Professors don’t work for you

They aren’t service-providers and can’t be approached on that level


Students have a number of rights, entitlements, and reasonable expectations when it comes to their post-secondary education. I always become immensely frustrated, however, when students try to view themselves as customers. It’s the surest way to screw up any good argument for change or improvement. Is there something wrong with the quality of your education? It’s very possible that there may be. Make your point well and the powers that be may listen. But try to play the “customer is always right” card and you’re dead before you even begin.

The consumer mentality among students contributes to numerous problems. Students may start to believe, for example, that they are paying for outcomes and that the university should take responsibility for ensuring their success. No such luck. The university will take responsibility for giving students the resources and opportunity to succeed but that’s all. In this sense you’re as much a customer as you are when you pay for your driving test down at the local office. You’re entitled to a fair test and reasonable service to get through the paperwork but then if you fail it’s on you.

This is a huge topic. There are whole books on the problems associated with consumer mentality among students. But one of the immediate manifestations of this attitude is when students look at their professors and imagine they work for them. It’s simply wrong. You can’t purchase an education in biochemistry the same way you buy a latte and you can’t respond to the person who is trying to teach you about Shakespeare in the same way you respond to the guy handing you a hamburger. When you do that it not only insults the professor but devalues the very experience that you are, unquestionably, paying a lot of money for.

Anyone who has ever trained in a martial art appreciates that respect is a key part of the training. Anyone who has ever participated in a sport knows that coaches must be deferred to. Anyone who actively practices their faith understands that religious leaders must be allowed due regard. This isn’t mindless kowtowing for its own sake. We know that learning works best when respect is preserved. True, it’s a two-way street and professors may not always uphold their end of the bargain, but we could say the same for any of our other examples and yet we still see the importance of the relationship.

Whenever students lose sight of this, and imagine they can reduce their professors to the level of service-providers, it only points to the more fundamental issue. Those students imagine they are not, in fact, learning anything as significant as a martial art requiring some discipline or a sport requiring some rigor or a faith requiring some dignity. They imagine that biology or psychology or literature or philosophy is somehow different – perhaps only a collection of facts and ideas to be memorized and reproduced at need. They see the whole thing as merely a series of hoops to jump through on the way to a degree. And this goes back to the terribly damaging consumer mentality that is so much larger than this one topic.

Some professors may take things personally. I won’t pretend they are all beyond reproach. But university is a shared environment. Even if professors do, in some sense, work for students they work for all students simultaneously. And that implies that they must protect the integrity of the learning environment. Maybe that seems a little self-righteous at times but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

No professor worth his or her salt will ever acknowledge that professors serve students in the same way that baristas serve customers. No professor will ever respond positively to a line of reasoning that begins with “I’m paying for this so…” They may or may not be personally offended but even the ones with their egos in check will see the problems inherent in this attitude. They are, for the most part, committed to quality education. But quality education demands that professors not be reduced to the level of service-providers. The ones that really care most about education, in every sense, may even take the trouble to explain why.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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Professors don’t work for you

  1. The equation goes both ways. Yes, many students do approach the prospect of going about challenging the education system the wrong way but there are many times where it is the instructor who is under the belief that just because of their position and authority, what they say and do is the only thing that should matter for students. It can be very “I am the teacher, you are the student, there I am always in the right, end of story.” It is very difficult to give respect when a situation has come to such a rigid relationship.

    You see it all the time. University professors may know the material inside and out but have no idea on how to present it to another human being, leaving the student’s only chance of absorbing such material through either self-learning or paying another to help. Many instructors and professors will give the “why are you asking me this, it’s in your textbook/notes” excuse simply because they believe they are too high and mighty to be bothered with such trivial matters in their eyes. Is it really wrong then to criticize this notion that “the opportunity to succeed” is given to us – via the textbook and mediocre lectures – and that it’s our responsibility to make sense of the nonsensical ramblings of a person who’s only in this job due to knowledge in their field versus being able to present this knowledge coherently? If you believe the answer is yes, something is seriously wrong.

    And on that note, how about examples where curriculums are poorly developed? The institution advertises a service (in this case your education) where success in completion will lead to a certain goal (specific knowledge or skillset) but when the customer (the student) signs up and finds that such a service is actually not up to par in quality whether it’s due to an underdevelopment or using out of date examples and methodology. Is it really fair to for the student to simply go “oh well, we’re just the learner – we should take it as is”? Is it truly logical to say “they are our teachers – we cannot refute no matter what?”

