Imaginary Customers

Most professors and many administrators have great difficulty accepting the idea of students as customers. Some put great effort into finding ways to describe students as anything but customers. They are partners, they are empowered learners, they are producers, and so on.

The resistance to accept students as customers is perhaps because most people do not like to serve others, even though it may be their job to do so. In truth, we would rather be served. Let’s face it; many highly educated professors view it as a professional come-down to “serve” 18 year old “know-nothing” students. Professors who would rather be served by students are likely to be poor teachers compared to those who see it as their duty to serve students.

Couple that with the many problems that exist in higher education with respect to teaching: cost, quality, value, graduation rate, etc. If faculty cannot accept students as customers, then it is unlikely that problems associated with teaching – the core mission of colleges and universities – will be recognized and corrected.

The inability to accept students as customer in higher education is an interesting problem that perhaps can be solved by looking to the field of mathematics. It is reminiscent of the long-ago fight among mathematicians who resisted the idea of imaginary numbers (e.g. 3i, whose square is -9). Complex numbers, the correct term for imaginary numbers, were not widely accepted by mathematicians until the late 1700s – nearly 1700 years after they were conceived.

Negative numbers were an abstraction up to the middle 1500s. It made intuitive sense to have 3 apples, but it did not make sense to have -3 apples. What does it mean to have -3 apples? You have have 3 apples or no apples, but not -3 apples. Once mathematicians began to accept the idea of imaginary numbers, it enabled them to solve important real-world problems that they could not otherwise solve, or solve important problems in simpler ways (i.e. polynomials).

So it is with students as “customers.” Thinking of students as imaginary customers, Ci, is useful for solving important real-world problems in higher education or making those problems easier to solve: cost, quality, value, graduation rate, etc. (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching ErrorsThe Value of Higher Education), and Higher Education Quality.

Professors invariably think of “customer” in the context of consumption and commercial transactions, which they abhor because they comprehend the university as something other than a business. Consumption and commercial transactions are concrete contexts that our minds immediately default to. But, customer can also be used to denote attitudes and desires – abstract contexts that we are much less familiar with. Yet, this would help us comprehend what humans – students – want and focus our efforts on providing that.

Automatic reversion to the concrete context of “customer” is an excuse to preserve the status quo and ignore the need to recognize and correct problems. This leaves professors stuck in the past, wedded to ineffective pedagogies, mistake-filled teaching, students who forget what they learned the moment the last class is ends, and so on.

We can think of students as partners, empowered learners, and producers and keep teaching as we have always done, or we can think of students as imaginary customers, Ci, and get on with the work of solving important real-world problems in higher education and fulfill our role as professors who serve students.

Let’s hope it does not take another 700-plus years since the founding of University of Bologna in 1088 for Ci to be widely accepted by academics in higher education.

2 thoughts on “Imaginary Customers

  1. Jim Kyte

    If we start imaginary graduation rates that are acceptable to the State/Province for real funding, I’m more than happy to accept imaginary customers in the classroom. 🙂

  2. Rob

    Excellent article. Could I please get your permission to reference it in my upcoming book on excellence?

    Thank you,


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