Blackouts and Alarms and Floods, Oh My

Add a great flood and pillars of fire to the list of challenges HBS students encounter during finals.

Students in the last January cohort endured both forces of nature last month. The bigger disruption occurred when two electrical transformers exploded in Harvard Square in the middle of the Finance 2 final, casting most of Allston and Cambridge into darkness. That followed a Saturday-night flood in Mellon Hall that forced the entire building to be evacuated, and sent many students scrambling to protect their belongings from the deluge.

The flood was reportedly caused when a new resident of Mellon accidentally set off the sprinkler system by touching the sprinkler head. That set off the building’s fire alarms, sending dozens of students out into the night, while residents of the floor where the sprinklers were activated scrambled to protect their clothing and other belongings. As much as two inches of water that rained down from the sprinkler system spread along the floor, under doors, and down the stairs. Many residents were particularly concerned about the threat to the laptops they would need for finals just two days later.

But the threat of having to complete an exam with only a pencil, paper and a battery-powered calculator almost came true later in the week, when two NStar Electric transformers exploded in Harvard Yard at about 11:30 AM on August 9, right in the middle of the January Cohort’s Finance 2 final. Although the Aldrich classrooms were immediately cast into darkness, most laptops seamlessly switched over to battery power and the majority of students continued working, with many moving out to the hallways for additional light.

The exam was originally scheduled to continue to either 1 or 1:30 PM, depending on the individual section’s start time. Matteo Coppola, OJ, who hails from Italy, later said he and his European colleagues were stunned by how many students kept working without missing a beat after the lights went out. “In any European school, the power outage would have immediately caused an outflow from the classrooms…and obviously the cancellation of the exam,” he said.

At 12:30, Finance department officials agreed to extend the deadline for turning in the exam until 5 PM, advising students to “go find some power.” The exam’s overall four-and-a-half-hour limit for work time continued to apply.

The announcement set off a scramble among students to find a suitable work area, especially those whose batteries died early. Several Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni, including Anand Radhakrishnan, OK, led friends down Memorial Drive, remembering that MIT’s campus has its own power plant. Frank Wei, OK, said he was initially not willing to give up on the prospect of finding on-campus power, so he checked several outlets in the Spangler Center before heading to the new Boston Public Library branch on North Harvard Street.
At least one student mixed the case, on a proposed IPO by security-guard firm Pinkerton’s, with lunch, plugging in at the Old Country Buffet restaurant in Watertown. Peabody Terrace, which also boasts its own backup generator, was able to provide laptop power-but students working there had to contend with the downside of Peabody summer life-no air conditioning. HBS’ own emergency power sources were pressed into service to run a backup print lab, but were insufficient to power the computers.
Ultimately, however, power was restored to the campus by about 1:30, leaving plenty of time for students who stayed put to finish their work.
The finals-week disruptions were the latest in a string of unusual events during the Class of 2002’s exam periods, which started during the September Cohort’s Negotiations exam last Spring with a major blizzard that forced HBS officials to give students the option of submitting their exams via e-mail. The Negotiations’ department’s bad luck continued with the January cohort’s exam, which was marked by a web failure that delayed remote access to the case, and then a fire alarm that evacuated Aldrich Hall where some students were working.

September 4, 2001
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