  2. To reply to Lau – I hope you appreciate that I never once suggested that professors and other instructors are infallible, or that they always do a good job. What I said was that they can never be productively approached as service-providers by students who think of themselves as customers.

    Absolutely, it is always in order for students to worry about the quality of their education and to make demands (where appropriate) that stem from this concern. I’m fairly sure I said that multiple times. But that isn’t because the student is a consumer and it sure isn’t because the customer is always right. It’s more than enough to say “I’m trying to learn here and I want a quality education.” No professor in the classroom is seriously worried about who’s paying the tuition. Most are genuinely trying to do a good job for its own sake. The rest, well, you still won’t win an argument there when you start with “I’m paying you, so…”

    My point was never intended as a blanket defense for every possible failure in education. My point was that any criticism you choose to make absolutely must go deeper than customer dissatisfaction. And by your examples you seem to realize this too.

  3. Hi Jeff,

    I took a thoughtful approach to reading your post, and I think the middle ground between yours and my argument is probably the most valid one. I agree with you that we shouldn’t view our professors as lecture hall barista-equivalents. But that being said, I think there’s a difference between a supposed “student consumer mentality” and the very necessary recognition that we, as paying students, are entitled to a receptive ear when we voice our concerns about our education. I think I made that clear in my post by saying universities should take student opinion into consideration when making important decisions; very different from a “customer is always right” mentality.

    As well, I think students deserve a little more credit when it comes to their ability to distinguish between the person handing them a hamburger and the person lecturing to their class. I’d like to know which students truly that believe “the university should take responsibility for ensuring their success.” Amidst perhaps a little too much sarcasm, I argued that, “university tuition is paid with the expectation of receiving a level of post-secondary education befitting certain quantitative and qualitative standards.” That doesn’t mean we think professors should hold our hands through midterms, just that we should have access to the reasonable tools to achieve success.

    Furthermore, I have to disagree with your point of students reducing “their professors to the level of service-providers.” Recognizing the role we play as the financiers of our education does not mean we are suddenly devoid of respect for our professors or of the appreciation of the knowledge we are acquiring. Quite the opposite, actually. On a personal note, is it precisely because I have such profound respect for the professors in my field teaching at Ryerson that I feel compelled and confident in my decision to fork over the yearly tuition. An opposite example: look at the fall of York’s first-year applications this year. Obviously, prospective students felt they wouldn’t get their money’s worth; many of last year’s students certainly believed they didn’t through the strike. It’s a little less romantic, but it’s the reality; a university is a business, and tuition is a transaction.

    I think it’s also important for students to remember that we pay not just for professors. We put down our fees in exchange for extracurriculars, university services, campus community and reputation. It may seem trivial, but when you’re looking for a job, reputation can be key. Fair or not, the integrity of our professors speaks to the value of our degree. As such, we have a right to our two cents in matters of hiring, firing, performance and whatever else. We can debate who is working for whom; the point is that if a student finances his or her education, he or she can rightfully exercise opinions on it. I think we can both agree on that.

  4. Hi Robyn – We do agree on one point, and that is that students have valid, even critical, opinions regarding their education. And those opinions must be heard. Where we disagree, and I’d need a major essay to explain why but I think this point is immeasurably important, is that I don’t believe the significance of student opinion has anything at all to do with the fact that students pay tuition.

    To reduce my advice to the most basic level, any point that students ever want to make could theoretically begin with “I’m paying for this, therefore…” but any point that can be made with this preamble can be made far better without it. A valid point can be made with this preamble also, of course, but turning it into a customer-focused relationship adds nothing at all and invites all kinds of serious problems. The likelihood that such an attitude will annoy your professor is only the tip of the iceberg.

  5. @Robyn,

    You wrote: “the point is that if a student finances his or her education, he or she can rightfully exercise opinions on it. I think we can both agree on that.”

    Fair point. But in your post you go further than this. You end with an example of a professor kicking out a student for not paying attention and doing a crossword instead. You argued the professor erred because “He was paying her to teach the class. If he wanted to waste his money, that was his choice.”

    Here you are making the customer is always right mentality, that a student should be entitled to the type of experience at university he wants.

