By Alek Duerksen
By Alek Duerksen

Reflections on the Soul of HBS and a Response to a Trump Victory in the U.S. Election

Dear Dean Nohria,

I hope this finds you well, but expect that it does not. I’ve spent the last several weeks reflecting on my time at HBS and the role I want to play in the world. My thoughts coalesced last night and I had wanted to share with you my reflections on the election and how HBS has (or has not) fit into the debate.

Like many in the U.S., I didn’t sleep much last night. I watched the New York Times election predictor tick from 87% Hillary to >95% Trump over the course of several hours. As an HBS student and consumer of mainstream media, my personal bubble is (mostly) populated with educated professionals. On paper, my bubble is diverse; it is global, multi-ethnic, and multi-sectorial. But our collective thoughts are quite un-diverse. I’ve grown accustomed to Facebook newsfeed items highlighting the latest Trump character attack. Anecdotal conversations playfully hint at employment opportunities in Canada. Serious conversations bemoan the tone of our nation’s collective rhetoric and lament the perceived character of our chosen candidates.

But none of us have truly listened. This election has demonstrated to me, more than anything else, how out of touch I, my friends, my school, the media, and society at large are with what most Americans genuinely want and are truly concerned about. Our collective rhetoric rapidly regressed into two opposing questions: “How can you vote for a crooked, lying Washington elite?” and “How can you vote for a misogynist, egotistical bigot?” By focusing so strongly on character attacks – warranted ones, to be fair – we have spent months meticulously examining two trees and ignoring a huge forest. We have precipitated a total eclipse of the truth.

Yesterday, America lifted the veil and turned on the lights. The reality is that we are filled with tens of millions of people who feel poignantly disenfranchised and alienated. They don’t embrace the espoused direction our country is heading. They may have lost their jobs to globalization and automation. They’ve spent twenty years waiting for our alleged economic prosperity to benefit them and their families. They believe that the we cater to international interests instead of standing up for our own. They aren’t interested in open immigration and the amalgamation of new cultures. They believe that the threat of terrorism is real and that we must do something about it. In a deeply fundamental way, they do not believe that the system we have created works for them. This silent majority has spent a year clearing its throat, but yesterday it spoke at long last. It screamed. And now we must listen. Rather than lamenting our country and its values, joking about moving to Canada, and attacking those we don’t understand, we must recognize that Trump did not win because of his or his opponent’s character. He won because, for better or worse, he listened. He made the best appeal to address the worst grievances of the largest constituency of voters. We need to recognize these grievances and stop simply labeling the other side as ignorant. We can no longer lift our chins and dismiss those who don’t agree with us. We must not cower away from open discussion of the systematic economic unfairness, latent racism, social inequality, rising xenophobia, and long-standing gender prejudice in our country.

Trump is certainly a new page, probably a new chapter, and maybe even a new book. But one man, flaws and all, does not a nation make. We make it. We did yesterday and we’re going to tomorrow. But we must listen. We must stop complaining. We must fearlessly and relentlessly work to understand and repair our society. Even if many of us feel we’ve taken a step backward, we still possess the power to make America great again.

At HBS today, we aren’t listening yet. To be frank, I don’t think we will. Collectively, I believe we will attribute the result to widespread ignorance and take refuge amongst those who agree with us. We will not seek to understand. We will not seek to heal anyone beyond ourselves.

I have been astounded by the degree of selfishness that HBS breeds. We are driven to seek meaningful lives, but only as we define them for ourselves. The current of our collective priorities impels us to discuss ethics rather than service. Profit rather than societal wellness. Investors rather than employees. Prestige rather than impact. Isolated conversations may touch on alternative viewpoints, but I believe the truth is highlighted by our actions. I couldn’t count how many stories of and opportunities for fancy dinners, elaborate weeknight parties, high-flying job stories, black tie events, exposure to famous people, and extravagant international weekend trips we are privy to. I could easily count the number of meaningful service experiences I’ve had here. The answer is none. My section has a service component in the weekly email, but we have literally never pushed to do something as a group. The charity auction felt like training to be rich – a Philanthropy 101 event. My FIELD 2 “service day” in Morocco amounted to a tour of a home for handicapped persons and students complaining about how far outside the city it was. My ALD class congratulated itself for “not really caring about money” because our average “number” was only around a million dollars a year. And now with the election over, I am deafened by a resounding chorus of “isn’t it just awful how wrong all of those people are?” instead of seeking to understand them.

I have been taught that highlighting a problem is not enough; one must be part of the solution. I am in the process of reconciling my own hypocrisy and ignorance. I believe the path I have chosen will help me to make a positive impact on others’ lives, but I know I can do more. Regarding HBS as an institution, I believe we can better strive to put ourselves on the path towards becoming leaders who make a difference in the world. I do not blame the administration, but I do believe it has the ability to profoundly influence the experience of the students and to ask us the right questions. I believe events such as mandatory section-wide service days – perhaps even in lieu of a day of cases – would be a great start. Since the RCs no longer have FIELD 3, you might institute pro-bono consulting projects for local small businesses or nonprofits. The FIELD 1 curriculum could easily include discussion questions around the role of service in our lives. I’m sure others have more and better ideas than I do. But to start this process, we must listen – not just to each other, but to our world. In my mind, yesterday demonstrates that we haven’t.

I write this not as disenchanted skeptic of Harvard, but as a passionate student who is extremely proud to be at HBS and has been indelibly shaped by my experience here. I am not ashamed of this community, but I fervently believe that we can and must do more than we have. I hope that yesterday’s result triggers discussions of improvement instead of lamenting the perceived loss of virtue. More importantly, I hope it catalyzes constructive action – both as individuals, members of the HBS community, residents of the United States, and global citizens. The tools to make a difference in the world are still at hand. We remain the captains of our souls.

With sincerity and respect,

Alek Duerksen

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