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Editorial: Lofty Aims, Low-Brow Tactics

It seems most HBS students shared a moment on March 6 when they saw in their HBS Inbox a message from Tony Deifell (OK) titled “FYI…” that read, “Hi , I thought you’d be interested in checking this out…” And then most of us thought, “Do I know this person? How does Tony know me and why does he think I’d be interested in this?” Some students went so far as to “classcard” the guy just to see if they recognized his face. They didn’t.

The organizers of the event mentioned in the memo, the Mobius Forum, apparently decided to pioneer the use of mail-merge at HBS in order to promote their conference. The memo circumvented e-mail filters that many students use to channel incoming mail from listservs and had the appearance of a personal message in every respect, as did a follow-up message on March 26 entitled, “Re: FYI.”

If the memo were sent to a free webmail account, we wouldn’t be so surprised. But that it happened to our HBS Inbox, by fellow HBS classmates, left many students breathless. We editors are unaccustomed to people actually requesting an editorial on a particular topic. We grant those requests here.

The HBS IT Electronic Communications policy states under the subject of Distribution Lists, “To communicate with large groups of students, use only the distribution lists created by HBS or the Student Association discussion boards and use them for their specified purpose and audience. For example, do not send a section event advertisement to a school-wide listserv and do not create or use a separate list in order to circumvent the use of official HBS lists or Student Association discussion boards” [emphasis added].

There is no ambiguity in that policy, and there is no ambiguity in the violation, which left many students feeling taken and used. As a conference positioned as dealing with the subject of values and ethics in business, it was an odd choice to launch the promotion campaign with guerilla marketing tactics worthy of Publisher’s Clearing House.

Perhaps the organizers felt they had cover because the conference is being sponsored by Dean Kim Clark. But his sponsorship, this aspect of the event (aside from Deepak Chopra), raises an interesting question: when did the Dean’s Office start sponsoring conferences? This is in fact his first conference sponsorship. Why? Why did he not lend his influential seal to the Harvard International Development Conference this coming weekend, or to the Africa Business Conference, or the Women in Business Conference, or the Asia Business Conference, or the AASU Conference, or the Latin America Conference? The issues raised in each of these also broach subjects of personal and institutional values and decision-making critical to the world’s well-being.

While ethics and values in leadership and decision-making are well established subjects both in the community and institution of HBS, the ambiguous subject of “spirituality” is not. It strikes us that notions of personal spirituality are clearly distinct from work-life tradeoffs and personal values, which may be derived from one’s spiritual ideas but are at least a degree separated.

It needs to remain clear that HBS is a community open to those people with all notions of faith and spirituality, including those who choose not to subscribe to any such notions at all. By virtue of the Dean’s and several high-profile faculty’s involvement, the injection of “spirituality” into our institutional lexicon does not go unnoticed. The Forum appears to go beyond the tradition of only non-secular explorations of religion and business, and for this reason it deserves a watchful eye.

Still, these issues are fair and do have a place in our communal life, but how best to have the discussion itself and through which channels it should be had are also ideas that themselves deserve close scrutiny in the light of day.

As a free and open, student-led communal voice, independent of official endorsement, The Harbus is an appropriate medium for such a discussion. (For example, see “Jews for Harbus” in Viewpoints.)

Whatever comes of the Mobius Forum, the organizers undermined their message by undermining HBS IT policies. While all of us at HBS always wish each other success with our endeavors, especially when those endeavors seek to enlighten and serve our community, we must also be mindful of the relative parity of the many good causes and issues that our community endears. That means behaving within the guidelines by which we as a community agree to abide.

If you want to spam, no matter your cause, use the listserv.

April 8, 2002
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