Business Summit: Students Not Welcome?

Student Letter
October 20, 2008

A letter to the HBS Administration:

As a second-year MBA student, I am a deep believer in the values that the Harvard Business School embodies. One of these values is the notion that all MBA students are awarded the same opportunities and are treated in the same way by the school, irrespective of their background or financial means. I am writing to you because of a recent incident which caused me to question how this set of values is being applied. This incident concerns the price at which tickets were offered to MBA students.

The Harvard Global Business Summit was a very important occasion for HBS in that it brought together some of the world’s preeminent leaders and thinkers under the banner of the HBS community. It was also an occasion for which the school spared no expense. Elaborate candlesticks were hung along paths, workers were shining the street lamps and expensive vases appeared on the Spangler mantelpieces. Yet in the midst of this spending spree, the Harvard Business School told its students that they would have the opportunity to buy “discounted” tickets. The price tag? A “mere” $750.

While this figure may appear nominal to the administration, especially when compared to the total event budget, it conveyed a completely different message to the students. The message we heard was that while the school had enough money to spare to pay for the erection of a whole new building and for an endless list of extravagant bells and whistles, it did not wish to spend anything to make the event truly affordable and available to its students. I question the decision to price the student tickets at $750 in a time when a lot of us were seeing our savings melting and were worried about the financial wellbeing of our families and our future. Why was the price set so high that MBA students were being divided into the “haves” and “have nots” at a very difficult time for the community? To be clear, I have no issue with the decisions surrounding how many spots to make available to MBA students. Rather, my concern is that an unintended but obvious consequence of the price point was that a lot of students felt they could not participate in the lottery because they could not afford the price.

The contrast between the school lavishly spending money on decorations and the students who felt left out because they couldn’t write a $750 check on a whim, was made even clearer in the days leading up to and immediately after the event. Those of us living on campus, like myself, bore the brunt of the inconveniences of life on a construction site – the noise, the obstructions and the inability to park and unload our grocery bags in front of our homes. At the same time, there was the feeling that we were not welcome or wanted at an event that was happening literally in our back yard. I have to ask – would it not have been simpler to make this a true “lottery” by having fewer tickets available to students at truly reasonable prices, say $100? Would it have hurt the event if we deprived our guests of a few candlesticks in front of Spangler? Or would it have been the right thing to do for a school that espouses equal opportunity for its students and wants to develop true leaders who have the chance to listen and learn from the likes of Jeff Immelt, Meg Whitman, John Dorr and other leaders at the summit?

I would really appreciate an answer to this pressing question as it has cast a doubt in my mind over the extent that the school has truly divorced itself from a notion of privilege and elitism and embraced the idea of equal opportunity.

Lisa Kostova, MBA Class of 2009

PS. A copy of this letter has been sent to the Harbus for publication.

Administration responds

October 21, 2008

Ms. Lisa Kostova
MBA class 2009

Dear Lisa:

In your letter concerning the Centennial Global Business Summit, you raise an important perspective and a legitimate set of concerns. But you do so without an understanding of the full context of the Summit -ÿhow it was conceived, the School’s objectives in holding it, and the trade-offs we faced in developing the program for it. In addressing your concerns, therefore, I think it important first to provide some background.

For more than a decade, the School has worked with alumni clubs around the world in holding an annual conference called the Global Leadership Forum (GLF). These events bring together typically 500-800 alumni with HBS faculty for 2-3 days of panel discussions, keynotes, and breakout sessions, as well as networking opportunities. In 2005-2006, as planning for HBS’s centennial began, we made an early decision to hold the 2008 GLF here in Boston. While we initially contemplated using a downtown convention center, it quickly became clear – based on feedback from our Alumni Board, Visiting Committee, Board of Dean’s Advisors, and other friends of the School – that an important component of the event for alumni would be coming back to campus and re-creating the classroom experience.

