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The Blue & Gray Press | February 21, 2018

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Students Should Not be Treated as ‘Customers’ with Education Policy

By CHINO TORRES

University of Mary Washington Vice President Rick Pearce recently made some statements reported in the Nov. 29 edition of the Bullet, in which he described the university as an “educational service provider” with “customers” that want “a price they feel is an appropriate value.” Those remarks are incredibly disrespectful and reduce the experiences of thousands of people during their time at UMW to a marketplace of transactions. I believe that he should focus on managing the administration and finance rather than attempt to manage our school’s identity and what students are trying to accomplish here.

What happens at UMW is change and growth. It doesn’t matter if you are a 18 year freshman developing their identity, growing up and taking risks, or a 50 year old returning student trying to find a new course in life. The growth that students are attempting here can only take place if the institution’s identity is on sound footing. Influences seem to be coming from those who already had the opportunity in their lives to have those experiences.

The Bullet article that reported the hiring of a consulting firm stated, “Pearce says that, by attending a school of higher education, students are purchasing a degree.

“We have to sell a product and a service that you think is valuable enough to pay for,” Pearce is quoted as saying.

Forgive me, but if my goal here is “purchasing a degree,” then I can do just that at Phoenix Online, Devry, Strayer or any number of companies that have reduced learning to a product and service. Those providers can’t possibly serve the needs of students that attend UMW.

In choosing to attend UMW, I am not buying a degree. I am not even buying an education. I am changing myself, I am challenging myself and I am doing so with faculty that are not providing a product, but are leading me academically. They are leading me to capacities of knowledge and understanding that prepare me for what comes next in life. I challenge the assertion that there should be a direct ratio between what I achieve here and my earning potential post-graduation.

The article mentions a speech given at the University of Virginia on Oct. 15 by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and former professor in the Classics Department of UVA. Speaking on the “plight of the public university,” Rawlings assesses that there is a “greater instability” at work in society and that the “old public compact” has eroded. The answer to those challenges is not to further engage in the reductionist discourse. Such rhetoric only frames higher education as a product that is subject to the factors of production and can be streamlined in order to realize greater profits.

In his book, “Closing of the American Mind,” political philosopher Allan Bloom asserts that a liberal arts education introduces people into the “quest for truth.”

That doesn’t mean that there are absolutes of knowledge that can be achieved. The goal is to challenge enduring problems and not merely reflect them. Only a university can provide the haven where those pursuits can take place. A classics major would understand that; a business major would merely chase the latest trend.

Pearce is engaging in rhetoric without understanding the impact of those characterizations.

The originators of that discourse, which frames higher learning as another form of consumption, hope to identify a crisis in higher education that will position them as saviors or solution providers. Their target is traditional academic institutions, and they will conveniently offer the new models of teaching and learning that devalue the learning experience at schools such as UMW.

Consider a New York Times article by Ron Lieber from May 28, 2010 about a New York University graduate who is $100,000 in debt. The example is an outlier that is meant to indirectly suggest the futility of humanities studies. However, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates the actual median student debt to be $12,800. Rising debt is a problem, but it is hardly a crisis that needs to be fixed. Women’s studies majors are not the cause of the problems of higher education.

UMW’s mandate is not to realize greater profits annually. We have no stock that is given to share holders who want their holdings to increase in value. The state government isn’t challenging us to build up our treasury.

Those that fail to realize this are buying into a discourse that is working to turn the pursuit of education into a basic consumption. Private interests hope to capitalize on that consumption with new markets that dilute what UMW and similar institutions provide to all.

Comments

  1. David Pierandri

    I think you are missing the point of Mr. Pearce’s comments. Just because the university aims to operate under a “business model” does not mean the administration doesn’t value the overall “education model” we put forth in our day to day operation. UMW is a public institution, although we currently receive less than a quarter of our operating budget from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Our revenue is used solely to fund the operation of the university. In order to be successful, we have to market a good “product.” UMW’s market is higher education, and in order to continue as a premier provider of our “product,” regular assessment needs to take place. We are indeed “selling” a “product” here.

