A Burden To Us All

The norm of making decisions without consulting students needs to change, but only if the SA gets some teeth

I wrote several articles last term with one very common theme: complete and utter risk aversion. In fact, almost shameless cowardice. In every single piece, I totally hedged my bets-a discussion on Finance could not be had without stating that the faculty were the best in the world; political sensitivity could not be addressed before acknowledging that parts of America work very well indeed; and people’s addictive tendency to run for even the most insignificant position in the section elections was excused by the fact that, well, some people just need to do these things.

And in keeping with this self-protectionist streak, let me present the ultimate hedge: HBS is great. We have learnt a lot from the faculty and from each other, and we are well-positioned for whatever the future holds. These days, people are being transformed more frequently than Michael Jackson sitting next to a radiator (often, I have seen students drop their books and collapse to the ground as a wave of change overpowers them) and we have one of the best brands in the world working for us. We have friends and we have knowledge. HBS-the haven of learning, job hunting and enjoyment that it is-has treated us well.

Now that the garden trimming is over, let me say this. Whilst the individual people themselves may have the best of intentions, the decision making process at HBS seems to be one of the strangest, least comprehensible, and most opaque systems in Boston. I say this based on two events that have recently been brought to The Harbus‘ attention. The first is the decision to ban all student-organized events from using the Burden auditorium. The second is the equally strange decision to prevent an EC student from welcoming in the class of 2009 on the grounds that last year’s speaker advised us to “get naked” in his speech.

By looking at this week’s front page, you will notice that The Harbus has taken the somewhat unusual step of taking an official stance on a topic: it has joined with various student clubs and voiced its disapproval over the school’s decision to close the Burden Hall and Spangler Auditorium to student-run events. The new editorial team did not take this decision lightly (in fact, it was put to vote on the editorial board), but doing so was viewed as absolutely necessary. Not because HBS’s rationale was completely illogical (although arguably it is), but mostly because the SA and the other representative student bodies of HBS were simply not consulted beforehand. Instead, a rather curt email was sent out (not to everybody, mind you, just to the heads of the student clubs), politely informing recipients that Burden was now off limits, because the spaces “are not suitable for performances, concerts, social events etc” (see the front page for more detail).

This is odd. For some reason, the email the administration sent out referred to the rooms as “The Burden Hall and the Spangler Auditorium.” Yet, the daily EventCalendar emails refer to both of them as auditoriums. Perhaps this was intentional? Certainly with regards to Burden, it’s an amphitheatre; it’s amazing. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of multimedia devices and acoustic wonders. It’s like the Starship Enterprise, only better. It may originally have been designed with lectures in mind, but there is absolutely no question that it is equally capable of hosting performances and concerts. I can fully understand the need to keep food and drink out of those rooms, but isn’t that an argument for tighter enforcement of those specific rules, rather than a reason to relegate student events to other rooms on or off campus? Why tackle the simple issues of wear and tear, security, and litter by issuing a blanket ban to all student associations? It’s like trying to hammer a tiny nail into a wall with a 6 foot long plank of wood.

Strangely, the only exception to this is the HBS show, for several stated reasons: the first is that the show is a “longstanding tradition at HBS.” The other reason is that other clubs allow non-HBS students to attend. Both reasons seem bizarre: a show that has been running since 1974 is certainly a fledgling tradition, but it is not longstanding enough to mean it should be treated differently from any other club (and certainly from clubs where there were simply not enough representative students in HBS at that time). And isn’t it a bit insulting to other students to suggest that HBS doesn’t trust them? Yes, we’re leaders, and yes, we are arguably held up to a higher standard than many other student bodies. But littering and ruining a room is not the preserve of “lesser” students. We do it, others do it, and it’s intolerable by any standard. Moreover it’s most likely that the non-HBS students that break into Burden are going to be from Sloan or other Harvard Schools, who don’t really appear to be a particularly grubby or untrustworthy bunch.

The second decision is also pretty extra-ordinary. Perhaps of less consequence to our year group, but similarly peculiar in its logic: there will be no EC student to welcome in the class of 2009 next year. In speaking to several people connected to this issue, reasons for this decision remain unclear: they range from a worry over the lack of control over content to a change in the structure of orientation next year. Another possibility that was given to some members of the HBS Student Senate was that the administration did not have the “opportunity to review the final version” of the speech that was given last year.

Why did this happen? It really can’t be that the orientation structure is changing (although that may be the reason they gave): for many, that speech is one of the most powerful memories of the first week at HBS and it would be unquestionably stupid to cancel it. And surely the administration would in fact have reviewed the final version thoroughly (from what I have heard the process was fairly stringent)? Nevertheless, it’s probably safe to assume there was something there that the HBS administration didn’t like: in which case, what was it that caused the trouble? In speaking to members of the SA, consensus suggests that the only thing it could have been was Sharmil Modi’s reference to “nakedness” in his speech.

Now, I don’t know Sharmil, but if he has a predilection for roaming about naked, so what? And if he wants to tell everybody about it, more power to him. The truth is his speech last year was pretty good-it was great to get to hear an honest opinion right from day one.

Moreover, the naked reference was not really the point of the speech. It was a metaphor. Both the students and the faculty know this. So, why has this been banned? The only reason I can think of is that there is an overtly puritanical minority at HBS that was offended or worried that listeners might get the wrong idea. I don’t know if these were students that complained, or in fact members of the faculty. Whoever it was, a big question hangs in the air: why is HBS listening to the opinion of these people? They are not the majority, and their sensitive nature is not something that others should have to accommodate: it’s unfounded and far too restrictive. By pandering to this self-righteous lowest common denominator and ensuring that opinions and speeches can only be given if they are straight down the line and completely unobjectionable, HBS will ensure a level of blandness and elocutionary monotony only perhaps rivaled at a wall-paper salesmen convention. Furthermore, by letting a student speak at the opening ceremony, HBS set a fantastic tone right from day one: “students are allowed to voice an opinion here, and the faculty respects them for it.” This will no longer be the case and it will stymie much of the aspiration that students developed upon leaving the room last year. And the class of 2009 will be worse off for it.

(And a quick aside to any people that were offended by last year’s speech. Clearly, ration
al argument doesn’t really work on you. Therefore, I will say this: Naked. Naked. Naked Naked Naked Naked Naked. NAKED).

What is infuriating about all of this is that these decisions have been made and passed seemingly with no prior input from the Student Association. But in a way, who can blame the HBS powers that be? Unfortunately, our Student Association is nothing but a sideshow. It achieves very little indeed: it lost grade disclosure, the parties are nearly always agonizingly rubbish, and I’ve yet to see a TGIF taking place for three Friday’s in a row. SA, please, please, make yourself useful. If you do, both students and faculty will take you seriously. In all honesty, maybe the reason the SA and its numerous committees was not consulted on any of these topics was because the faculty had perhaps forgotten that the SA even existed? If the SA had been approached, they could have pointed out the demerits of each idea beforehand.

Unfortunately, the only body that can fight battles such as these is the Student Association. The elections have happened recently, and no doubt the officers will be full of fabulous plans. I have heard that the new officers have even approached faculty to try and sort some of these issues out. I have no idea what tactics they could gainfully employ, but it almost doesn’t matter, it’s great that they are doing something: by simply having a dialogue (with decent two-way conversation) the SA can begin to ensure that the administration consults students before making decisions. For the new SA management, the message should be clear: less focus on sub-standard parties and more focus on relevant issues that people care about would go a long way to ensuring that the student body will take student empowerment a bit more seriously. And if that happens, then the faculty will too. And only then, will HBS students be shielded from the outlandish decisions that have recently been made. That is the naked truth.