Harvard Business School Fails to Live Up to Its Own Standards

May 8, 2012

"The teaching of ethics here is explicit, not implicit," proclaims the Harvard Business School (HBS) website, as the school sets for itself the goal of constructing "a model of the highest standards essential to responsible leadership in the modern business world." But the case of Ben Story, a student who recently ran afoul of the HBS administration, seems to demonstrate the illusory nature of the school’s proud claim. 

A student proudly displayed on the HBS website, Ben Story graduated from UCLA with a degree in theater and hopes to pursue a career that combines business and art, "something in media and entertainment." Story therefore seemed like a natural fit to be co-president of the annual HBS Show, the student-written/produced/performed musical that celebrates and parodies the business school experience. The problems for Story began very soon after the performance. According to an op-ed he wrote in The Harbus, the independent student newspaper at HBS,

After the April 13th HBS Show performance, several empty alcohol containers were found in Burden Auditorium by the cleaning staff. No one reported drinking to event organizers that night, no property damage occurred, and no one suffered injury. I was out of town so I cannot directly comment on the events of that night.  

The Director of Community Values told me that as Co-President of the HBS Show my inability to prevent alcohol consumption that night represents "failed leadership" and an inability to uphold HBS Community Values. As such, I have been banned me [sic] from attending all non-academic social activities and placed on probation until graduation. 

When HBS administrators discovered the alcohol containers, they notified me via e-mail and scheduled a 30-minute meeting where I learned a few details about the incident…. Less than 48 hours later and without any follow-up, the director of the HBS Community Values Program informed me that I would be sanctioned for the incident. 

It is a testament to Story’s integrity that the rest of his op-ed is not an angry screed against the administration, but rather a thoughtful discussion of the utter lack of due process undertaken in determining his punishment. The opacity, according to Story, was absolutely deliberate: "I was told the fact finding process is opaque by nature in order to permit facilitators to privately reconcile conflicting pieces of information." If true, consider the implications of what Story wrote: the system is designed specifically so that administrators can game the system, as "conflicting pieces of information"—presumably some of them beneficial to the accused student—become "reconciled," i.e., subsumed into the administrator’s narrative. What chance does an accused student have of proving his innocence, if the administration desires otherwise? 

To make matters worse, Story found no practical appeals process for the HBS sanction. When he discussed taking his case before a "Conduct Review Board"—a more official body comprised of staff, students, and faculty—he was scared off, and assured that "a CRB would likely expose me to the more serious sanctions that some administrators had advocated," including the threat that he would not be allowed to walk at graduation. 

Story has left the entire situation feeling, in his words, "misinformed, misguided, and confused."

When FIRE comes across denials of due process at universities, we are often told by schools and risk management organizations that the sanctions being pursued are "educational" in nature (no matter how severe), and therefore do not require the level of due process that society demands for even the most minor of traffic violations. But as Ben Story’s experience at HBS indicates, such "educational" processes can be and often are horrendously opaque and unjust. The sort of procedure you see in a courtroom, where disinterested fact-finders attempt to determine the truth through the transparent airing of evidence and accusations must be proven rather than simply accepted, is the aggregate development of millennia of human experience—and while it’s not perfect, it is far superior to a closed and arbitrary hearing. If this is the extent of justice that we can expect from an institution that boasts of developing "responsible leadership in the modern business world," we’re in a world of trouble.

Schools:  Harvard University