasingly expensive--we shouldn't be defrauding students by charging them a lot and not delivering something of comparable value. But it is also, and perhaps mostly, a claim about what happens to the lives of students who pass through our halls. If our courses, grading, and other systems are such that a large percentage of students don't ever make it to graduation, we are doing something wrong. While we need to meet students where they are and make it possible for university to fit in the context of their lives, I also think that we deprive students of value in their degrees if we give in to grade inflation and making courses too light. All that said, "students are customers" is not the best frame. It reduces the relationship to a purely transactional one, which is not correct. We owe our students a lot more than what a business owes its customers.


I used to strongly reject the "customer" view, but now I'm less opposed to it given that my dean suggested an analogy to customers in the market for a personal trainer.


I work at a UK university and recognise the student-as-consumer view entirely. In the UK now, especially in England (less so in Scotland perhaps), students are de facto consumers, even if administrators tend to shy away from publicly calling them that way. The issue is actually in the news fairly regularly in the UK, but I cannot remember specific sources. I think Jonathan Wolff wrote on it a few years back in the Guardian.
I also recognise Guy's dean's analogy, though framed in terms of a gym membership. As a gym member you are a customer and can expect certain services, but not becoming the next Schwarzenegger. That's still up to how much work/effort you put in. By analogy, a student can expect services like learning opportunities, but not products like a degree. That's up to the student. Problem is of course that while that distinction is widely accepted by gym members, it is not by students, and even less by their parents.


Empirically, I don’t know if such semantics will have significant affects on the quality of teaching overall. Pessimistically, a lot of professors already don’t see themselves as teachers (they’re experts/researchers) as the previous blog posts suggested. If anything, it could just lead universities to spell out the bare minimum transparently to not commit fraud or violate other business ethics thereby avoiding angering students and parents.

With every change, there will be adaptations by human actors who are involved. They are free agents. And no amount of simple semantics or title change is going to change how they already view themselves at least not without some kind of incentive. In business, there is no tenure and so there’s no guarantee of permanent jobs for mediocre work like academia. You can get fired anytime. That’s one big difference between academia and business.

I just don’t see how this is going to change anything seeing how most R1s or other large universities tend to attract and hire professors who don’t care much about (quality of) teaching as opposed to research in the first place.

not for profit

Regarding sources, perhaps Nussbaum's Not for Profit? It's not tackling this issue directly, but I feel the 'customer' metaphor has a lot to do with viewing higher education as something meant to produce profit, with the consequence of marginalizing the humanities.

Juan S Pineros Glasscock

Zena Hits has been writing a lot of important work on the value of education culminating in her book. I can't remember her directly addressing the customer view, but it is easy to see that her criticisms apply to it. Check out the second and third essays here, for two quick reads that seem directly relevant:


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