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September 19, 2012

Michael Jinkins: They're called students, not customers

Some years ago while I was serving as dean of another theological school a member of that board of trustees pressed our school's administration and faculty to change the way we referred to those people who attend our seminary.

He insisted -- and for some time with some success -- that we stop thinking of them and treating them as students and start calling them customers.

This trustee reflected a cultural shift, and one I believe represents an attempt to instill a genuinely positive value. A customer purchases a product. A customer should be able to expect that the goods they are being sold are what they are paying for. I think this trustee was attempting to instill a level of accountability which he felt was lacking in higher education.

But of course, despite the positive motives, there are all sorts of values that ride piggy-back on the customer metaphor, values expressed in phrases like: "The customer is always right." "You've got to keep the customer satisfied." These values have a way of putting a strange spin on the educational process.

I can't speak for other professional schools, but I can say with some authority that theological education is not primarily about the transmission of information for which a customer pays. It’s about the transformation of people. And transformation is often an uncomfortable process.

I know this firsthand. I entered theological education almost twenty years ago as a director of supervised practice of ministry. I was responsible for placing students in congregational and clinical settings in order to practice the varieties of ministry for which they were being trained and under the close educational supervision by experienced pastors, chaplains, therapists and social workers.

Placing students well required that we do careful assessments of each to discover the areas where they needed to grow if they were going to become competent ministers and leaders. And this meant that, at times, I needed to place students in settings that they would never have chosen for themselves, indeed, would have avoided if they could.

One crisp fall morning, I was standing at the blackboard before students returned from their summer supervised ministry experiences for the first day of class in the new term. I didn't notice one student had already made her way quietly into the room. When I put down the chalk and turned around, she said:

"Do you know that I have been angry at you all summer?"

"No," I replied.

"Well, I have been. The CPE program you assigned me to was a nightmare."

I knew it would be. This particular program was in a tough county hospital in Dallas, Texas (about a million miles from the tony neighborhood of this student’s childhood), serving a population this student had never before met. The program had a brilliant supervisory staff and a great reputation for clinical supervision. I knew it was perfect for her when I reviewed her pre-placement assessment and interviewed her.

"Do you even care that I am angry at you?"

"No." I said, "I care more about your education as a minister than your personal feelings about me."

That was not the response she expected, but I meant those words from the bottom of my heart as a teacher.

It took some time for this student to unpack her experience in CPE. She talked often to me, to other students, to her other professors and her pastor. And she learned and grew into a superb minister and congregational leader.

If I had treated her as a customer, I might have backed off on sending her to that particular program when she objected. If I had considered her a customer, I would certainly have been duty-bound to try to make her happy, rather than to place her in a situation that was guaranteed to make her uncomfortable.

She was a student, not a customer, and she deserved to be treated with the dignity of a student, which means she deserved to be granted the expectation that she would be not only informed, but transformed by her educational experience.

During the last few years we have all read the stories of institutions of higher education under tremendous financial stress. And in times of financial stress institutions are compelled to do all sorts of things. Some changes can make for better schools: more efficient, more effective, more flexible and responsive to the changing needs of the society around us.

But some changes have nothing to do with their core mission of educating people as well as they possibly can. The change from calling students to customers is one of them.

For the sake of their education, and for the sake of the vocations to which they are called, we owe it to students to resist fads and call them by the right name.

Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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