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My job leads me to think a lot about the contemporary conditions of academic institutions. Regular readers will have noticed that I have returned to these issues quite frequently in recent months. I want to make sure that I keep Love of All Wisdom focused on philosophy broadly defined, which is already a very big focus in itself, so I debate how much time I should spent on such a topic that is not itself philosophy. I think the topic of academia merits attention for two reasons: first, it provides opportunities for thinking philosophically in general about how human institutions should be run; second and probably more importantly, academic institutions remain the place where the vast majority of philosophy per se gets done today. I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes in my lifetime, but it is the case now. So we who care about philosophy have good reason to care about academia, even if our own livelihoods do not depend on it.

With that in mind: In both my academic administrative work and my computer-science classes, there’s a disturbing frequency with which I hear university students described as “customers”. This phrase is often well meaning, used in the service of a true and laudable claim: our livelihoods in the academy depend on student money, and we owe it to them to provide them a quality education. This is particularly important given that so often we do not. I wish I could say I’d never sat through a class where class time consisted entirely of the professor reading PowerPoint slides that he drew entirely from the required textbook, as if students would learn anything whatsoever from this that they couldn’t learn from reading the textbook itself. But this has happened to me very recently, and similar farces befall other students all the time. To the extent that viewing students as “customers” helps faculty and administrators remember that students should not be treated this way, it has a positive impact, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

At the same time, I also fear the negative impact of the “customer” label – which is closely related to the fact that the label is false. Even at a private institution like Boston University, students are not customers, and this for one simple reason. Boston University, and the vast majority of other American “private” colleges and universities – Harvard, Stonehill, etc. – are nonprofits. They are not mandated to increase shareholder value. Their institutional role and purpose is more akin to Doctors Without Borders than to Apple and Microsoft. They do not have customers buying a product; they have donors and beneficiaries, who – unfortunately! – tend to be the same people. This fact makes a difference; it should make a bigger difference than it does.

One of the biggest trends in American higher education over the past few decades has been the rise of for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix. These institutions are businesses with customers. Their students are customers in every respect, nothing more, nothing less. Other universities view the credentials purchased from University of Phoenix with some derision – not least because they are purchased. I’m happy to be demonstrated wrong on this, but those I know who have interacted with the customers of the University of Phoenix have found that those customers usually have very high grade-point averages while learning very little. And this is just as we should expect.

If what universities are doing is selling a product for money – the very idea of the “customers” term – then more money should be able to buy more of it. University of Phoenix is entirely right to sell its students As. That’s the most important thing that the students are paying for. They are making an investment on which they expect a return; they want the credential that will pay off with a job, which is to say a high grade from an accredited university.

The question, though, is whether an employer – even a for-profit employer – would want to hire a graduate of such a for-profit university. I certainly wouldn’t, even if I were working for a for-profit company. Because to the extent employers look at employees’ grades and degrees, it’s on the expectation that these grades and degrees are not products bought and sold, but certificates representing genuine learning.

Now the reasonable objection comes: why shouldn’t we then view that learning itself as a product bought and sold? Couldn’t there be a for-profit university that holds and advertises rigorous standards of learning, perhaps with a campaign saying “You won’t get an easy A here, but you’ll really learn?” And if a for-profit university could do that, why not a nonprofit?

Above all, it seems to me, such an approach is self-undermining. The studies of Arum and Roksa show that students learn a lot more when assigned what today is a relatively heavy reading and writing at load – in a given course, read at least X pages per week, write at least Y pages per semester. But anyone who’s received a course evaluation likely knows that this heavy load is not what students want. The student-driven RateMyProfessors website has no rubric for how much students learned from a professor; it has a rubric for easiness.

And it is nearly a truism in the US that the customer is always right. If students are customers, then faculty should cut down student work and increase student grades, even if it means the students learn nothing. For that is what students ask for, time and again. To hear the students’ own words tell it in their evaluations, the product that students are typically seeking is not the learning that their certifications represent, but the certifications themselves. Quite understandably so, because it is the latter, not the former, that employers will see when they apply for a job.

In his course on justice, Michael Sandel spent a unit – transitioning from Lockean liberalism to Kant – on “markets and morals”, addressing the question of whether there are things money shouldn’t be able to buy. Sandel always allowed room for disagreement in his classes, but there was no question that his own answer was yes. Perhaps the most important example is voting – only the most die-hard libertarian would argue that people should literally be allowed to sell their voting rights for money. (The science-fiction tabletop role-playing game Dark Conspiracy envisioned just such a scenario, where the poor received their basic needs from corporations in exchange for surrendering their votes to those corporations. Needless to say, the result is a dystopia.)

It seems to me that academic learning falls in a very similar category. The idea that a degree reflects genuine learning is not something that should be subject to customer whims. A true college or university, like a church or monastery, is fundamentally not a market institution, despite the sometimes overwhelming pressure from the market. Like churches and governments, universities derive from values that predate and are higher than the market, and if they are worth keeping around at all, they need to remain true to their pre-market roots. I have noted before how the pressure of money and markets will corrupt values of humanistic learning; but I think it goes further: such pressure can corrupt values even in fields that lead to employment, if we let it.

All of this, of course, goes more than double for the vast majority of colleges and universities around the world, and the colleges and universities that enroll the majority of students in the US: the ones that are not private, but funded and controlled primarily by the government. These institutions are a public service, paid for by the adult citizenry out of the recognition that future educated generations are a public good. That they have raised their tuitions drastically in recent years is a shame; if they come to view their students as “customers” as a result, that is doubly so. Students are not customers even at private institutions where they pay the full cost of their education; still less are they so at universities explicitly established as a public trust.