Saturday, June 10

Students are not customers. Teachers are not employees.

Ask any older employer of recent graduates and you'll hear that most bachelor's degrees are inferior to the high-school diplomas of a generation ago, and, what's more, there is a gross sense of entitlement among today's students, even after they become employees. Somehow they think their employers exist to serve them.

"How much do you pay? Is this interview over, or what?"

One reason for that is obvious enough. Those job applicants just spent the last four years regarding highly educated adults as customer-service representatives. Why? An entire generation of professors has been weakened by the transformation of higher education into a part-time, no-benefit operation. The steady erosion of tenure and the use of student evaluations as a faculty-culling device are turning college teachers into spineless crowd pleasers.

"Please, please hire me! I'll do anything! I'll keep the students entertained and give them all high grades because everyone's special and who am I to judge anyway?"

The last two months I wrote about the relationship between the "7 Deadly Sins of Students" and the "7 Deadly Sins of Professors."

My argument is that a student culture of self-indulgence is enabled by the failure of professors to maintain expectations in the classroom. At many institutions, courses have been gutted to the point that students receive high grades for minimal effort, and the lowest grade many professors can risk assigning is a "B+." Even that will produce imperious complaints from students who think they are destined for greatness: "I worked really hard. Your class is not fair. Raise my grade or I'm taking it to the provost. Just wait till you get your evaluation!"

The consumer mentality of students results in their desiring less rigorous instruction because they are paying more for it. They use the cost of tuition -- which I acknowledge, is far too high -- as a justification for lowering standards. So they will pay again later when they discover that their degrees are a form of inflated currency and that employers will not treat them like little geniuses but expect them to actually work without complaining. Even if one accepts the instrumentalist view of education, we do our students no favors by letting them leave with so little knowledge and so much attitude.

Students, even if they are paying tuition, are not "customers" because, at most institutions, their tuition covers only a fraction of the total cost of their education, which is paid for by the state, donors, and accumulated institutional capital. The professors are also making a major contribution by working for far less than comparably educated professionals.

Nevertheless, students think they are customers because the majority of college teachers know they are "employees" who will be fired for displeasing those customers. The 2005-6 version of the American Association of University Professor's "Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession" shows that in the last generation or so the proportion of faculty members teaching part time has doubled. It was 23 percent in 1971; it was 46 percent in 2003. It's probably more than 50 percent now.

That percentage does not include all of the teaching assistants who log most of the student contact hours at large universities. It's probably safe to say that more than two-thirds of college teaching is now done by people who are routinely punished for maintaining standards. The professional survival of untenured faculty members depends on processing large numbers of students without making waves.