It was with great fan fair and anticipation that these two heralded debate teams met in the historic Kennedy School Forum last Tuesday, March 1st. Festivities began with an air of debauchery as the audience imbibed on free beer and fish crackers. This was the first meeting of what should be an annual tradition on par with boat racing after the Head of the Charles. The two teams squared off three vs. three in a dual of British parliamentary-style debate judged by a panel of two KSG professors and one HBS professor. The question at hand was, “Which side of the river produces leaders that make a difference?”
As a whole, the debate was immensely enjoyable, the crowd was on fire and the debaters were reveling in their self-importance. Personally, at points, I thought there was too much talk of alumni achievements and not enough analysis of the very different ideologies that govern each school. Granted, Tim Keller (OA), the legendary debate coach of the HBS team, had warned me that the HBS team would “come out with dazzling wit to pave the way for poignant jabs designed to paralyze the opponent.” While I’m not one to question the strategy of a renowned veteran, I think that both teams would have benefited from scaled down rhetoric.
Greg Marsh (OH) came out swinging for HBS to cheers of 350 audience members, with 1/3 cheering for him and 2/3 hissing at his every remark. Marsh immediately showed the kind of British wit and sophistication that make all Americans feel inadequate. Marsh introduced the HBS main points: business drives economic change, and that HBS trains both government and business leaders. Comments such as, “KSG produces faceless bureaucrats, whereas HBS generates change” were met with hisses from the Kennedy School gallery, cheers from business students, and set the tone for the rest of evening.
KSG’s first response was from Chris Carter, who espoused that “HBS is more about profit, greed, and people who talk well…Change comes from positive commitment, not from playing golf.” Carter introduced KSG’s argument, that good governance is the driver for change, and that the public interest is greater than private profit.
Such ideals were refuted by Kevin Kelly (OC), who courageously pounded an entire glass of beer while approaching the podium in a masterful feat of intimidation. Kelley contended that the case method of the HBS curriculum produces better leaders by “teaching decision making in the context of uncertainty and fluidity.” He argued that the creation of wealth from global business increases education and decreases poverty.
In the second half, James Crabtree came out swinging for KSG by dropping the “Skilling bomb” that ignited the Forum crowd. Beginning with a quote from HBS graduate Jeff Skilling, “It’s the government’s job to stop dangerous products,” Crabtree continued his assault on the business school alumni, citing a study which concluded: “HBS grads are a long-term indicator of downturns in U.S. equities.” Despite his eloquence, Crabtree hit below the belt with his comment, “Business greed is like a 15 year old who can’t stop masturbating.” Kevin Kelley masterfully rebutted for HBS: “How much masturbation is too much?” Excellent question, indeed.
Closing for HBS, Michael Birshan (NB) attempted to bring the debate back to the question at hand. Birshan went straight for the jugular, questioning the usefulness of a KSG degree: “If you want to make laws, you should go to law school. If you want to make policy, you should get your PhD. If you want a public service job, chances are they would rather have an MBA.” Birshan almost lost his momentum, confusing the audience with his statement that “Most Kennedy School discussions trail off into coffee chats about gay rights.” He produced a graceful save by pointing out that businesses are more progressive on gay rights than governments.
Paul Hunyor also recovered for KSG after an off-topic introduction which included ramblings concerning President Larry Summer’s gender controversy. Bouncing back in a move of great graciousness, Hunyor translated KSG’s final argument into MBA speak for the HBS audience and debating panel: “Imagine a two-by-two matrix: you’re in the bottom left…HBS ignores that ideas, not products, change the world.” Hunyor continued, stating that “HBS never demonstrated in their arguments how Bain, BCG, and McKinsey benefit the one- half of the world left behind by globalization.”
Hunyor summarized the KSG team’s argument by simply stating: “HBS teaches you how to make a Skilling…Imagine if Reagan went to HBS. He would have said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that middle level of management!” With that the debate closed to a thundering applause. But the coup de grace was when an audience member stood up and pointed out that Hunyor was going to HBS next year and was a former Bain consultant.
As an audience member, I was left with mixed feelings at the conclusion of the debate. On one hand, I was impressed with the wit and humor displayed by both sides. Yet after a certain point in the evening, the entire display took on a feeling of two school boys in a pointless shouting match on the playground. Fundamentally, the debate should have asked what drives change: business or government? Business cannot flourish without a secure government, and government cannot exist without a revenue base. Neither side touched on this issue. Furthermore, neither group properly refuted the other team’s position. In the end, the judges deferred to the audience to decide the winner. At a Kennedy School venue, the winner was no surprise.