Speak Your Mind: Why Free Speech is Critical at Business School, and Why HBS (Finally) Gets It

HBS Learning Hub Cartoon by Dina Wang

HBS Learning Hub Cartoon by Dina Wang, printed October 11, 2011

The cartoon on the top, published a few weeks ago in The Harbus regarding the Learning Hub, entertained readers who could relate to the problems depicted.  The cartoon below, published nine years ago regarding Career Link (a precursor to Career Hub), led to the resignation of then Harbus Editor-in-Chief Nick Will, and has received substantial coverage in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, The Crimson, the Associated Press newswire, and dozens of other papers throughout the country.

Career Hub Cartoon from 2002

Originally printed October 28 2002

What is the difference between the two comics?  In my mind, nothing but timing.  Nine years ago, Will was confronted by school officials who were displeased with the nature of the cartoon, specifically the phrase “Incompetent Morons,” which they assumed to be directed at members of the staff.  Students involved insisted that the phrase was aimed at the software program, and was intended to reflect how the students felt while using the system.

Will was told that he would be held personally responsible for all editorial decisions of the paper, and to steer clear of ‘questionable’ content.  This was a demand which most journalists would agree imposed an insurmountable obstacle to the newspaper’s mission of providing an unencumbered voice for its writers and readers.  In response, Will resigned.

News of Will’s resignation quickly reached the press.  The Boston Globe responded with an editorial which decried the response of the HBS administration, declaring, “The [HBS] administration is oversensitive and should reconsider its position… Part of the business school’s mission is to create an environment of trust and mutual respect while protecting free expression and inquiry.”  The Globe implicitly posed the following question: in a world racked with corporate scandals such as Enron and Global Cross, was censorship the behavior HBS was trying to encourage in their students?

The Crimson further described, “It is ludicrous that the Business School administration complained about two words in the bottom left corner of a cartoon mocking a computer program. It is dismaying that these administrators took this as an excuse to use a broad campus speech code to threaten the editorial freedom of an independent newspaper.”

Freedom of speech is critical, and especially so in a business school.  The openness to giving and receiving feedback, the ability to ask why five times, and the freedom to question what a senior leader of an organization demands—these are the characteristics of a psychologically safe institution.  This type of organization is one we are taught to emulate and create ourselves.  If we cannot even practice doing so at HBS, then where?

I recently spoke to Will about the incident, and it was clear how passionate he felt about both HBS as well as The Harbus.  When asked about his decision to resign, Will said, “Aside from fighting or resigning, my other choice would have been to compromise the integrity of The Harbus, and I refused to do that… Had I engaged in a battle, it would have come with potentially greater personal and institutional cost, with potentially much higher exposure, and with protraction that was in nobody’s interest.”

Will was faced with an untenable situation, and rather than sacrifice his own integrity, as well as that of The Harbus, a seventy-five year old institution at HBS, he chose to resign.  In my personal opinion he made the right choice under the circumstances, but it was never a choice he should have been forced to make.

So what’s changed in the last nine years?  Apparently, everything.  Not once this year has the HBS administration displayed concern about what has been published in the paper.  If anything, various faculty members have provided incredible encouragement.  To me, this is a sign that HBS is finally practicing what it preaches.  With the new curriculum, as well as continued focus on openness in the section environment, HBS has taken further strides to ensure that students feel ownership of their learning, as well as the ability to question everything.

And if anyone disagrees with me, I hope that the response will be in a letter to the editor.

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One thought on “Speak Your Mind: Why Free Speech is Critical at Business School, and Why HBS (Finally) Gets It

  1. Paul Shafer

    I had the pleasure of connecting with Nick Will shortly before he left Harbus. He indicated interest in the concept of an article that became what is now available at this url: http://www.harbus.org/2006/Alumni-Perspective-3778/

    I like to think that HBS administration will try to care a little more about your class than they did about mine. It’s difficult not to conclude that the costs of an MBA are immediate and tangible while the benefits are extremely situational. And while the Placement Office may help in some instances, if my experience is prolog, no one can rely on them to ensure even a fair shake much less anything more.

    Good luck to all of you. I am afraid that despite your talent, you will need it.

    Reply