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By Dr. Ken Mash, APSCUF Vice President

Over the last several years, administrative leaders have implied that universities ought to emulate businesses and prioritize efficiency.  In recent weeks this argument reached a high point when at one of our universities that is planning to layoff faculty, the president openly reduced herself to a “CEO,” and referred to her students as “customers.” This one president is not alone; she merely openly voiced the pervasive attitude among our university and system leaders.  

If presidents truly believe they are mere CEOs, you should be alarmed.  If your university is merely a business, caveat emptor!  Buyer beware!  The logic you use to purchase any product is the logic that you must employ with these self-proclaimed “CEOs.”  Do you trust the CEO of the candy company when they tell you the tiny chocolate bar is the “fun size?”  Would you trust the CEO of a fast-food chain if they simply proclaimed that their food is healthy for you?  Trust a university CEO no more.

Public universities should not be operated like businesses, and students should not be treated as mere customers.  The role of a university president is far more complex than a CEO, and we look to our university presidents to balance an array of key values. Although public universities ought to be run as effectively as possible, the primary goal of our universities is not to turn a profit.  It is to educate students.  The profit motive drives businesses to make economic efficiency a primary value, but public universities do not exist to make a profit.   

In Pennsylvania, Act 188 of 1982 charges our universities to “to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost to students.”  High quality education has always meant training students for careers, helping them be excellent citizens, providing them with the tools to begin fruitful lives as parents, partners, and members of society, and caring for them as human beings, not customers.  You should demand no less.

However, if university presidents view themselves as merely CEOs, you must treat them as such. CEOs of businesses will always try to convince their customers that they should pay more for less.  They will try to persuade the unsuspecting that lower quality is somehow better.  They will rely heavily on slick merchandizing, fancy packaging, and meaningless slogans.  

Do not be fooled by arguments incongruent with a high quality education.  Larger classes are not better for you.  Fewer choices of majors and electives are not in your interest.  Wherever possible, face-to-face interaction with professors is superior to discourse with a computer.  Being familiar with a foreign language will aid your career, and may even be necessary for it.  Being acquainted with and/or majoring in art, music, drama, philosophy, literature, etc., makes you a more viable job candidate and a more interesting human being.  The “fun size” is just not fun.

You must tell these university “CEOs” that you will not accept an inferior education. You must instruct them that if there are savings to be found, they should be found in areas that do not impact the quality of your education. You need to contact Governor Corbett and your legislators to tell them that Pennsylvania must do more to support its universities and your future.  In the meanwhile, caveat emptor!