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Given the high-profile imbroglio over the departure of former Fletcher University Professor Cornel West ’74 last year, one would think Harvard would take more caution when dealing with important matters in private meetings. Not so. The latest fiasco comes from the Harvard Business School (HBS), where Nick A. Will, the editor-in-chief of the school’s weekly newspaper, the Harbus, resigned after a meeting with Steven R. Nelson, executive director of the school’s MBA Program.
The issue at hand was an Oct. 28 editorial cartoon satirizing HBS’ bug-ridden “Career Link” software that contained a jibe at unnamed “incompetent morons.” Will claims in his letter of resignation that Nelson told him the cartoon went against the Business School’s Community Standards requirement that each member of the school have “respect for the rights, differences and dignity of others.” Will’s letter says that Nelson also told him that he might be subject to further action—action that might appear on his student record—“should [Nelson] or someone else in the administration disagree with [Will’s] editorial judgment.” Unfortunately, because Nelson has refused to comment on the meeting, what else transpired is unclear.
Though the administration claims that the meeting with Will was merely to be a “casual conversation,” that the editor felt threatened enough to resign speaks volumes. No matter how offensive the cartoon might have been, the Business School has absolutely no right to intimidate Will when it is upset with Harbus’ content; the paper is an independent entity with no financial ties to the school. For the HBS administration to threaten Will for actions he took in a role entirely separate from his position as a student sets a dangerous precedent for infringing upon students’ freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Though it is irrelevant to the issue at hand, it is surprising that the cartoon was “deeply hurtful and demoralizing for the career services staff,” in the words of HBS Senior Associate Dean Walter C. Kester. One would expect the administrators of a program for students to be slightly more thick-skinned, especially as it remains unclear whether the barb was aimed at the Business School’s Career Services Office or those who wrote its software. In any case, the correct response to such an attack is to write a letter to the editor.
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.
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