Professor QIAN Xiaojun: Action Speaks Louder Than Words

In retrospect of the days in 1995 when she just returned from the US to start working at the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management (SEM), Professor QIAN Xiaojun at the Department of Leadership and Organization Management said: “I couldn't get used to it in every single way.” The cramped little room, the dim tiny bulb, little had been changed since she went abroad 10 years earlier, and the salary was also very low. “Everybody received a little bag when the payroll was due. When the department secretary showed my little bag, only 100 plus bucks were left each time after the miscellaneous were deducted. The professor responsible for distributing salaries said sorry as that’s what they could offer and I said the sorrow was mine since I earned too little.” Professor QIAN couldn’t help grinning whenever she was reminded of this experience.

Professor QIAN Xiaojun


She planned to move back to China in 1995, a decision was not easy to be made at that time for most Chinese people who worked abroad. The most frequent question that Professor QIAN faced was “why did you choose to come back?” Her answer was simple enough: In the United States, your addition does not earn much recognition and your absence is negligible; while in China you can personally feel that your contribution truly creates value.”

Few professors were able to teach in the English language at Tsinghua at that time and Professor QIAN’s statistics course taught purely in English refreshed the students with the innovative and flexible way of teaching. “Although the living standard fell a lot, I could feel that the students were in real need of you and that gives me a true sense of accomplishment, so coming back feels pretty good," Professor QIAN said with a smile.

This is Professor QIAN, who said "being needed brings me happiness."

"Hard" Knowledge, "Soft" Courses

In the bio page of Professor QIAN’s micro-blog, one sentence stands out - "What I have been spending the longest time learning is the hardest knowledge, and what I have devoted most time to teaching is the softest content."

With a B.S. degree in applied mathematics received from Tsinghua University in 1982, M.S. in mathematics received in 1998 and Ph.D. in 1992 from Purdue University, Indiana, USA, Professor QIAN spent most of her efforts on teaching “soft” courses including Managerial Communication at Tsinghua SEM.

The year of 1996 marked a turning point. At that time, Tsinghua SEM and MIT Sloan School of Management joined forces to set up the Tsinghua-MIT International MBA Program which included a course that the school had never covered before -- Managerial Communication. To support the program, the school selected a professor to advance studies at MIT. “The former dean, Mr. ZHAO Chunjun asked me at the old college entrance gate back then: ‘Are you interested in managerial communication? It needs to be taught in English.’ I inquired the reason for choosing me as my area of studies seemed far from it. Mr. ZHAO detailed three points: first the candidate’s English proficiency must reach a certain level; second certain understanding of the American culture is required; and third MIT explained that the Fudan University had selected a female professor for the program and MIT would provide a double-bedroom apartment, so it would be better for Tsinghua to send a female candidate as well.” Professor QIAN still has a fresh memory of that scene even today.

Following more than a decade’s teaching experience in Managerial Communication, Professor QIAN believes the “soft” skills mater more to deciding the scope of depth of a student’s career progression. “For instance, the professional knowledge can help one find a job, but the essential factors leading to a progression from a normal working staff to a manager or even higher position really lie in the EQ, ideology and interpersonal communication skills.”

Two years ago, Professor QIAN started another course – Business Ethics – as part of Tsinghua MBA course structure reforms. “Teaching ethics in China is quite challenging as the students all had the real-life experience in the cruel reality. Most students would argue that one wouldn’t survive over three days if the mainstream norms are not followed as the reality is cruel.  Asking students to consider ethics in doing business can easily make them feel that it is pure ideological preaching.” Professor QIAN positioned herself as a role to help students think. She frequently “challenges” students in classrooms and intentionally ignites internal arguments during students’ discussions, provoking their in-depth reflections.

Besides black and white, there is a large grey-hued area in ethnics,” summarized Professor QIAN. She urges her students to consider multiple factors when striking a decision: companies, working staff, consumers, up & down streams and the society, etc. “Never allow a certain number of factors in some occasion to pre-occupy all the attention and override the others.”

Some students who used to lead an easy life said the ethics course made them feel some pressure in life. Professor QIAN thinks that proves this course’s objective is reached. “It makes a difference if you give it a consideration or not, even though the choice you make remain the same. Feeling at ease or anxious after some wrongful undertaking marks obvious distinctions. For example, one is forced to bribe – whether he or she feels worried or as if nothing has happened, those are totally different attitudes. That demonstrates what person you want to be -- you want to stay at this point in the spectrum of ethics, not that one.” She takes herself as an example: “My choice is to try to help others.”

From a student’s perspective, Professor QIAN is a teacher as well as a friend. “However busy Professor QIAN is, she would never refuse if you approach her for help. She would patiently listen to and provide solutions to the confusion and troubles that we face in study or life,” one student said, “From Professor QIAN, we not only lean the methods of arranging issues of study and life in an orderly and systematic manner, but also feel she is the beacon when we get lost.”

