What's your RQ?

The new buzz in business is all about reputations. Not your reputation, not my reputation, but business's reputation. In fact, supporters of the new "Reputation Quotient" system say the most valuable long-term asset to a company's health is not strictly how much profit it makes, or how big it gets. It's instead such qualities as trust, admiration, reliability, clear vision, a "good place to work."

As more and more legislators and administrators propose the possibility of operating a university, too, as a business, perhaps we could establish a "Reputation Quotient" for university departments. After all, everybody knows some departments enjoy an excellent reputation among faculty and students alike, while others evoke distrust, even disgust. Why? What do we expect in a university department of high reputation? Below is a possible checklist to assess the "RQ," as it's called in business, of a university department.

1. Trust. A highly-respected department trusts its students and each other. Well-run businesses already know that you cannot motivate a staff very well when you monitor their work hours, internet usage, pencil wastage, phone calls. Similarly, faculty who hit hard on attendance, who rig fiendish anti-cheating systems in class, who assume a student is lying will not increase the RQ of their department. Doug Burgum, former CEO of Fargo's Great Plains Software, one of America's most respected companies, trusted his 1,000 employees with office keys and no security guards.

2. Team-building. By team, I don't mean faculty with faculty, or student with student, though that's not a bad thing. I mean faculty and student. Have you ever sat through an instructor who declared, on the first day, "this class is too full, so the first person who skips gets dropped from the class list." Or, "Half of you will not make it through this class. If you think you're one, I suggest you drop now."

Believe it or not, whole departments use this divide-and-deride technique to keep numbers of majors at levels they find comfortable. As opposed to the "how-can-we-help-you-learn" approach, they obviously believe professor ought to set up a "how-can-we-help-you-fail" curriculum.

3. Courtesy. The concept of courtesy means a lot more than just holding the door open for grandma. It rests on a relationship of power. It's naturally in your own best interest to treat with courtesy someone more powerful than you are: they can help you or hurt you, so need to be appeased. It requires no great effort either to treat with courtesy someone at your own level. That person could well be of benefit to you socially, perhaps professionally. The real question here is: how do you treat someone in an unequal power relationship? If you hold more power than another in a relationship, the lesser person likely can't do you much good, so it is of no particular benefit to make an effort to be courteous. Just look at the way passers-by treat bums on the street, or sales clerks treat children in a toy store (when their parents aren't around).

In nearly every way university departments enjoy greater power than the students they serve. Even some lowly assistant to the assistant secretary still holds more power than a student. Instructors hold power over a student's future in the grades they give, and even in the letters of recommendation they provide. If, despite the temptation to abuse that power differential, instructors and support staff treat students with courtesy, they will enjoy a high department's RQ.

4. Respect. Built on courtesy, and related also to a power differential. But it goes deeper: you can be courteous to someone you don't respect. A university department gains respect by offering a reasonable program of study designed to meet needs of the industry they plan to enter, and by offering a level of instruction that is fair. A department chair so rigid she can make no reasonable accommodations for differences in students will not earn the respect of the senior who leaves school for a far-away job just three credits shy of graduating, and no way to make up the work. A graduate director who hounds a graduate student through a tirade of hoop-jumps and nit-picking will earn the respect of no one, including other graduate students who can spot a bully from five classes away.

Those are just four of a number of attributes which could combine to form a university department's "RQ." Do you have any more to add to the list? Make a comment.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <www.ndsu.edu/communication/collins>