08/28/2012 06:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

They're Called Students


Some years ago while I was serving as dean of another theological school a controversy arose that has helped clarify some core educational issues for me. A member of that Board of Trustees with a distinguished record in the upper echelons of the military and in corporate management pressed our school's administration and faculty to change the way we referred to those people who attended 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. We have seen it in hospitals and airlines, for example. Overnight, in some places, patients and passengers became customers. I believe it represents, basically, 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 into higher education. But, of course, despite the positive motives, there are all sorts of values that came riding in piggy-back on the customer metaphor, values expressed in phrases like: "The customer is always right." And: "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 law schools or medical schools, but I can say with some authority that the very process of theological education is not primarily about the transmission of information for which a customer pays. It is a matter of the transformation of people. And transformation is an often uncomfortable process.

When I entered theological education almost twenty years ago it was as a director of theological practice of ministry. I was responsible for developing and overseeing programs in congregations and clinical settings in which students would practice the varieties of ministry for which they were being trained under close educational supervision by experienced pastors, chaplains, therapists and social workers.

The placement of students in the right settings required that we do careful assessments of each of them to discover the areas where they needed to grow if they were going to become competent ministers and leaders. Practically speaking, this process often meant that I placed students in educational 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 arrived in the classroom. It was the first day of class in the new term. Students were returning from their summer supervised ministry experiences. I didn't notice that one student had already made her way quietly into the room and was waiting until I finished writing on the board before speaking. 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 Clinical Pastoral Education program was in a tough county hospital in Dallas, Texas, about a million miles from the tony neighborhood this student had grown up in, 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. In fact, it took a semester of her senior year. 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 from sending her to that particular CPE 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. But she was not a customer; she was a student - and not just because of the amount of scholarship dollars she was receiving from the seminary.

She was a student and 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 of those things we are forced to do actually can make us better schools, more efficient, more effective, more flexible and responsive to the changing needs of the society around us. But some changes pressed upon some schools have nothing to do with their core mission of educating people as well as they possibly can. Among these changes, one that stands out is a simple change of name which signals a profound change of role, from student to customer.

The people attending our schools deserve not to be called customers. They deserve to be called students. For the sake of their education, and for the sake of the vocations to which they are called, we owe it to them to resist the fads and call them by the right name.