Where's Dubya?

First and foremost, Harvard is a business. An extremely well-run business at that. There are several clues that confirm this: high fees, professionally managed funds and an endowment that is the envy of every other academic institution in the world. Everywhere around you lies proof that your money is not being wasted here, including projectors that work like video cameras, 200-meter indoor running tracks and a cafeteria that is better than most restaurants. However, perhaps the biggest giveaway as to just how much the university views itself as a business first and educational establishment second is the “service” culture endemic throughout the institution-everything just works. From maintenance (whom you can ring up 24/7) to IT, to the classroom audio system, if there is something here that you are not happy with or that is not working as it should, it is your fully “paid-up” right to complain. You have purchased a place at Harvard and Harvard will do everything it can to ensure that you get your money’s worth. It is amazing they still have not figured out how to make it sunny all the time.

Do not get me wrong, the university’s secondary function-to educate people-is something that the institution does brilliantly well. But while education may have been the raison d’etre when the school was first founded, that is no longer the case. It is a service secondary to the primary goal of making money. In today’s ever-privatized world, academic institutions have not remained unaffected, cash is king.

HBS embodies these principles arguably more so than any other of Harvard’s educational schools. The school sells itself to you on several fronts: first-class facilities, first-class education, and a first-class brand. And they are not misrepresenting. The opportunities here are indeed incredible and the case-study method is truly effective. But the real selling point is undoubtedly the Harvard brand. Without the fact that Harvard is the best global educational calling card money can buy, this school would be no different from the multitude of others. If you rate yourself professionally and personally, you apply to Harvard-it is foolish not to. The fact that everybody likes to “drop the H-bomb” is the reason why HBS was recognized in last month’s Princeton Review as the hardest B-school at which to gain admission. Like all global and successful businesses, brand equity is one of the largest assets HBS possesses. The brand is sacred, and it is central to a business model that works very well.

The perpetuation of the HBS brand is a product of many factors. Its admissions policy (i.e. only admitting the brightest, most driven people to begin with) is one. The quality of its faculty and research is another. But above all, it is the famed alumni network that forms the center point of the brand’s success. We are invited to become part of this all-powerful, fully connected web of influential people, each of whom has the ability to change the lives of people around them. Consistent with this viewpoint, HBS alumni are celebrated and respected like no other group. Hence the Alumni Achievement Awards a few weeks ago. What were these for other than to glorify those HBS alumni who have gone on to massive leadership and great things? Like most of the people in the audience at the time, I was hugely impressed with the award recipients. They were hardworking, charismatic (well, mostly), and driven. These people embodied everything for which HBS stands. And so, why shouldn’t a school that is so incredibly brand driven fˆte these people that have achieved so much? From a business point of view, it is a no-brainer. The school understands that its former graduates are critical to its success, and as a result, alumni respect is part of its culture. Indeed, virtually every case study highlights the fact that the protagonist or another key player is an HBS graduate.

But now the key question: George Bush is an HBS alumnus, so where are the mentions of him around campus? Now before what could be perceived as a political viewpoint takes shape, let me clarify that from an ideological and fiscal standpoint, I would be Republican. However, if I had to choose between voting for a Democrat or allowing the Bush administration to run the U.S., I would vote Democrat. I (like most people) recognize that George Bush is not typical of Republicans in general. (Luckily, I’m British, so I don’t have to choose between a rock and a hard place.)

First, some facts…Bush’s record is not good. Domestically, he has massively increased the country’s trade deficit, heightened the risk of terrorism, and pandered to the “Christian Right” at the expense of genuine scientific innovation. Also true, internationally, Iraq was executed with such Neolithic incompetence that it made a day in Woodstock look organized. Another fact is that his grasp on international issues is both immature and governed by other people (Lebanon a classic example). And finally, Bush is prone to the type of public gaffs that any other Head of State would be completely embarrassed to have made.

But nonetheless, George Bush was elected to President of the United States. Now, from what I have gathered from episodes of The West Wing, this is no mean feat-a series of pressured primaries, followed by a direct run-off in a grueling political system where anything goes. To make it through this alive and well is arguably an achievement in itself. But to win is perhaps the biggest achievement anyone could ever make. This must in itself justify an award from Bush’s alma-mater. But where is it? Why was Bush not up on the podium with the lady that proudly announced she took the lowest paying job she could out of B-school? One could argue that it will not be until he leaves office that HBS will honor him and that may well be true, but then another question remains, why is HBS currently not trumpeting the fact that the sitting President is an alumnus?

The Bush situation is rare. The balance between brand preservation and alumni success are in direct conflict (normally, they would be perfectly aligned). And herein lies the issue that HBS has no doubt grappled with since his election and will continue to grapple with in the future. The school will have weighed the pros and cons of promoting Bush and come to the conclusion that Bush’s two terms as President will have undone any use that the act of becoming President could have offered the school. Given that brand equity is key, by keeping mentions of Bush to a bare minimum, HBS is sending an implicit message to alumni, students and prospective applicants alike that it is not getting into a position of responsibility that is impressive, but rather what you do with it after getting it that counts.

And it is the right message to send. It goes to the core of the brand and appeals to the standards that are critical for generating business. And like all good businesses that appreciate the importance of brand, HBS has made the right decision.

October 10, 2006
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