Helping Others Work and Live Better

From 2001 on, Professor QIAN devoted much of her time and efforts to managing the school’s administrative issues. Her early responsibilities started with the MBA program. In the early days there was not a designated deputy dean responsible to managing the MBA program, but efforts were needed to develop the program, expand the department and establish rules, regulations and work procedures. Professor QIAN had to take care of every aspect of the early development phase, making her exhausted. Yet, efforts always generate returns: when Professor QIAN assumed the role in 2001, the MBA Program had four to five staff only without a clear organizational structure or complete work procedure and regulations, and the program’s annual recruitment stood at about 100 MBA students; when Professor QIAN finished her term in 2006, the MBA Program that had been renamed to Tsinghua MBA Programs and employed 15 working staff and annual recruitments reached more than 500 MBA students.

Even today, the Tsinghua MBA Programs still carry on the adoption of basic business unit structure introduced in Professor QIAN’s time: Academic Service, Marketing & Admissions, Student Development and International Affairs; most of the core management staff were hired when Professor QIAN was on the position. After concluding her responsibility with the MBA issues, Professor QIAN took another role in international accreditation. “I didn’t have much knowledge in accreditation at that time,” Professor QIAN said, “I felt that was only about drafting reports. As I grew familiar with the business, I found that it’s not simply writing reports and in most cases you would have to improve according to the accreditation standards.”

Professor QIAN started learning and familiarizing herself with the international accreditation standards in January 2006; arranged the study of accreditation-related standards for staff from relevant departments in April and May; submitted the AACSB accreditation application report in end-July; started researching the EQUIS accreditation standards and procedures afterwards; submitted the EQUIS accreditation application report in end-December. She led the reception of AACSB accreditation in March of 2007 with the application approved in April; received the AACSB accounting accreditation in October with approval granted in December; received the EQUIS accreditation in December with approval granted in February of 2008. This tight schedule does not represent all of Professor QIAN’s work assignments. At that time, she was also the assistant to the dean responsible for the school’s issues associated with the bachelor, master and Ph.D. degrees and it also coincided with the time when the Ministry of Education’s bachelor’s degree evaluation work was taking place. Professor QIAN remarked: “there were four accreditations in 2007 and I didn’t teach for anytime of the year. It’s all about that work.”

What she didn’t mention is that her son was in the second year of the junior high school and her daughter in the second year of the senior high school in that year, both at crucial stages for the respective examinations required for their next-level educations. She also didn’t mention that her mother was in grave illness when the EQUIS re-accreditation work was most heavy in 2010. Professor QIAN’s taking care of her ill mother didn’t affect any part of her work and she didn’t inform the school of her family issues. “Professor QIAN is such a person,” said a colleague with whom she has spent a long time working together.

What was missed most due to the work assignments over the past few years was the scientific research,” said Professor QIAN, who didn’t regret over everything. Yet still, proud was truly felt. Accreditation was an issue that the whole school cares about, it needed coordination with many departments and the work couldn't be completed with simple mandates. Behind the strong support rendered by other departments lies an essential factor the points to Professor QIAN as a leader pushing ahead with the work. She also believes in one principal: try to accomplish on one’s own and never bring trouble to others.

Professor QIAN’s another pride resides in the 12 MBA Managerial Communication Faculty Symposiums held so far. As the person in charge of the Managerial Communication faculty development course promotion at the China National MBA Education Supervisory Committee, Professor QIAN led the work to start hosting the National MBA Managerial Communication Faculty Symposium since 1999, almost once a year. The scale of the conference expanded from about 30 participants at the beginning to the current 140-plus attendees and it gained the recognition gradually. Professor QIAN earned nothing from organizing this event and may need to personally pay for the communication and travel expenses associated with organizing the conference, so what stimulated her? Her answer is: “At each conference, everybody told me what they learned and that made me very satisfied.” As one participating professor wrote in his micro-blog:  “Because of Professor QIAN’s persistence, sharing and low profile, the MBA Managerial Communication Faculty Symposiums achieved consistent progression over the past 12 years.” “Some people enjoy wealth and power; and some enjoys others’ recognition and the ability to help others. My value rests in the process of making other people’s work and life better due to my existence,” said Professor QIAN.

Sometimes she also felt somewhat unfair, but she couldn’t change and she used “beyond redemption” to describe her perseverance. Some of her rational may also sound cute: “Sometimes I feel that if I don’t do it, other people might doubt and ask why Professor QIAN stops and that’s something I couldn’t bear.”

Professor QIAN ascribes the formation of her value to her parents. “My parents were both leaders at their organization before retirements. (They felt) the family issues are minor while the work assignments weight a lot. They were always busy and had no time to take care of me, and it has been the case since my childhood. People from that time are all like that – you never think about compensation when you do the business.” Work always overweighs family issues. Professor QIAN inherited this value from the older generation.  

Although that experience was already part of history by now, the value system that Professor QIAN inherited from that experience had already taken roots in her. Throughout ups and downs in her career, Professor QIAN has been persistently and happily implementing her belief: action speaks louder than words.  (Author for Chinese Version: ZHENG Youhua, Office of Communications and Marketing, Tsinghua SEM; English Version contributed by Office of International Affairs, MBA Programs)