    UMW is a great investment, as I know not only as an alum, but also as a current employee. It’s never easy to discuss potential changes and cuts, but it’s important to remember that Mary Washington is not changing it’s philosophy or goals. We strive to become the best public, liberal arts university in the nation. We should not lose sight of that goal.

  2. Phil G

    I for one am tired of being called a consumer. I asked Hurley what he’d define success for the school as, and he didn’t say an effective education, he didn’t say human development, he said it came down to recruitment and retention, which basically means getting tuition money and keeping it. Word?

  3. It doesn’t look to me like Mr. Torres has missed any points. However, points are clearly being missed by yourself and the current administration that seeks to affect change in pursuit of poorly defined and poorly justified initiatives. You’re alluding to a failure to succeed; you are not clearly saying how we have failed or are failing. You’re chasing trends and that isn’t credible. You simply aren’t making the case that we aren’t succeeding.

    Consider this recent U.S. News & World Report article. It has recognized the University of Mary Washington as “among the top universities for its efficient use of resources and ability to provide a high quality education. Using the operating efficiency measure, the university ranks third among universities in the “Regional Universities – South” category.”

    U.S. News & World Report took into account how much a school spends per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures. The list is based on operating efficiency, defined as a school’s 2011 fiscal year financial resources per student divided by its overall score in the 2013 Best Colleges rankings.
    “Schools that are featured on this list are doing a good job in managing their financial resources relative to other schools that may have larger state funding, higher tuition, or larger endowments,” according to the U.S. News & World Report website. “UMW ranks sixth among public southern universities in the U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 edition of America’s Best Colleges, and 16th among all southern universities in the same category. Mary Washington has been ranked in the top 20 among southern universities each year for more than five consecutive years.”

    Those rankings come earned and are a result of efforts that have been at work here at UMW for up to 10 years. I say again, You are chasing trends. If the economy is down and people have fewer options for higher education then you will see that reflected in enrollments metrics. But those conditions are temporary. Do you really think that you can tinker with operations in a way that cancels out national economic conditions. If we can still be reviewed with these rankings and measures under the current economic environment then the case is clearly made that we are Getting It Done!

    Recent changes and changes in the works (that are moving forward in spite of evidence to current successes) are going to derail what has been created. We are Getting It Done! The current administration is trying to redefine “It” and when they are questioned they provide nothing to support the claims that we aren’t succeeding.

  4. David Pierandri

    I was just trying to prove the point that this is indeed a “business” and we are selling a product. Students have ample choices when it comes to higher education, and it is an expensive and sought after product. I am glad that you feel we are getting it done, as that means my colleagues and I are doing a good job. I’m also glad the administration has decided to evaluate certain aspects of the university to make sure we are bringing the best product to the market. I also think it should be noted that these evaluations are required for accreditation and they have also taken place within non-teaching departments. We are getting it done, and will continue to do so. I’m happy this has sparked a healthy debate and that our current students and alumni have shown a vested interest. It shows how much Mary Washington means to the people connected to it.

  5. Luca

    Because Hurley’s a finance guy, not an educator, so he goes with the only things he understands.

  6. UMW Alum

    It is extremely interesting to read these comments. UMW simply spends money on the wrong things, again and again. Do we really need a $25 million dollar monument to men’s and women’s basketball with a presidential box? Seriously? Have you ever spoken with Rick Pierce? Please go sit down with him. Probably not a bad person but goodness that original article nailed it, he is not here for the spirit of UMW, he wants to run a financial machine. We could be making widgets. Instead invest in the students, invest in career services, invest in clubs, invest in teachers. Stop the horrible marketing campaigns aimed at looking cool.

  7. Mr. Torres, I came upon this article when you first published it and was delighted to find a like mind in this regard. I have tremendous respect for Rick Pearce and believe he’s doing his best to manage the finances of an institution whose resources have been facing death by a thousand cuts. I do, however, concur that the creeping marketing-speak in higher education has to stop, particularly when it goes beyond marketing campaigns and into the way that the institution begins to regard itself. It’s a deeper mission than delivering a product, and requires deeper conversation. Bravo for your courage and insight.