Apr 02 2009

When the customer doesn’t matter

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 9:44 am

As you read the following, keep in mind that I’m a professor of 32 years standing.  I get academia.  I know where the bodies are buried.  I understand procedures and policies.

My son, age 16, is homeschooled.  He is a high school junior.

Recently, we enrolled him in an algebra class at a local junior college, and therein lies a tale.

From the top:  It took 6 (six!) visits to the college just to get him enrolled, after applying for admission and submitting all the paperwork on the website.  That’s because on each visit we were told something different about what it would take to get him admitted and registered.  I won’t bore you with the details, except to observe that each time, a person behind a desk told us, with great authority, exactly what we had to do, and each time the next person told us something different when we went back.  For the most part, the experience was one of parking on the dark side of the moon, walking 15 minutes, waiting in line an hour or so, listening to a minor functionary pontificate, realizing that today wasn’t going to be the day it all got done, then walking 15 minutes back to the car.

The website of the institution was especially entertaining.  It promised all kinds of help, but didn’t deliver it.  The classes had different prerequisites than the ones listed, the required paperwork was different than what was shown on the website, the “practice tests” shown for evaluating a student’s preparation for a given course turned out to be utterly non-predictive about the actual placement exams, etc.

But, after getting a different story each time we went in, we eventually did manage to get my son enrolled.  Of course, he had to take a bizarrely timed section of the algebra course, because all the others were full.  He barely managed to get into the one he did.

Then the fun really began.  The textbook was $170 (!?!?!?).  The instructor was, by turns, sullen and abrasive, a full timer who plainly needed to consider early retirment if teaching is so unpleasant.

After getting about three weeks into the class, my son developed a medical condition that required surgery, surgery that could be delayed a couple of weeks, but couldn’t wait till the end of the semester.  The recovery time for the surgery was expected to be 1 or 2 weeks.  Up to that point, he had been to every class, done every bit of work on time, and was doing well.  We asked the professor to make an exception to her usually draconian attendance policy, since the surgery was unavoidable, but he would be able to do the work at home on schedule and keep up during the recovery process.

She absolutely refused, saying silly things like, “If I make an exception for him then I have to make one for everyone else.”  I assume she means all the OTHER students in her class who are having unavoidable surgery that semester, but who are doing fine in the class and will keep up during recovery?  I’m sure there is a very long line waiting for her to make such an exception for them, too.

I could not help but reflect that at the private university where I teach, I do everything possible to actively help students succeed, particularly students who have demonstrated a desire to succeed, and the ability and work-ethic to do so.  I am not unusual in this regard.  I found myself wondering when my son’s professor had lost her desire to actually help students learn, assuming she had it sometime.

Also, I wondered about the influence of disability laws in education, which require schools to do everything possible to help disabled students succeed.  I guess temporary disability doesn’t count.

The main factor in operation is simple:  the career and working circumstances of my son’s professor are not affected a bit by her attitude as a teacher, nor her unwillingness to make reasonable accomdations to help students succeed.  She has a union.  She has tenure.  She would probably have to deliberately run over a student in the parking lot to get fired, or even disciplined.   To her, it just doesn’t matter.

On the other hand, at my private university, we have a strong service orientation, because our students are our customers, as well as being our product.  It matters to us that they succeed, not that we just jump through all the required hoops with them.

This is not to say that all teachers in public institutions have this negative attitude towards teaching and their students.  I personally know many who have fine attitudes towards their students and teaching,  but to the extent that they do, very little in the way of the institution’s function is responsible for it.  They do a good job only because they are internally motivated to do so.

It’s also very interesting to compare the differences between private and public colleges’ admissions offices.

So:  the next time you’re considering government funded healthcare for everyone, think about the comparative experience of attending a community college and a private one, and ask yourself which one you would like to characterize the responsiveness of your health care providers.

6 Responses to “When the customer doesn’t matter”

  1. dave says:

    FWIW… I wouldn’t take your anecdotal story as prescriptive of all situations.

    My undergrad studies were at the private institution that you work at. I had some wonderful professors, and some awful ones. I had some wonderful experiences with admissions/financial aid/registrar/etc, and some awful ones. Some of the bad situations were just as bad, if not worse, than the ones that you have experienced.

    I got my masters at at Cal State-Fullerton. And had a very similar, good and bad experience.

    You should know better than to make general claims based on specific anecdotes.

  2. harmonicminer says:

    Dave, you read things into what I wrote that I didn’t say. I didn’t say life is always better at private institutions. I said that, in general, they are more responsive, because the individual welfare of the people with whom you deal is at least somewhat affected by your opinion of them, and what you do in the way of seeking a satisfactory experience.

    With a private institution, if you complain to the right people, you can often get some relief for a bad situation.

    That’s much less likely in a public institution, unless you happen to be a member of a protected class, complaining about some specific misdeed that your protected class has been chosen never to have to suffer, on pain of legal remedy.

    Short story: it’s WAY easier to fire people from a private institution than a public one, and everyone knows it. That very simple lever explains a fair amount of attitude difference, among people who are not internally motivated to be excellent (the majority, sadly).

  3. dave says:

    How many people get fired at APU? Not many… I know of many incompetent people there, many of which who have been complained about for years.

    Form my experience, it is just as difficult to fire someone at a Christian university (because hey, we don’t want to be mean) as it is to fire a union member.

  4. harmonicminer says:

    Hmm… your experience is pretty limited. I know of several faculty in the last ten years or so who have been released for some problem or other, not a “morals issue” or something, simply a failure to relate to students effectively. I know of staff people as well. I know of administrators.

    Again, I’m not claiming private institutions have no problems. I am saying they are predisposed to be more responsive to them, because their institutional welfare is at stake. Not so for public institutions.

  5. Scott says:

    Reminds me of my Dad’s story- he was a student at a local state university, in good standing, until he got drafted. He wasn’t allowed to withdraw from his classes, so they failed him in everything. No mercy. Maybe one day he’ll get a chance to finish his degree. Thanks, Uncle Sam!

  6. Darryl says:

    Another looking glass into the future of government bureaucracy. I’m sure you could solved the problem with just 16 easy phone calls to 8 mangers in 3 departments.

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