This post comes courtesy of a very interesting debate that started on Twitter this week.  It started when a university faculty member tweeted that she was "Absolutely Furious!" because "There are no parking spaces in the garage that [she] pays $50 a month to park in and there are students parked in there!" On a whim, I replied with "Those darn customers...I mean...students.  ;)"

So, it begins...

I have long held the belief that there is something fundamentally odd, and broken, when it comes to the student/faculty relationships on most college campuses.  You see, I believe that students should be treated like valued customers.  Colleges and universities should work hard to attract AND retain students, and basic principles of customer service should be core the student/teacher relationships.  After all, for nearly all of us, our education is likely to rank as one of the top two investments we will make in our lifetime, right up there with buying a home.

Curiously, however, I struggle to think of a customer-like situation where the customer is demeaned to the degree that the undergraduate college student is.  I have been on many college campuses, and all of them are riddled with signs that say "No Student Parking!!".  I have yet to see even one sign that says "Student parking only. No faculty/staff allowed".  Has anyone?

Compare this to almost every other consumer scenario that we are familiar with, and doesn't it get interesting?  In a retail setting, such as Target, Best Buy, or any mall, can you imagine if all of the store managers got the premium parking and there were a bunch of signs saying "No shopper parking!"?  At an airport, when you are trying to rush and make that flight home, could you imagine if the pilots, gate agents, and flight attendants got all of the prime spots, and there were a bunch of signs saying "No passenger parking!"?    Unfathomable!

Yet, the above customer relationships are trivial compared to what should exist when a student is paying many, many $thousands to attend a university. Still, the norm persists.

This debate is much, much deeper than parking norms, though.  The parking situation is just a surface symptom of something far more strange.

 

I assert that most of today's major colleges and universities are in denial.  They refuse to accept that they are not only paid to teach students about business (and other things, of course), but that they actually ARE businesses as well.  You see, large companies routinely pay for college professors to come on site and educate employees.  In this scenario, would one of these professors dare to complain that the company's employees and executives took up all of the premium parking spots, leaving them to walk a few blocks to paydirt?  NO!!  But, when their own students are investing years of their lives and even larger sums to partake of that same professor's knowledge, they are treated as pests.

I should be careful not to paint with such a broad brush, I guess.  I always showed my professors respect, and I feel that I was treated quite fairly.  In fact, I remain pretty good friends with a number of those professors to this day.  But, broadly speaking, I feel as if the system is fundamentally in need of a mind shift.  Students should be more highly valued, in general.  They should not be viewed as pests.  Medical doctors and other highly valued knowledge workers in our society show their customers and padawans similar respect.  We need more balance in the university construct.  Surely, both sides would benefit.  Students would more highly value the valuable time invested by their faculty, and faculty would come to more highly value students.

We are fair and balanced here, so below is a rebuttal provided by the author of the Tweet that sparked this debate:

I feel like I need to defend myself. Yes, I am the professor who wrote that tweet. And yes, I was furious and I still believe I was justified in my anger. I pay $55 a month (it just increased) to park in that parking garage. Floors 1-6 are faculty and staff parking. Parking is only supposed to be sold to graduate students IF there are available spaces after faculty and staff have been sold parking. Students pay $125 per semester and can park on levels 5 and 6. The Parking department oversold to students this year. With the beginning of a new academic year come new students who push the limits. They don’t know whether the Parking department tickets in the garages, so they park on all levels. This creates a situation where faculty and staff have no parking.

Now, my university is an urban university with very generous student parking. If you look at the map below, the star is my garage, the P represents all student parking lots, and there is free or metered parking on most streets. Where I had to park on Tuesday is actually off the map to the right at 11th Avenue and 19th Street. My building is the Learning Resource Center (I’ve tried to cover up any identifying buildings).

