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Ex-HBS Professor Sues Harvard for Allegedly Mishandling Tenure Review After Chinese Restaurant Email Spat

Former Harvard Business School professor Benjamin G. Edelman '02 filed a lawsuit against Harvard on Tuesday for allegedly mishandling his tenure consideration process.
Former Harvard Business School professor Benjamin G. Edelman '02 filed a lawsuit against Harvard on Tuesday for allegedly mishandling his tenure consideration process. By Christopher Hidalgo
By Elias J. Schisgall and Sophia C. Scott, Crimson Staff Writers

In 2014, after former Harvard Business School associate professor Benjamin G. “Ben” Edelman ’02 ordered takeout food from the Sichuan Garden — a Chinese restaurant in Brookline — he discovered a $4 overcharge.

Edelman then emailed the restaurant demanding a refund and threatening legal action, sparking an ugly back-and-forth that made headlines nationwide.

In a civil lawsuit against Harvard filed Tuesday in the Suffolk County Superior Court, Edelman alleges that the 2014 email correspondence — for which he later apologized at the Business School’s request — resurfaced when he was being evaluated for tenure, among other concerns of misconduct.

The complaint also alleges that internal HBS inquiries into Edelman’s behavior “unlawfully and brazenly” flouted the school’s policies. The inquiries culminated in a report that Edelman claims led to his tenure denial.

In an interview, Edelman — now a chief economist at Microsoft — said the inquiries reached an “incorrect conclusion” about his character with “serious consequences” for his tenure consideration.

“The core of it is that the school raised these charges against me that were pretextual — they weren’t what anyone was really concerned about,” Edelman said. “They managed to create this narrative that this guy is a bad guy. He’s someone we can’t have around. He’s always causing problems for us.”

In the complaint, Edelman asked the court to award him damages and order the school to review his application for tenure once again. In the interview, he said he was qualified, a “good fit” for tenure, and would accept a tenured position if the school gave him an offer.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on Edelman’s complaint.

According to the lawsuit, HBS convened a Faculty Review Board in 2015 to investigate concerns about his personal conduct, including the Sichuan Garden incident, during his tenure evaluation.

The investigation — which concluded that Edelman had failed to uphold the Business School’s statement of “Community Values” — led the committee reviewing Edelman’s tenure to recommend his associate professorship be extended for two years, thereby delaying his tenure case. During that time period, Edelman was asked to take several actions to demonstrate his growth from the 2014 incidents, including teaching a business ethics course, per the complaint.

In 2017, the suit alleges, HBS reconvened the FRB to examine Edelman’s behavior further, despite Edelman addressing concerns raised in the 2015 investigation. According to the complaint, the 2017 FRB report violated HBS policies by presenting a list of 12 “conclusory derogatory comments” that served as “effectively a string of personal attacks” against Edelman without evidence or context.

A 2015 document outlining HBS policies for faculty misconduct investigations requires that FRB reports include the “evidence gathered” in its investigation, a conclusion on whether misconduct occurred, and an analysis of the severity of the offense, according to the complaint.

The filing alleges the FRB failed to meet these requirements.

“Neither Plaintiff nor the members of the Appointments Committee ever received the evidence that the FRB gathered. Indeed, the FRB provided no notes, recordings, or ‘interview transcripts,’” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, the FRB relied on decontextualized anonymous criticisms to reach its conclusions.”

In the interview, Edelman said the comments in the FRB report were “devoid of context.”

“It doesn’t say who said it; you can’t tell if it’s one person or 12 different people or something in between; it doesn’t tell you what they were talking about,” Edelman said. “They’re not direct verbatim quotes. They’re just some paraphrases of something that someone maybe said.”

The lawsuit also alleges that one member of the FRB investigating Edelman’s conduct and one staff member who did supportive work for the board had “incurable” conflicts of interests with Edelman.

One of Edelman’s attorneys, Ruth K. O’Meara-Costello ’02 — who also is representing embattled Harvard professor John L. Comaroff — said she believed those two individuals, referenced in the complaint as S1 and S2, are still employed at HBS and are “fairly high-level administrators.” She declined to comment on their identities.

Edelman’s legal team also includes David A. Russcol and Harvey A. Silverglate. Silverglate is also running a write-in campaign for the Harvard Board of Overseers — Harvard’s second-highest governing body.

Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig said there was “no ambiguity” that Edelman was deserving of tenure.

“I don’t think anybody who looked at his record thought that his record was anything other than at the very top of the tenure performance at the Business School,” Lessig said.

Edelman said he believes the negative publicity from the Sichuan Garden incident was a key reason for his tenure denial, adding there is “some fundamental truth to the centrality of that media disaster.”

“Had it not been for those stupid restaurant emails, I would have been just fine,” he said.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

—Staff writer Sophia C. Scott can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ScottSophia_.

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