Our next decision was timing. We took into consideration factors such as faculty and alumni availability, the World Series, the presidential election, weather, and the MBA/Doctoral/Executive Education schedules to find a date that seemed optimal in terms of maximizing attendance and minimizing disruption to the campus. Columbus Day weekend, already a holiday, was extended into a four-day weekend for MBA students so that we’d have access to the classrooms in Aldrich and Hawes.

After that, we tackled size. We believed alumni interest for this event would be far higher than for recent GLFs, given both the content and the location. Constraining capacity to the 900 who would fit in Burden Auditorium didn’t seem appropriate, particularly in light of the impact we hoped to achieve. Making the event large enough to accommodate a greater percentage of our alumni (or students) simply wasn’t feasible, given the limited number of classrooms on campus. We settled on 2,000 and began exploring a temporary structure – the tent we referred to as “the pavilion” -ÿon the Baker | Bloomberg lawn that would enable all attendees to convene for plenary sessions, regardless of weather conditions.

For better or worse, it’s important to be clear that the Summit was not conceived as an MBA student event (or, for that matter, one that would be broadly available to our 100+ doctoral students, the executive education participants on campus at the time, or our more than 1,000 staff). Instead, the Summit was conceived as one component of a year-long set of activities that would engage staff, faculty, students, alumni, and other friends of the School, primarily around ideas and the work of the faculty. This led to a series of research-oriented colloquia – roughly a dozen in total -ÿwere planned, primarily targeted toward our faculty. We also had a remarkable day-long celebration, including a case and class session on the School and the challenges it will face in the future, on April 8th, the anniversary of the School’s founding, for all students, staff, and faculty. I hope you were able to participate in the events of that day. The Summit was planned to be the capstone event for our alumni.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see we shouldn’t have been surprised at MBA student interest in the Summit as the program and speakers took shape. And in fact, the SA co-presidents raised the issue of MBA student participation almost as soon as they were elected. Many of us thought carefully about how best to accommodate the students who wished to attend in the face of a growing waiting list of alumni – well over 250 by early September. We designated 100 spots to MBA and doctoral students to be allocated through a lottery and chose $750 as a generous half-price discount off the amount we were asking alumni to pay.

We also thought carefully about how we would share the ideas and content we anticipated would emerge from the various sessions with a broader audience. We planned early on to enable webcasting of all the plenaries on-campus into Burden Auditorium during the actual event for students and staff who wished to see the sessions live. Additionally, we videotaped all but a very small handful of the classroom sessions (excluding only those where faculty or panelists didn’t give permission) with a goal of having the content available online within a week or two of the event – again, for interested students and staff, and also for the 68,000 alumni who weren’t able to attend the Summit. I’m pleased to say that all the plenaries already are on the HBS centennial website.

Thus from our perspective, we provided MBA students with three options: attend at a cost, watch the plenary sessions live for free, or watch all the sessions at a later, convenient date. We believed we would accommodate everyone’s interests in this way.

I must respectfully disagree with your characterization of the School’s approach to the Summit as a spending spree. Participant fees covered many of the expenses of the event and the School made up the deficit; as for all the centennial activities, the budget was carefully scrutinized and managed. The campus decorationsÿwere in fact minimal (and the pavilion was downright spartan), and it is a testament to our planning, operations, and catering staff that they were able to make the campus a special and welcoming environment for the sessions that unfolded. Indeed, we tried to be especially sensitive to the overall setting given the economic crisis unfolding.

I truly am sorry you were inconvenienced by preparations for the Summit, including the construction of the pavilion; no one wishes their daily life disrupted. We did try to schedule work at a time to minimize any disturbance.

Finally, as someone who’s been a student, alumnus, and faculty member at Harvard Business School, I hope and trust when you are an alum you’ll have an opportunity to participate in some of the School’s alumni activities, and will appreciate the remarkable opportunities they provide.

F. Warren McFarlan
Baker Foundation Professer