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Embarrassed To Be an HBS Student

What an end to a week it was. Warren Buffett and Jack Welch-and a day apart! Two of the greats of American capitalism, right here at Burden Hall, Harvard Business School.

I can’t imagine too many other forums in the world where such distinguished speakers would offer up their precious time to speak to 1,800 graduate students at a transformational stage in their careers. I am sure their words re-motivated many a first-year, bent all week over tiny circuit boards and process flow diagrams.

I attended the Buffett speech on Thursday night. A packed house, as well it should have been. Buffett was open, warm, funny, engaging and generous. He regaled us with his provocative and humorous advice. He commented not only on value investing, but also showed his depth of thought on the passage through life, the impact of the terrorist attacks, and then shared an extremely powerful analogy to illustrate how successful products of a prosperous society should view the widening gap between rich and poor.

Even from as far away as my homeland (Australia-it’s down under), Warren Buffett is recognized as one of the best investors in the world, an American, an icon and an inspiration to all HBS students. What an honor to have a ‘Great’ right there in the room, speaking directly to you and me.

But that evening, I was embarrassed to be a Harvard Business School student.

I was sitting in the back of the auditorium and the first I saw, or rather didn’t see of Warren Buffet was the overwhelming tide of students rushing in for their handshake and photo with the Great Man.

What a sporting chap, though. He arrived almost 40 minutes before his speech and generously spent his time mingling with students. Until of course the tidal wave of eager students converged on the man. I watched this spectacle aghast. The first photo started in the middle of the Burden Hall floor. However, with every firm hand shake and camera flash-Warren would take a nervous step back as the crowd surged forward, till he almost ended squashed against the right-hand wall. He looked more like a frightened Koala Bear manhandled by a surge of tourists at the Sydney Zoo than a distinguished and well-respected guest.

What I saw down on the floor of Burden, combined with the cheering, jeering and in one instance booing-for some unknown transgression by a photo taker, resembled the melee at the Spangler salad bar at lunchtime.
Then the “formalities” started. That’s right, what formalities?
Matthias Mahr gave a 30-second introduction, but no one could hear because the sound system appeared not to be loud enough. Thirty seconds, off the cuff? Is that all such a distinguished speaker deserved?
Where was the Dean to at least make a co-introduction? If the Dean was not available, where were the senior members of faculty-at least one? This was Warren Buffett!

So his speech proceeded and I sat enthralled, but I dared not comment on the number of cell phones bleating throughout the hall.
About an hour into his speech, a steady and growing stream of students started exiting the hall-noisily and at great distraction. Even Warren Buffett seemed perturbed. Sure, there was another presentation scheduled for 7 pm, but could not the facilitators (wherever they were) have called for a quick adjournment of the questions while some students left and the rest stayed. I also wanted to hear the other presentation, but I felt compelled to stay out of respect for an honored guest.

Certainly, I want to congratulate those who organized Buffett’s speech-a remarkable event. I did not take part in the organization of the event, nor do I know what happened behind the scenes. I only know what I saw as a HBS student and a member of the audience. If you were there, you saw it too. Some readers may think this a particularly harsh criticism, but I was embarrassed and dismayed by what I saw from the HBS community that night.

Many claim we are studying at the greatest business school in the world, and it may well be true, but that does not entitle us to treat honored guests so nonchalantly. I call on every student to act with the professionalism we all have displayed in our careers to get here and treat both the HBS name and our guests with the respect they are entitled to and deserve.

October 29, 2001
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