Harvard Business School Students: Ben Edelman Is Not Us

Tuesday’s news that a Harvard Business School professor spent the better part of a few days berating a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant over $4 didn’t sit well with current HBS students.

And instead of defending Edelman’s actions, they’re trying to make sure the actions of one professor don’t cement the public’s perception of the institution as a whole.

We wrote Tuesday about Edelman’s lengthy email exchange with Ran Duan, who, in addition to managing a hugely successful bar inside one location of his parents’ restaurant Sichuan Garden, also handles customer relations for the operation. After first asking for a refund, Edelman engaged Duan in an email argument on business practices and Massachusetts law. (Read more about Edelman’s battle with Sichuan Garden here.)

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Edelman has since apologized.

First-year HBS MBA students Amanda Grobler and Jon Staff, in response, launched a campaign to ask members of the public to donate $4–the amount Edelman claimed to have been overcharged – to the Greater Boston Food Bank. As of Thursday afternoon, the students had raised more than $5,000.

“Clearly HBS hasn’t had the greatest reputation. There’s this idea that people here care only about themselves and their own advancement. We know that perception exists, and even before yesterday we all spent a lot of time defending HBS,’’ Staff told Boston.com Tuesday.

Grobler, Staff, and several other first-year MBAs met with Boston.com Wednesday night to discuss their reaction to the interaction between Edelman and Duan.

The students said that shortly after the article was published, friends from across the country and the world shared it with them on Facebook and other social media platforms.

“It hurts, because it’s a misrepresentation of what we’re experiencing here,’’ said Hendrik Isebaert, who prior to coming to HBS worked for consultancies Procter & Gamble and Bain & Company.

There are two issues of perception that the students said they have felt since Edelman’s story gained widespread attention. The first is the perception of Harvard itself. Given that the institution, fairly or not, has a reputation for elitism, Edelman’s overly litigious reaction to a small overcharge appeared to many to be out of touch. The second is the perception with business school in general, and the idea that students are taught to value dollars and cents above all else.

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But, the students said, this has not been their reality.

Grobler, for instance, said she had previously heard stories about Harvard while working in finance in South Africa that struck her as “intimidating.’’ But she said she has found the environment “really welcoming and supportive.’’ She pointed to the money raised from the fundraiser to this point as indicative of a student body that looks outward. “I’m really hopeful of the things we can achieve,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, Kevin Holub, who has worked in venture capital and the startup space, said the idea that business school is bottom line oriented is “outdated.’’

“We care deeply about being leaders that care about the people around us,’’ he said.

Isebaert said he has had a professor who told his class: “When I was at HBS, it was about dollars,’’ saying things have changed, with the concepts of inquiry and understanding context at the center of much of their first-year coursework. Amit Shah, a former employee of investment firm BlackRock before heading to HBS, added: “In general, (business school) curriculum has evolved.’’

Asked if there were any business lessons they could take away from the Edelman-Duan spat, the students focused on the fundraiser.

“There may be an opportunity to do some good’’ from a negative situation,’’ Staff said.

“We can turn this event into a great opportunity,’’ Isebaert added.

Beyond that, Holub said, there’s one lesson that is driven home just about whenever embarrassing private communications go public: Assume that they will.

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“If you wouldn’t want it to be on the front page of The New York Times…’’ he said.

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