What kind of year was 2008 and what does it tell us about the world we currently live in? Along with 9/11, 2008 will be remembered as the year that defined this decade. Hence, understanding the events, and more importantly, the themes that have shaped this year for the Harvard Business School community can be both instructional and illuminating activity.
When you look back at the 13 issues the Harbus has published since September, four main themes emerge:
– The blessings and burdens of the HBS Image highlighted by Philip Delves Broughton’s Ahead of the Curve and the Japan Trek Fiasco;
– The Financial Crisis, which is essentially the first real challenge to the prevailing capitalist world order in a quarter century;
– The inspirational ascension of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States;
– And the unprecedented yearlong HBS Centennial celebration that culminated in the three-day Business Summit last October.
There are many things we can learn from the year that was. One of these is that with great admiration comes great expectation.
When Professor John Deighton led the case discussion of “HBS in 2008” for my section last April, he stated in no uncertain terms, “We’ve (HBS) never been stronger. We don’t really have any competition. We can get anyone (faculty) we want.”
The latest MBA benchmarking data corroborate Professor Deighton’s points completely. The two most prestigious MBA rankings put HBS #1 (US News and World Report) and #2 (BusinessWeek). The yield (percentage of students who are offered admissions and accept) of the 2010 class is the highest of any graduate school in history: 91%. The HBS endowment stands at a staggering $2.8-billion and routinely outperforms the S&P 500. In fact, one insight that came out of the discussion of the Centennial case was that HBS could offer the MBA program for free to all its students if it wanted to.
And yet, what greeted both ECs and RCs when they returned to campus after summer was the media frenzy surrounding Ahead of the Curve and how the HBS alumni who wrote the book characterized the school as “the Caldron of Capitalism” that was nothing more than “a factory of unhappy people.” While some admitted that there was a measure of truth to what Delves Broughton wrote, most students were flabbergasted by the conclusions the book made and the HBS biases it perpetuated.
Then, the Harbus published the a series of stories on the Japan Trek Fiasco and just like that, the focus of the HBS community moved from the actions of a former student to a current one and the implications these had on future graduates. The whole affair disillusion many and even made some like Adam Ireland question the system of Community Values that governed the school. Had the system ceased to function effectively?
That was a question people around the globe increasingly asked as another system- the one that governed the finance world- came perilously close to collapse in the weeks succeeding the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September. It seems that having been drunk with debt, the de-levering process taking place was the worst hangover the capital market had experienced since the Depression.
HBS marshaled its considerable assets to shed light on and increase understanding of the contagion afflicting credit markets through Turmoil on the Street: Fathoming the Financial Crisis. And yet, if there is one main takeaway from all the analysis and discussion, it’s that no one really knows what’s going on and if we’ve even reached the bottom yet. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the whole situation and it’s forced some students to defer dreams and face the consequences of diminishing job opportunities and shrinking personal wealth. As Das Narayandas jokingly tells my Entrepreneurial Finance class, “With the value of my portfolio nowadays, I may end up teaching for the rest of my life.” Considering how amazing Das is in the classroom, though, that may not entirely be a bad thing.
In his holiday message last year, MBA Program chair Joe Badaracco memorably referred to the Harvard Business School as “the WestPoint of capitalism.” Undoubtedly, no other modern-day institution has influenced free marketing thinking as much as HBS. It was thus only fitting that to host the Business Summit that culminated the Centennial Year, a cathedral to capitalism was erected on the lawns of Baker Library. It is as if God spoke to Dean Jay Light and told him to build a Noah’s Ark for capitalism and free market ideologies- something HBS has ardently promoted throughout its existence- against the inevitable tidal wave of condemnation that was to follow. But instead of filling the ark with all sorts of animals, it was business people and academics who where the chosen ones for salvation. Unfortunately, not everyone who wanted to attend saw the inside of the pavilion. In her published letter to the Centennial Committee and the Harbus, Lisa Kostova questioned the unreasonable price students were asked to pay in order to join the Business Summit. Apparently, while admission into HBS necessitated a 700+ GMAT, getting into the Business Summit required that number in dollars.
