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The HBS Credibility Gap

I hit a good riff last article, so I’m sticking with it.
One of the reasons I selected Harvard Business School was my respect for our collective mission of “contribut[ing] to the well-being of society.” I continue to experience frustration, however, at what I view as a serious misalignment between our stated goals and our program implementation. Even an RC student with a teeny bit of 7 S training can see that.
Two weeks ago HBS put together a truly all-star panel of international aid heavy-hitters. Chief executives of Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, and others appeared to do a Q and A on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. In his introduction to the event, Carl Kester said, “As we consider the mission of HBS . . . we could hardly ask for better models than the members of today’s panel.” I could not agree more.
So why were these guests simply part of an optional panel put together in response to our recent tragedy? These men and women are wonderful models considering our mission, yet we would never actually see them in our classes, or read about them in our cases.

If we want to save the world and stuff, we need to take a sharp look at HBS’ comparative advantages. Here’s a hint: we’re not designed to promote volunteerism and our student population did not come here to get non-profit jobs. What are we good at? Well, business, for one. And that seems like a pretty powerful force, to me.

I’m reminded of a major investment bank that saw itself as a socially responsible organization. They had a program whereby their employees would be allowed to spend one afternoon each week mentoring disadvantaged youth in the community. How wonderful. Meanwhile, the investment bank put together the financing for China’s Three Gorges Dam project, which is making over 1 million people homeless, destroying priceless historical treasures, and wreaking havoc with the environment. Where did the do-gooder partners of this firm get the idea that their expertise and wealth would be best used teaching a few kids to read?
If we’re going to get serious about our mission, this do-gooder stuff has to be part of the fundamental curriculum, not part of optional sessions and mini-modules. HBS makes major changes to the pedagogy all the time, and in any case, the time for incrementalism is past.

Moral, ethical, and philosophical conversations have to be rigorous. Too often LEAD, LVDM, and other classes are seen as a break; we don’t have do any number crunching. There seems to be a belief that a non-numbers based conversation is therefore soft or easily manipulated.
We need exposure to people who are tackling this issue head-on. Let’s read Friedman, Hayek, Sen. Nussbaum, Rawls, and Kant. To say nothing of Adam Smith, whoeveryone quotes and no one reads. I think we can handle the rigor.

And we have to talk about how business leaders affect the world. Enough with the nonprofit boards; we’ll have a lot more impact in our business decisions than in our volunteer activities, and it’s time we started taking responsibility.

February 4, 2002
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