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Viewpoints: "MoronGate"

I would like to share with you my admiration for someone who, in my mind, best exemplifies the values that are dear to our community. This person is Nick Will (OI), who recently resigned as Editor in Chief of the Harbus.

HBS Community Standards remind us that we all should value “trust and mutual respect, free expression and inquiry…. a commitment to truth, excellence, and lifelong learning” and both integrity and personal accountability. Who has personified those values more than Nick during his time at the helm of the Harbus? With his opinionated editorials, his thought provoking articles, and the high standards with which he performed his difficult mission, he made those values come alive.

Each week brought struggles between free expression and inquiry, between respect and truth, but issue after issue, Nick performed his duty with courage and talent. Every time, he demonstrated respect, integrity and accountability for his behavior. I would not have been surprised to see Dean Clark specifically mention his name during the Commencement Ceremony in June.

Last week, as all of you know, Nick resigned from his role of Editor in Chief after a sad story that wittier columnists would probably have dubbed the “MoronGate.” A cartoon in the Harbus depicted a computer full of announcements about Career Services’ technical problems. One of them, mostly hidden, showed two words: “Incompetent Morons.”

Career Services felt offended, and a disciplinary process was started against Nick, for supposed infringement with community standard policies. He was even threatened with disciplinary sanctions that could appear on his student record.

It is worth noting that The Harbus News Corporation legal firm’s Chief Counsel and two conferring attorneys unanimously affirmed without qualification that the piece was allowable under all free speech standards. Those experts were all shocked that the HBS administration invoked Community Standards to take any action at all.

There is some irony in this situation, because my humble opinion is that Nick’s decision to publish the article was in total agreement with the community standards, whereas starting a disciplinary procedure against him as a student was not.

It would have been very easy for Nick to censure those two unfortunate words. It would have saved him pain and effort. But because he cared so much for the mission of the Harbus, for the Community Standards values, namely truth and free expression, he did not.

Being editor means making on the spot decisions, like anyone in a leadership position. He took his in a spirit of mutual respect for the Harbus board, the administration policies, and the student’s opinions. Despite the pressures, he integrated into his decision the legal aspects as well as the values of inquiry, integrity, excellence and trust that we all hold dear. The lawyers confirmed the soundness of his judgment.

As Prof. Badaracco would say in his EC class on the topic, Moral Leadership is all about the struggle of a flawed human being to make some human values real and effective in the world as it is. To me, this is exactly what Nick has done. How ironic is it that HBS, so proud of developing outstanding moral leaders, has to blame one of the best examples it has?

The truth is that threatening Nick as a student may very well be a strong violation of the Community Standards themselves.

First, it is not proven that “Incompetent Morons” was targeting Career Services. Actually, the opposite is probably true. In the cartoon, those two words were on one of the supposed Career Services announcements. So they can be directed at everything, BUT Career Services. There are infinite possibilities for interpretation. I personally imagined that Career Services was blaming its external provider in a rude, but comprehensible way. I’m surprised to see that this department is so defensive as to consider this innocent joke an attack.

We all know Career Services professionals are working at the best of their abilities to help us in one of the toughest job markets ever. But the truth is that they did take offense. It may be understandable in the tough times we are all facing, but then, respecting the Community Standards would have required inquiry, i.e. trying to understand what was happening and not running the risk of over-reacting without getting a clear picture of the full situation.

Similarly, threatening the editor of the Harbus as a student, directly and without using the appropriate institutions (like the Harbus Board), is an attack at the values of free expression, trust and mutual respect. I’m not sure it demonstrates excellence either, and I’m still waiting for a demonstration of personal accountability. So to me, this is clearly a violation of the values in which we all believe and that we all try so hard to respect. How can one fight daily for those values and be at the same time threatened, in complete disagreement with those very same values? No wonder Nick decided to resign.

The worst in this story is that it casts a doubt on the real value of the Community Standards. Are they just words in a nice frame, or a shared philosophy? Are they just for students, or for the community as a whole?

Are they a set of objective rules or just an arbitrary tool designed to trigger disciplinary action when it is deemed convenient? When I think of all the work that has been done in recent months by the administration and the Leadership and Values reps, I cannot help but feel sad to see their work discredited in such a way. The cynics, and there are many, must be so happy now…

But those are not my only questions. HBS teaches us about Capitalism. Capitalism is all about Freedom. How can Freedom exist when the Press is threatened? Isn’t it the first thing that the worst totalitarian regimes do when arriving in power? What does this mean when the administration can decide to start a disciplinary action just because they want to, i.e. without clear facts or collegial and contradictory debate?

Why confuse the role and the individual, why use the student to silence the editor, when more appropriate processes exist? What is really happening here at HBS, that they are afraid to tell us, for an innocent joke with no designated target to end up in threats of a disciplinary action? Is HBS feeling so insecure that it cannot even respect students’ right to free speech and free expression, guaranteed by the US constitution? It’s probably not good to “kill the messenger,” but what can be said of “killing the publisher of the messenger,” especially when the interpretation of the message is nothing but an unproven assumption not grounded on facts?

What will happen now? Life will go on. Nick will survive. At worst, he will stay a respected HBS student, at best he will receive an official excuse from the administration. The Harbus will survive, another editor will take the helm. HBS and its administration will survive and continue business as usual.

If I were an HBS administrator, I would write a case about it to be used in Lead or Moral Leadership. But there may be two real losers. First, the Community Standards and the new Leadership and Values reps may see their credibility affected and all the hard work that has been accomplished in the past few months may be discredited. Then, at the very moment when the world is challenging the ethics and values of its leaders, our personal learning may suffer from this example.

Because if, as Dean Clark is keen of saying, “How we teach is what we teach,” then I’m really wondering what lessons should be taken from this story. Some will focus on the risk, cost, and in the end uselessness of Moral Leadership, since it can be threatened in its very temple.

I, for one, will always remember this as a living example of Leadership and Values.

November 18, 2002
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