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Service with a smile and nothing else

When faced with a smile and a nod of apology from a fellow student, there is little that you can continue to complain about. Whether it be the recent and increasingly annoying “glitch” in the Portland State University Web site student registration system or a monumentally frustrating (and continuing) delay in the awarding process of financial aid, students are literally at the front lines.

These scenarios make a mockery of the university’s goal to increasingly emphasize effective “customer service.” Jumping on this corporate-influenced trend in higher education, to treat students as “customers,” the university must face the reality that in a time of budget cuts, layoffs and personnel dissatisfaction, the goal of “service with a smile” falls onto the already burdened shoulders of the student employees who actually face the dissatisfied stream of “customers” (their peers).

A recent example found a “customer” crying after hearing from the students who work in financial aid that, yes, again, her financial aid was delayed. A query of when it might be available was answered only with a sigh and a finger pointing to the list of numbers on a dry erase board. Why such a long delay? Only two financial aid counselors were available to process awards throughout spring and summer quarter. And no, no one was available to meet with her. She had to be satisfied with a smile and a sympathetic grimace from the student behind the counter.

Another student’s award processing for fall quarter is delayed into the middle of summer. Meanwhile, the pool of money from the federal government dwindles and his entire college career is on hold. Again, the only excuse given is from the lips of workers against whom students never register meaningful complaints – other students. Like an acquaintance recently told me, “To bitch out another student completely misses the point.” And it completely misses the target, which should be the various administrations on campus. Yet, the front lines are staffed with students in need of jobs, and these students are used effectively to deliver paltry excuses and lame directives like, “Call back next week.”

Another scenario: Students wishing to register online OR over the phone after the beginning of summer quarter were left with only that wish. Telephone calls to the admissions office were answered by a jovial student, who could only deliver the official line, “It’s a glitch in the system.” A glitch? Unfortunately and apparently, you cannot leave Portland State’s campus if you have any business to attend to. This is completely counter to a modern, urban university’s responsibility to its students. No one else was available to talk about the “glitch” and, again, students had to be satisfied with other students’ sympathies.

The “customer service” that PSU wishes would take hold is admirably administered by the students who offer consolation, but little else. Recent issues, like the financial aid fiasco that has students drowning in the singular excuse of inadequate staffing and the Web site “glitch” that really has no excuse, are at the front of larger issues that have not been effectively addressed up to now. Meanwhile, “customer service” is solely the responsibility of students with few real answers, but miles of smiles. At least when they say “I understand,” you know, as fellow students, they mean it.