    Now, I have no problem seeing university as a service, or professors as service providers. But that does not mean that the client can demand whatever type of service he wants. For a professor to imply that he does not teach in an environment where students are free to distract themselves with crossword puzzles, is something he should be free to do. That is not what he is offering.

    If you want to spend your time in a coffee shop, or a daycare, there are plenty of other avenues to get that sort of service. To expect it from a university classroom is absurd.

  6. You make fair points, Carson. Perhaps we’re debating personal opinion here, but I don’t think a student doing a crossword puzzle is “demanding a type of service.” After all, if he had hidden his paper a little better, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about. Likely both parties were at fault; I just personally found it outrageous that the professor felt she could remove a student because his actions weren’t conducive to the type of atmosphere she wanted to create in her classroom. If my nose ring, pajama pants or spiky hairdo undermines my professor’s idealized conception of a proper learning environment, does he or she have the right to kick me out too? The approach has to be one of give and take, in my opinion. We can’t expect everyone to behave exactly how we want, but we should expect fairness.

  7. My personal belief is that the customer is always right model should never be exercised under any circumstances. Having been working in the service, hospitality and retail industry for many years, I have seen it abused on so many levels. Anyone who absolutely believes that mentality is just silly and no company, regardless of how often they spout it will actually adhere to it 100%.

    That being said, I do believe students are consumers. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m a customer of my university out loud in a normal dialogue but if an oversimplification is required then yes, I would consider myself a “customer” of the institution purchasing a service. I think Jeff might’ve made the “consumer” out to be like it’s a negative thing, which it’s not. Consumers make purchases to theoretically better themselves, such as greater enjoyment, more comfortable living, etc (in this case to make them more learned and theoretically “smarter”).

    I definitely agree with Jeff that when speaking to faculty, using this simplification may not do much but it’s by no means an absolute negative, especially when it is the institution or faculty themselves who treat the students as a consumer, by employing marketing methods to entice students in enrolling.

  8. Now that, Henry, is a damn fine point. Students are, quite often, marketed as a client base by universities. And you’re getting to some of the nuance on the subject that is why whole books have been written about this. If you talk with the admissions and recruitment people at any university they will definitely deploy customer-centric language. Universities are, themselves, partly responsible for this shift in attitude among students. I’d say universities are “to blame” but I want to try to maintain some objectivity here. Something has definitely changed. Whether it’s good or not is a matter of opinion.

    One thing that’s important to notice here is that a university is just a collection of people, and “the university” can never really be said to have an opinion or a belief. Henry is right. Sometimes it’s entirely in order to approach your university as a customer. For example when you’re trying to straighten out enrollment issues, or financial aid, or even residence. There you are dealing with administrators who are probably fine with a customer-service approach. But it doesn’t work with professors, and you can’t talk about your core educational experiences in consumer mode.

    There are many levels to this. Professors and academics are often frustrated at their own administration, and the way they encourage students (through advertising, marketing practices, etc.) to perceive themselves as customers. If you appreciate this fact you can often find common ground with faculty and even earn friends that way. Professors like empathy as much as anyone. Far better than saying “I’m the customer and…” you can lead with “I’m just here to learn and….” Any professor will appreciate that. And it’s a welcome break from students who think of themselves as clients.

  9. Yes, they are service providers and should be approached on that level (although it may not flatter their egos)

    I have no problem seeing the university the same way I see any other service-based industry such as consulting, research, etc. I have always looked at it that way and it did not cause me any problem as I moved through graduate education. On the contrary, I found that the best professors took that approach as well, often reminding us out loud that they were there to provide a service to us (obviously students have to give 100% to to get results). Those profs were more flexible, more willing to adapt and improve and take advantage of technology for more efficient, effective and enriched learning. They saw themselves as service providers doing their jobs, just like any other service job, instead of envisioning themselves as society’s intellectuals, part of some exclusive club, paid to posture and pontificate. They were not as held back by egotistical notions of self-importance, and humility is always the better foundation for both learning and teaching.

    Whether professors realize it or not, universities see themselves as and try to run exactly like service-based businesses, so why pretend there is anything more to the relationship than that? I don’t see a service provider as being a “reduced” relationship as you put it, and a service provider is not to be confused with a product, which is what your hamburger example is. A service-based relationship can be very respectful and often involves effort from both sides. Think of consulting. A consultant can come in to your place of business, share their knowledge and experience, and tell you how to improve workplace safety, for example, but you still have to work to implement the changes if you want improvement and value for the money you paid to the consultant. A psychotherapist can use every possible angle to help you get over a problem like addiction, but you have to decide you want to get better and struggle through it.