 

There are several reasons why I was furious. One is that there are rules. For the most part, I like rules (except speed limits).  Rules help us live together in society without spiraling into chaos. Students broke those rules, causing many faculty members and staff inconvenience. Second, I pay for those spots. Therefore, I am a customer of the Parking department who is not getting the product for which I paid. And I had to pay for a metered spot and make sure I got back to it within two hours or risk a ticket. Also, it was one of my teaching days, which meant I was wearing a dress and high heels. I had to walk the six blocks in 87 degree heat with very high humidity. That makes us glisten in the south (a word for sweat for women). I like to look nice when I teach. I like to look professional. Having my hair ruined because it is wet with sweat and having my makeup melted off is not a professional look. So yes, I was furious.

Now, to get to the issue of students as customers, I think that sells the relationship between faculty and students short. I teach undergraduates, graduates and executive students in health administration and all are different and have different needs. Teaching styles must adapt. But undergraduate education is about so much more than a customer/supplier interaction. It is about guiding young individuals to develop their skills and character and become responsible citizens and productive members of society.

I have an open door policy. I don’t have office hours, but I’m in my office or on campus usually at least 50 hours a week. Students can stop by any time, but I tell them they may want to email me first to make sure I don’t have another appointment or meeting. But if I’m available and a student stops by, I’m happy to meet with him or her.  Some of the students I work most closely with get my cell phone number, in case they need to cancel or reschedule regular meetings on short notice. They often keep my number and text me for years after they graduate. To me, that’s not treating students as pests.

For the most part, I love my students. Of course, there are some that you love less than others and gripe about, but most parents occasionally gripe about things their children do. I get great joy out of seeing these young men and women grow and then go on to become successful in all aspect of life. I get excited when I get an email from them following up with me years later to tell me how they are doing or asking me for advice. I love going out to lunch with them after they have graduated and chatting with them on Facebook. I get concerned when they start slipping up and I want to know what’s going on. I get mad when they cheat, or don’t turn in work or take a quiz, because they can do so much better. That is not treating students as pests.

Saturday morning I went to PetSmart with my dog Shadow. She’s friendly and she went over to this woman to get petted. I was wearing a school shirt. The woman said, “You look familiar, do I know you?” I didn’t recognize her, but told her where I worked. She worked in a nearby building, so I said, “We must pass each other all the time.”  We chatted awhile. Then she asked my name. When I told her, she said, “You taught my husband, John (not his real name).“  I remembered then that he had brought his wife to meet me, long after he had graduated. John was in one of the first groups of students that I taught here and I will always remember him fondly. He worked as a patient tech at the hospital while getting his degree. He was an older student and he wasn’t the smartest guy, but he worked very hard. After class, he would often walk back to my office with me and talk about things related to health care. He was just so eager to learn and to improve in his career. He wanted to go to grad school here, but he didn’t have the grades. His wife informed me that he’s now working on a Masters in Engineering. I was so pleased to learn that he’s doing so well.

So, no, I don’t think of my students as customers because I think that suggests the relationship is far less than what I have with many of my students. I think of them more as my colleague in learning and teaching; people I have an influence on, and who have influenced me, and we hopefully go on to help people live healthier lives or have better health care experiences.

The medical model that the author mentioned has moved to a customer service model, but is still very flawed. How many of you have had to wait 30 minutes or an hour? How many of you have had a doctor be condescending to you? Not all medical doctors show their patients the respect that the author asserts. If you’ve ever stayed a night in a hospital, you will know that customer service is lacking in many respects. As health administration professionals, we are trying to change that, but clinicians don’t take health administration.

More importantly in health care, the patient as a customer model also ignores the true outcome of the health care encounter: quality. Not patient satisfaction and amenities, but outcomes such as adverse events, length of stay, readmissions, and hospital acquired infections, etc. The data show that while many, many patients are pleased with the “customer experience” in health care, hospitals and providers continue to make mistakes and kill tens of thousands of patients every year. The customer can’t evaluate these effectively. But health care professionals must work continuously to reduce these while still addressing patient satisfaction and providing amenities. Sometimes those things are hard to do at the same time.

I felt that I was misrepresented in this blog post. Just because the parking situation upset me, doesn’t mean that I treat students as pests. Just because I don’t treat them as customers, doesn’t mean that I don’t value them. Quite the opposite. These are the people who are going to be running the health care system when I’m old. I want the best taking care of me.