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Who Are Our Customers and What Do They Think?

Posted By PLink Admin, Friday, August 12, 2016
By: Neil Markee
Editor in Chief-Purchasing Link

Perhaps the editorial brass at the New York Times thought their readers had wearied of the seemingly endless presidential election dogfight when they turned to higher education for momentary relief on behalf of their writers and readers.  The June 23, 2016 special section labeled, “Educational Innovation,” was probably an effort to take a fresh look at a list of topics that have been around for some time. On the cover page, the question setting the agenda was “Student or Customer” and the half-page, bright-red “C” being rolled out suggests the paper had made its call. 

Students are Customers

With the help of my five siblings, and the next generation or two, the Markee clan has produced enough spouses, nephews, nieces and grandchildren to fill a school bus. The pipeline is full.  Those who have graduated with four, five, or six figure loans to pay, reasonably see themselves as having been customers.  I can recall when such thinking was seen as heresy on campus, and that may still be the case at some institutions.  But paying for a medical,  law or business school degree can be a sobering experiences that may alter your outlook ,as  will examining the way money is allocated/invested by some institutions to attract students via upgraded creature comforts.   How we allocate our money and how effective procurement functions influences the cost of providing educational services and the perception of graduates and their parents as to the cost-benefit ratio of the education they have   acquired. Expanded to nationwide, similar groups of customers account for a significant fraction of American taxpayers. 

Another headline was, ”Sex Ed on Campus,” and the protest  sign in the  picture read “Stanford.” No, it’s wasn’t about the birds and bees.  It was about how to avoid unwelcome sexual encounters. Sexual assault prevention is close to the top on every institution’s agenda.   I can’t point to one event as a turning point, but early legal involvement has become an established trend.  From what I read, Columbia University, my alma mater, provides legal assistance for both/all sides and I’m sure those handling the situation on behalf of the institution either have legal backgrounds or professional help close to hand. 

There are many reasons why institutions in the recent past chose to handle sexual assault in a manner very different from other serious felonies. Why is complicated. Privacy and Legal Cost may be a consideration for some, until a multimillion-dollar judgment is awarded to a student at another institution whose case was legally mishandled in the view of a jury.  Avoiding bad publicity may be another with substantial backfire potential.   I suspect trying to handle sexual assault issues without comprehensive legal assistance is an unwise unacceptable risk and may prove unfair to all involved and most of the sane sober folks I know agree.   

Tax Payers are Customers, Too

Another headline read, Collegiate Customers: Students Set the Terms.”  Pictures showed students relaxing in a serpentine leisure pool at a Texas institution and in a large pool at the indoor Aquatic Center of a Missouri University. That pool was large enough to accommodate three small boats, full of student/customers.  Reality is more complicated.  Like most big businesses, higher education has a variety of customers. Students, parents, donors and the taxpayers who ultimately “pay the piper” are among them. What makes them comfortable may vary significantly. Students are customers, as I see it, and entitled to participate in related decision making.  But, clearly, students are not our only customers.

Yet another headline was “Meeting of Minds,” and the subject seemed to be how to reduce the cost of higher education and increase graduation rates. More output at lower unit-cost in industrial terms.  Apparently those on hand at the Times -sponsored gathering had concluded computerization had not proven able to provide an across the board answer to cost reduction/accessibility/retention/completion.  And online learning is not likely to be suitable in many areas, in any case.  In the end, the talk was not so much about computerization, cutting costs or innovation as it was about acquiring more financial support from various levels of government.  Unfortunately, there was nothing much new there.

 Tax-weary New York State voters capped local school-tax increases some years ago, in reflection of a sour national-taxpayer mood. Mention of increasing costs within higher education in many settings is likely to draw comments related to how student life has been upgraded since we were undergraduates.  Our children and grandchildren experience a much different environment.  Perhaps the competition for enrollment has induced many institutions to embrace commitments they can’t afford to maintain without new income. The “Meeting of the Minds” here seems to have concluded the only solution is more tax money. But that well isn’t bottomless and living within your means is seen as a virtue among many taxpayers. I don’t sense much sympathy for increased taxes.  If we want government to provide more resources ,we will have to convince them of the need, detail  how we will use the new resources provided effectively to address the problem,  and establish a reputation for candid reporting back on the outcome.

Government is a Customer, Too

Years ago, one time NAEP and NACUBO president James J. Ritterskamp told me that eventually there would be two kinds of institutions, state and federal.  For the most part, private institutions would find it all but impossible to continue relying predominantly on tuition income and the generosity of their alumni. They would inevitably need government assistance and support from the feds seemed the most promising.  Much earlier, some seer had observed, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. “Uncle” has found a prominent place in our chain of command.  I’m not sure Jim saw it coming.  But it turns out state-supported educational institutions have become increasingly dependent on federal support of one sort or another as well.  I suspect most of you would agree that purchasing works directly  for the institution’s end-users and reports to its chief business officer directly or otherwise, but in many areas “uncle “calls the tune.  This customer requires transparency and timely information.

Useful Transparency     

Since I left the work-a- day world of higher education, I have better understood  the challenge to comprehend what is going on within the business side of the house, even if you know where to look.  Anyone can read the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is mostly about academic affairs, or NACUBO’s  Business Officer —but few do.   And there are a host of special-interest journals and other publications available from the professional associations supporting the business side of higher education.  However, I have never heard anyone who wasn’t part of the higher education community refer to any of those publications.

I don’t think higher education’s business leaders are communicating with taxpayers very well. How often have you read an article in the national media explaining how, or better yet how effectively, we are using the financial support provided? The tax money comes from the government but it’s no secret it originates with individuals, my neighbors and yours. Many are wondering what we do with it.  Does your institution regularly publish/post informational material describing what it has done with the funds received or even publish a summary budget?  Stewardship matters.  Does purchasing make an effort to tell its story?  Maybe one potential role for purchasing is to provide information and urge the CBO “to take pen in hand.”

Just saying the information is available isn’t enough.  We read about success in sporting areas and many readers are convinced that the millions paid famous coaches have been well spent, if the team wins.  Although his/her record has little to do with the core mission of the institution, fans know every big-time coach’s nickname, individual style and won/loss record.  But does the man on the street have any idea of what we do with the money we are asking them to provide?  Do they know what is planned and who will call the plays on your campus? I subscribe to the notion that the sender is responsible for delivery and believe it is in our best interests to be the sender.


Every other Friday Susan and I join a dozen or so friends for lunch where we will discuss just about anything at two roundtables overlooking the first tee at a private country club where none of us are members but where I caddied occasionally as a youngster.  The group has been meeting at the same time and club for close to a century.  Although the names involved have changed over the decades, the purpose is much different and the building has burned down at least once, the format has remained the same.

The opening topic could be anything from football to the price of home-delivered heating oil to international or domestic terrorism. Where it goes from there is anybody’s guess.  In essence, this is an informal meeting of friends where you can learn what each thinks about a variety of subjects, including higher education. We gather for lunch in sight of a large university’s medical complex and across a four-lane road from its related academic campus.  Close as we are geographically, I think it’s fair to say that many around my table see higher education in general as an opaque big business and, if they are or have been paying the bills lately, they see themselves as customers.  What they and their peers around the country think about how well higher education is led and managed matters. The article in the Times probably provided the most current partial summary they will see for some time. And that doesn’t tell our story very well. 

What’s happening on your campus?

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