Recently, I attended a meeting where an administrator from a small public university treated the audience to a review of his institution’s new "brand identity campaign." There’s a lot I don’t like about the current direction of higher education in America. This is the thing I despise the most.

Recently, I attended a meeting where an administrator from a small public university treated the audience to a review of his institution’s new "brand identity campaign." There’s a lot I don’t like about the current direction of higher education in America. This is the thing I despise the most.


While I understand the need for universities to promote themselves, there’s a huge danger when the ever-burgeoning population of administrators thinks their schools are a product to be sold. The commoditization of higher education cheapens the entire enterprise. It suggests that an education is a thing that can be purchased, rather than earned.


So much of this comes from the flawed metaphor of "running government like a business." While I’m all for efficiency and good stewardship of the people’s money, governments are not businesses. They are business-like, but they have different goals, motives and means.


We see a special disconnect in the explosion of dean, vice-chancellor and vice-provost positions across America. No business would increase its management team by 60 percent over a decade while slowly reducing its production staff. That’s just what higher education has done. It’s no wonder colleges have lost their way —- too many people who aren’t traditional academics have been put in positions where they have no attachment to the real "business" at hand. They come from the private sector; and they attempt to apply that metaphor in a place where it will never fit.


I saw this in spades when a relatively new university chancellor single-handedly destroyed a nationally recognized academic program because the professors refused to act as fund-raisers. I guess he had already pimped out everybody else. Shameful.


Instead of academic substance, we get promotional style. We see this in the rash of redesigned logos, mascots and recruiting materials flowing from once sacrosanct academies. It’s as if a fashionable new logo will somehow magically transmogrify into better scientists, scholars and artists. It won’t.


Of course the counter argument is that all this flashy folderol will translate into increased enrollments, which means greater revenues —- which means a bigger budget for more administrators and more lamppost banners. Modern universities require a lot of money to run. That money has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, the pot out which most public universities had traditionally dipped is now gobbled up by things like prison construction. This goes to an unavoidable point: You can either build schools or you can build prisons. If you don’t build the former, you’ll need a whole lot more of the latter. Myself, I’d rather invest in potential than punishment.


As a professor, I routinely see another ugly manifestation of the university-as-brand fallacy in the classroom. Students who are beguiled by the trumpets and fanfare, often think of themselves as customers instead of students. This is the sharpest poison of all. They errantly believe tuition payment entitles them to certain outcomes. They believe their tuition gives them the right to renegotiate all aspects of the classroom: attendance, comportment,; deadlines, assignments, test scores and respect of the professor. In short, there are no standards save those they self-assign.


Some of the emails I get sound as though they were being sent by a petulant child. They are infused with demand. They dismiss the inherent power differential. They are impatient and often profane. More to the point of education, they are rife with spelling and grammatical errors. I’m not sure what an "aswhole" is but at least one student thinks I am one.


Maybe I’m just a relic of a bygone era when the point of college was to teach and transform … an era where professors led students to new ways of seeing their world. Maybe that’s just naïve and romantic. Regardless what they may think, students aren’t customers. I don’t provide customer service; and I never will.