In his keynote speech tackling globalization during the Summit, Professor Niall Ferguson borrowed from Nassim Nicholas Taleb and described the prevailing financial crisis as a Black Swan event- an assumed impossibility that has come to become reality. The ascendance of Barack Obama- a lock for Time’s Person of the Year- to president of the US and leader of the free world can be described in similar terms.
From the accounts of HBS African-Americans Lauryn Hale, Ai-Ling Malone, Jonathan Wilkins, Brandon Jones, Lena Sene and Damien Hooper-Campbell in Harbus November 17 issue, no one thought that this event would ever happen in their lifetime. Yet, against the two most powerful political machines in American politics- the Clintons and the Conservative Right- Barack Obama went on to be the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win more than 50% of the popular vote and in the process redrew the map of American Red States and Blue States.
What surprised me most about the Barack Obama phenomenon is that even in HBS, which is traditionally, a very fiscally conservative place, he enjoyed an 80% level of support from students based on the Harbus Election Special poll in October. This proves that inspiringly audacious leadership can transcend strongly held fiscal and social ideologies.
That brings us to the most significant learning from 2008: Everything around our HBS bubble is changing faster and more dramatic that it ever has in any other point in time. The world we eventually reenter may be radically different from the one we left 18 months ago.
Casino capitalism is dead along with the insatiable consumption it fueled. An African-American has finally broken one of the oldest glass ceilings in existence to lead an America into what Fareed Zakaria calls the Post-American World. In the short term, the new world order will be managed by China and the US: with the US buying Chinese t-shirts and China accumulating US t-bills. In some ways, Lawrence Yu and a couple of ECs have already come to see this emerging interdependence- a contemporary Yin & Yang- during the Beijing Olympics. The United States won the most number of medals. But, it was China who took home the most golds. It’s a fitting metaphor for how the world works nowadays. The US is still the sole economic, military and cultural superpower on the globe. But it’s China who has the gold with $2.6-billion in reserves.
So much change so soon makes a lot of people uncomfortable, myself included. The world as we know it is in flux and some may say that this is a bad time to be leaving the safe confines of HBS. However, the worst of times often bring out the best in people. Balancing the demands of class the challenging job search, ECs Manu Diwakar, Drew Thomas, Kyle Sable, Eric Hart have still been able to contribute their considerable talents in explaining the current economic chaos through their Economic Policy Review blog. An HBS Alum, Gayle Tzemach courageously chose to go to Afghanistan to champion the efforts of Afghan women in rebuilding after the war, while back home in HBS, RC students who didn’t even participate in the Japan Trek voluntarily wrote letters of apology to Toyota for what occurred last summer.
If I had a choice, I would have wanted the Harbus to end 2008 on a positive note. That hope was unfortunately overtaken by events with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the date-rape drug incident at the Roxy, which are both front cover stories in this yearend issue. These two events are stern reminders that dangers continue to exist within and beyond the confines of the HBS experience.
In all this, I’ve learned that you simply cannot dictate the circumstances surrounding how your year ends. But one thing you do have control over though is the choice of people around you at that moment.
In this respect, being part of a community as generous, dynamic and purpose-driven as the Harvard Business School, and working with the dedicated editors, writers and staff of the Harbus have undeniably been the highlights of 2008 for me.
When I first set foot on the grounds of Harvard Business School in late August last year, I found the campus a very alien place filled with strangers and intimidating professors. Nowadays, whenever I walk from my dorm room in Gallatin to classes in Aldrich or Hawes, I’m surrounded not only by a beautiful campus but beloved friends and mentors who have come to mean so much more to me over the past year.I eagerly look forward to starting 2009 with these same amazing people by my side.