    I think the lack of respect that you speak of has little or nothing to do with the service-based relationship dynamic.

  10. @Leanna, you bring up a valid point. Students are essentially a “customer” of the institution they attend, and there is nothing wrong with being associated that way. But I can tell you that the customer-provider relationship does bring up interesting situations and often silly mentalities in the students (and sometimes professors). Aggressive consumers are brought up to believe that they have a certain amount of entitlement just because they can pay for it.

    Just to give an example, there are two grocery stores that sell apples. One carries sweet apples and the other sour apples. Both types are delicious in their own right and are equally beneficial to your health but just because you demand sour apples in the sweet apple store does not mean they must meet your request. You can suggest it and see if they comply or you can make yourself extremely unlikeable by being completely abrasive. This goes the same for university (and I’m sorry to equate education to that of a product as you’ve pointed out). But the truth is, there are people that believe just because they pay the tuition, they can control every aspect of their education – ie. I want professors to talk about certain items, I want certain professors teaching a certain class, I want certain grades, I want X to help me with Y, I want certain tests and exams taken off the curriculum, I don’t think class reflects area of study and want it changed etc. After reading plenty of course evaluations and working in small classrooms of both universities and colleges, I can attest to the fact that not many people know how to navigate the educational administration because there is a certain sense of a culture of entitlement going on in these kids minds. At times, students choose to challenge authority solely based on the fact that they paid tuition and while that’s an important point to consider, it’s by far the most compelling one you could make.

  11. Hello all. University student here. I disagree with the attitudes portrayed in the article. Coming from the U o Guelph’s Engineering program, I do not see the attitude of the bossy, “I can buy my education” outlook that is plastered on the students. The students know it’s a privilege to be in class, and not a right. I see this even from the daddy’s-little-angel spoiled girls that take easier art degrees.
    The only time I can recall complaining and bickering with the professor is first year mechanics class. The reason was that the class average was a staggering < 50%, and we had a choice in our last unit. We could have covered one of two topics, which the professor left to the class to decide.
    Furthermore, I believe the professors to be very engaging and caring of the students. I have had multiple extra class times in which professors came out for a couple of hours a week to review material and answer questions.

  12. Thanks for those links, Brian. I’ve been following the Monroe College case in the news but I haven’t seen the raw court documents before. I don’t know if I’d describe them as hilarious, but then I’m thinking as a law student here. Applications for poverty support through the legal system are, at the very best of times, simply demeaning. The statements of position are about what I’d expect.

    But yeah, though I hadn’t made the connection before, I think you’re right. This sort of thing is definitely the nth expression of a customer-centric mindset. The student clearly didn’t get the job she thinks she payed for. I doubt it’ll go anywhere, but we’ll see. Actually, I think I’m going to do the law student thing and blog about this a little. Thanks for the suggestion.

  13. While I agree that the “customer is always right” mentality belongs nowhere – including the service industry – I am at a loss to understand why there should be anything wrong with students viewing themselves as consumers and approaching their education accordingly. Education is considerably more pricey than many of the other things we pay for.

    I am both a part-time mature student and a business owner. As a business owner, I consider it a matter of professionalism to be flexible and responsive to the diverse needs of my clients. I do not consider this demeaning. My clients show respect for me by paying me my professional fee for my work and I show respect in return but taking all reasonable steps to satisfy them.

    At university, I find it very frustrating to be confronted by professors, some younger than myself, who do not practice this same level of professionalism and respect for students. When I have raised concerns with professors about rigid restrictions that are hard on working students, I have been lectured on the importance of setting priorities – as if, approaching 40, I really need such a lecture.

    While I admire the dedication of anyone who has gone through the process of obtaining a PhD, I’m not clear on why it should exempt them from the system that all other working people are subjected to. All of us have worked hard in some way or antoher to be where we are. I appreciate that it is frustrating to see students surfing Facebook during class or wandering in late, and I agree that professors need to set limits where there is genuine disruption to other students. However, beyond those basic limits, I see no reason why professors shouldn’t be expected to be as responsive to students – and as tolerant of their foibles – as the rest of us are with those who pay our salaries.

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