Embracing the C-word in higher education

Comedian George Carlin made waves in the early ’70s with his “seven dirty words” monologue. He would probably chuckle at higher ed’s dirty words.

Back in the heyday of the hippie era, counterculture comedian George Carlin created a stir with his anti-establishment monologue about the seven dirty words that weren’t allowed on television. (Four decades later, as The Atlantic pointed out in 2012, society is still struggling with the role of government on restricting language.)

More recently, Brian Wm. Niles, founder of TargetX, has identified some dirty words that make many of us in higher education nervous. Niles spoke recently at ACT’s annual Enrollment Planners Conference and shared the “five dirty words” that admissions officers — and others in higher education — should embrace.

Topping that list, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s coverage, is the C-word.


“Many people who work at colleges dislike the word, preferring to call students ‘students’,” writes Eric Hoover of The Chronicle. “But as more Americans question the value of higher education, Mr. Niles said, institutions must think more like businesses, with customers to please, customer-service to enhance: ‘It gives you a sense that you have a responsibility to them.’ Colleges exist to serve students, he insisted, and not the reverse.”

Cussing and fussing about ‘customer’

Why do college and university personnel find it so difficult to think of students (and other groups, such as employers of our students) as customers? There’s something unsavory about instilling our academic world with the language of corporations.

The subject came up in a recent conversation with a faculty member, who expressed the thought that today’s students feel a greater sense of entitlement, and that thinking of them as customers adds to that sense. (The customer is always right, so we must give the customer what he or she wants, which is a passing grade, if not an A, at all times.)

The comments on the Chronicle post point out that there is a difference between college students and consumers of other goods and services. This response from John Nezlek, a psychology professor at William and Mary, probably summarizes the thoughts of many faculty:

Students’ needs, values, and opinions certainly need to be taken into account as institutes of higher education decide what to do; however, students attend institutes of higher education to be taught, to be led, they are not patrons in a restaurant. They are not to be served anything. They are clients in a collaborative relationship with the faculty. We work together.

At Missouri S&T, we have embraced the word customer, at least at the leadership level and among many staff members. Yet, some faculty I speak to still bristle at the term. Just as they bristle at words like “marketing.” Our university’s strategic plan even goes so far as to identity six “customer groups,” and on our strategic plan website, the introductory letter from Chancellor Cheryl B. Schrader (@SandTChancellor) uses the term when she talks about “providing a top return on investment to our key customers.” (Return on investment — or ROI — is another candidate for Niles’ list of bad words and phrases, and it, too, came up during the ACT meeting.)

Embrace the profane?

So, what will come of the term customer in higher education? Will it, like Carlin’s seven dirty words, still be the subject of angst 40 years from now? Will we still wince when we hear it used as a synonym for student?

I don’t think Niles is trying to be higher ed’s version of George Carlin. But perhaps if he makes fun of the dirty words you can’t say in academia enough, we’ll begin to laugh at ourselves a bit more, and at how much we worry about certain terms. As The Atlantic‘s Timothy Bella writes about Carlin’s shtick:

To George Carlin, the routine’s driving force and message weren’t in the ideas behind the seven words, but rather the words themselves. For the first time, someone was doing a convincing enough job of cajoling an audience into thinking that these words weren’t really so tasteless after all.

In the 42 years that have passed since Carlin’s famous rant, the media landscape has changed radically with the rise of cable TV, live-streaming and satellite radio, and the fragmentation of audiences into smaller and smaller niches. In step with those changes, the use of profanity on television has increased dramatically. All of those seven dirty words actually can be said on television, at the right time, on the right channel (usually cable) and in front of the right audience.

Perhaps, as the media landscape and the higher education landscape continues to morph over time, we will grow more accustomed to the coarse business language that is invading our academic lexicon, and customer will be as common in the language of higher education as Carlin’s dirty words are on Netflix programs.

But will the word be thought of as a profanity?

Maybe we should let the customers — I mean, the students — decide.

P.S. – For more on Brian Wm. Niles’ take on the use of the word customer in higher education, check this blog post from last summer.

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

7 thoughts on “Embracing the C-word in higher education”

  1. Excellent post, Andrew. And very relevant. The Lawlor Group offers a very popular “sales & marketing” course, in addition to courses/training on enhancing the campus visit experience. Both focus on the philosophy of “helping people buy” and borrowing from the Disney philosophy of understanding that customers are guests and they should be treated accordingly. Like you, Brian Niles has spoken at our Summer Seminar/Symposium events and he has always had a very clear understanding of the realities of the marketplace —and relevant vernacular. Thanks for sharing these insights. PS: Love George Carlin.

  2. I think they should be refered to as students, not customers. The institution meets the customers requirements. The student meets the institutions requirements.

  3. Andrew your post is spot on. The colleges and universities that adopt a “customer” perspective will be operating from a more robust definition of the person they are serving*. It forces administration to give careful consideration to “how” adult learners want to learn. Does anyone find it hard to believe that traditional higher education continues to fail to learn the observable success of the marketplace when enterprises adopt customer centric practices? Take Southwest Airlines for instance. They turned the airlines industry on it’s head by focusing on their clients. And to this day the traditional airlines are playing catch up to SWA.
    If traditional universities had listened to their “customers” and provided more convenient access in the evenings would the University of Phoenix exist today? Instead, the need for this sort of scheduling and ready access was met by U of P.
    And the move to online education is another classic example of traditional higher education institutions being late to the party.
    (*my suspicion is that this word “serve” is where the rub is)

  4. Merriam-Webster defines customer as: someone who buys goods or services from a business. A university is in the business of providing a service (teaching/learning) and a good (diploma/degree) to students (and/or parents) for a price, which makes “getting an education” an economic transaction (aka buying). Meets the definition of a customer for me.

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