Fifth in a series of how universities can help build character.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If you hummed that along in your head, you probably know where this is going.

Respect is a commodity. It is traded like baseball cards. It’s a give and get proposition.

Few core values are more important than respect. There is a drought of respect privately (how Aretha Franklin sings about it), publicly, locally, nationally and at work. The idea that respect is “earned, never given,” while well-intended, is mistaken. Instead, as with any other commodity, it is traded. According to Bloomberg, strong organizations recognize how important both giving and getting respect are to maintain healthy co-existence between individuals and the larger group. It works in a marriage, a community or nation or a place of work or enterprise.

In contemporary society and at universities, respect is believed to be an inviolable human right. Unfortunately, it’s not. Occasionally, when a guest speaker is invited to speak on a university campus, the speaker might be shouted down no matter the subject of their discussion because some members of the community do not like the topic being presented. Human decency and respect vanish.

Suppose a student carries the perspective that they are free to say or do whatever they please without respectfulness. In that case, most job interviews throughout their professional life will end in a polite, “No thanks.” We owe every graduate honesty and transparency in this fundamental tenet of the human condition.

Mutual respect is critical in the conduct of affairs at home, at work and in public. Aretha’s maxim applies anywhere. John F. Mahony of the University of Dublin offers the concept that self-perception informs how we see others: “…self-related thinking is but one aspect of a form of social cognition that serves a useful function in understanding others.” The asymmetry of respectful behavior in response to disrespectful behavior is the hallmark of a healthy person. Western civilization is full of references to the importance of individual respect. A disarmingly powerful precept regarding respect is simple in its recognition of both community life and human nature: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is an impossible perspective in any organization—a marriage, a nation, or a seat of commerce—that does not cherish and promote giving and receiving the respect that encourages and endears free moral agency.

Ms. Franklin lays it out in two-party partnerships. Giving and receiving respect in the public square is a legitimate expectation of life in a republic. From the standpoint of a graduate of a university, the notion permeates corporate life as well. An expert panel from the Forbes Business Development Council identifies 16 noteworthy corporate values, one of which is respect. This perspective, distilled from a discussion of corporate leaders and entrepreneurs amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and other current events that occupy our attention, landed on this view: “It’s all about a 360-degree respect approach. Respect for people, respect for their time, respect for ideas, respect for opinions, respect for processes, respect for clients and respect for all. This respect accumulation will bring, in consequence, the most important one: respect for anything you, your team and company deliver.” This is about joining a culture.

College graduates unready to appreciate this aspect of the human, public and corporate commitment and unaccustomed to the moral framework of giving and receiving respect, shortchange themselves in the job market. More importantly, they shortchange themselves in the interpersonal relationship market as Aretha said, “Or you might walk in (respect, just a little bit)…And find out I’m gone (just a little bit).”

Unfortunately for many universities, the responsibility to be respectful and the opportunity to be respected are lost in the self-view that puts an individual’s desires and aspirations in front of everyone else’s, no matter the cost or consequence.

Through its policies, the university’s actions and expectations should engender respectfulness and its centrality to the human condition. No matter how talented, hard-working or intellectually astute the university graduate is, absent the value of respect and respectfulness, we have failed. The graduate will eventually fail themselves.

This is not a pleasant condition, but it’s born of anything that diminishes the intentional trading of respect.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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