BY CLINTON DICK
Nick Will, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business School’s weekly newspaper The Harbus, resigned November 6 after an HBS administration official verbally warned him that a cartoon in the newspaper’s October 28 edition was both inappropriate and disrespectful. The ensuing controversy attracted national attention, and has raised serious concerns among students about the HBS administration’s commitment to freedom of the press and academic freedom.
The cartoon was meant to parody problems with the “HBS Career Link” system, a system similar to the Law School’s own OCS web site. The cartoon, by HBS student Matt Stovcsik, showed a computer logged on to “HBS CareerDink” with numerous pop-up announcements all over the screen, including one that read: “incompetent morons.” Those two words upset several individuals in the HBS administration, including Career Services Director Matt Merrick, who felt that the statement was directed at him.
According to Will’s resignation letter, Steve Nelson, MBA Program Director, called him into his office on November 4 after receiving complaints from Merrick. The Harvard Crimson reported Monday that the November 4 meeting was called after HBS Dean Kim Clark, Senior Associate Dean Walter Kester, Merrick and Nelson met to discuss the issue.
“Steve Nelson on behalf of himself and both Deans [Kester and Clark],” Will wrote, “issued me a ‘verbal warning,’ what he said was the first ‘localized’ step in the HBS Community Standards sanctioning process.”
“[Nelson] warned me,” Will continued in his letter, “that I would be held personally accountable as a student for all content in The Harbus and could be called in for further action in the future… should he or someone else in the administration disagree with my editorial judgment.”
Will also alleged that Nelson urged him to burnish Career Services’ image with coverage in future issues.
The HBS Community Standards provide that an environment that encourages “mutual respect, free expression and inquiry, and a commitment to truth and lifelong learning” is essential in developing “outstanding business leaders who contribute to the well-being of society.”
Jim Aisner, Director of Media Relations for HBS, said he is not convinced that Nelson was pushing Will to only report good things about Career Services.
Aisner maintains that MBA Program Director Nelson was only pointing out to Will that broader coverage of Career Services may have been warranted: “What I think Steve was trying to say was that there are a lot of things going on in Career Services and hopefully the newspaper would focus on more across-the-board coverage.”
As for the verbal reprimand, Aisner says, “We all live in a community and as part of a community we all should have respect for one another. The feeling was that this cartoon, if it was directed at members of HBS, did not show proper respect.”
Aisner also stressed that while HBS faculty and administrators are supporters of free speech, members of the newspaper staff are still bound to respect University standards. “These reporters are students and there are guidelines that they need to abide by and one of those is the issue of respect,” he said.
Nelson echoed similar feelings in a statement to The Harbus: “Each student at HBS, regardless of his or her other commitments or responsibilities, remains a student, and as such is bound by the Community Standards that define who we are.” Nelson went on to say that he was disappointed Will had decided to step down as editor. However, he failed to clarify how The Harbus cartoon violated the Community Standards in question.
Will’s letter also raised concerns about the Business School’s use of the Community Standards process, questioning why administration officials contacted him directly with their problems instead of going through The Harbus News Corporation Board of Directors and Chairperson.
“The important element,” Will wrote, “is that the HBS administration relate to The Harbus as a mature institution, not through personal intimidation and threats to those who participate in The Harbus.”
Jen Taylor, an HBS student and representative to the Community Standards Board, said she agrees that standard procedures were not followed.
“It caught the community standard representatives by surprise,” Taylor admits. “There is an established process in place to address these issues, and this incident went outside the normal standard. There are officials in the administration whose job it is to review community standard procedures, and my understanding is that such individuals were not even alerted that this was going on.”
Taylor added that the board had little guidance as to how the cartoon might have constituted a Community Standards violation. “The problem is that there is very little case law that can guide us in determining what constitutes standard violations,” she said. In the past, Taylor says that community standard violations included physical threats made to other students or plagiarism.
In a statement reported in the Boston Globe, Kester made it clear that students must learn to respect others, both while they are at the Business School and when they enter the work force: “Our students are going to be leading organizations and people someday, and they need to learn from time to time about how their words and actions might influence others.”
In his statements to The Harvard Crimson, Kester claimed that had the cartoon mocked only the computer system, rather than Career Services employees, no action would have been taken. “We concluded that the phrase ‘incompetent morons’ was deeply hurtful and demoralizing for the career services staff,” he said.
Kester characterized the meeting with Will as a “casual conversation” rather than a formative step in a longer disciplinary process, and argued that the Administration was not trying to chill freedom of speech. “We all agreed to say nothing that could be construed as intervening with the content of the paper, or the content of articles regarding Career Services…. We wanted to narrowly focus our message on the impact of those two words.”
Speaking to The RECORD, Will made it clear that as editor, he made a judgment call that the phrase “incompetent morons” did not violate Community Standards.
“I would not have allowed the two words if they would have made reference to a particular entity,” he said. “I had agreed that I would abide by all legal and community standard guidelines. The cartoon had a disembodied phrase that did not make reference to any particular entity and I made a ‘community standard’ judgment that it did not violate those rules.”
Will went on to say that even if the cartoon had violated Community Standards, it still would have withstood a First Amendment claim. When asked why he thought the administration focused on the two words, Will said, “I think over the past year I have and others have worked hard to create a paper that is truly a platform for the exchange of free ideas. And in that has been a fair amount of criticism and a fair amount of progressive content. I do not know why they seized on this and why they circumvented normal community standards procedures. It is baffling why the three most senior officials in HBS convened a meeting to focus on those two words.”
Will said he hopes the new editor can collaborate with the administration to devise a better way to handle similar situations in the future, including formal procedures whereby the administration can register its complaints. “The administr
ation needs to respect the independent governing body of the Harbus News Corporation,” Will said.
On Friday, HBS Dean Clark sent a letter to the HBS community expressing regret that Will had decided to resign. He reinforced the school’s commitment to principles of free expression, but also maintained that students have other duties they must also perform.
“[E]ach of us first and foremost is a member of the Harvard Business School community,” Clark wrote, “and as such, we are expected to treat each other respectfully. Referring to members of our community as ‘incompetent morons’ does not fall within the realm of respectful discourse.”
According to Tuesday’s edition of The Harbus, Derek Mendez, the current sports editor, will take over the paper as acting editor-in-chief.
A Wednesday editorial in the Boston Globe blasted the HBS administration for not respecting the right of student newspapers to criticize faculty and staff: “If some HBS-educated corporate director had aimed that charge at the right executive of Enron or Global Crossing at the right time, many thousand [sic] workers and shareholders might be better off today.” The editorial contended that administrators should have responded to the cartoon through the open forum of the newspaper.
In response to the uproar, HBS’ Clark invited students to attend an open forum on November 25 to discuss student issues and criticisms.
The Harbus was incorporated in 1980 as a not-for-profit business. It has its own board of directors and charter, and it operates rent-free in the space it occupies on campus.