Chicago GSB’s Dean, Ed Snyder, says that students are not customers and nor should they be. So many business schools — probably MBS too — has had to justify larger fees but also increasing competition by telling students that they were customers rather than students. This has been a real problem:
One problem. The model is corrupt and corrupting. Treating students as customers doesn’t help them develop. Do we really want to tell them that they are customers―and that they are always right―when we are in the last, best position to influence their overall academic, ethical, and professional development?
Of course we shouldn’t. What other responsibilities should we abdicate?
One dean I knew quite well tried to salvage the customer model by saying that their MBAs were “students in the classroom, but customers outside the classroom.” Nice try, but it doesn’t work either. When it comes to a career, if a student doesn’t represent himself well when interviewing for jobs, then the school’s relationship capital suffers. If a second-year student doesn’t help her first-year colleagues evaluate early career option steps, then the whole community loses. In fact, the customer model fails on all critical dimensions for similar reasons.
Instead of the customer is always right, we ought to go with a version of you get what you put into it. If we do, then the interesting and important question becomes how can we get our students to put more into their MBA educations?
My answer is that we should engage our MBA students with a combination of “stretch and support.”
– We should set high expectations of our students. When they meet them, shine the light and recognize them. When they don’t, kick them in the butt.
– We must care deeply about our students, their experiences, and what they are trying to achieve. This naturally leads schools to support them day-by-day and in truly profound ways.
If we get the right balance of stretch and support, then we move to a more productive equilibrium, in which students put more in (because they feel both challenged and supported) and they get more out of their experience.
No one should think that I advocate a return to Stalinism. Abandoning the customer model doesn’t reduce the pressure to innovate. It doesn’t prevent us from investing in global career support. However, getting rid of the customer model does mean that every time our students refer to themselves as customers, you can avoid the trap and instead move to surer, higher ground. It causes our jobs to shift toward setting expectations and asking more of your students. This approach takes some repetition―like a few thousand conversations―but these are the right conversations for deans and students to have.
And, as one of my faculty colleagues reminds me: “There isn’t anything wrong with the teacher/student relationship. It’s only been around for two or three millennia.”
Here, here. I agree, students are not customers. Yes, the pay and so in economics terms look like that but, in reality, they also produce. Once they have committed to pay and walk through the lecture theatre door, a fundamental transformation as occurred. Their interests and those of professors and administrators should be aligned. However, they are not because the customer-mind set continues.
I actually think that the appropriate metaphor — if we need one — is that students are employees. We need to compete for employees and so that works but when they work the goal is productivity. That means tough classroom experience and taking orders if need be. There is no service entitlement but then again even employees can demand good administrative treatment and favourable workplaces. The work should be tough but the workplace should be comfortable. That is the mix we should be aiming for.