We Need to Talk

Several years ago at Dartmouth College, a fraternity and sorority co-hosted a hip-hop-themed party which was also advertised as a “Ghetto Party” via email. While the party’s organizers never intended to offend students from other backgrounds, many students were outraged over the party’s theme. This led the faculty and several student organizations to host a series of open forums, where free dialogue was encouraged.

Many students came forward to discuss their difficult experiences growing up far away from the relatively safe confines of the Dartmouth campus, demonstrating the extreme adversity on their way to admission to a top Ivy League school. The open dialogue allowed students to emerge from the experience with a stronger understanding of individuals from different backgrounds and a greater sensitivity toward cultural awareness, enhancing the campus community.

Today, Harvard Business School is in the midst of confronting its own issues relating to free speech and student autonomy. While the episode with the Harbus was certainly an important one in the discussion of policies on campus with respect to our rights as students and our obligations to be “respectful,” another free speech issue also lingers and bears mentioning.

Last week in one of my classes, as we pondered the rise of India as a powerhouse in the software industry, students of various backgrounds discussed openly their thoughts about “cultural determinism,” and the inherent talents of Indians relative to other backgrounds. A student of another nationality took issue with the comments that were being made in class, and pointed out that in most other cases, we’ve never addressed the superior “American mind” when discussing Microsoft or the “Finnish mind” when discussing Nokia, for example.

Subsequent to this comment, the first student later clarified his thoughts, steering clear of any subjective claim about the superiority of the Indian mind over any other, and instead focused on other differences between India and Pakistan, including the fact that India was a democracy and Pakistan a dictatorship. These series of comments didn’t go unnoticed; in the next class, our professor reminded everyone of the standards of HBS to be respectful of each other and focus on the logic of our arguments as opposed to cultural differences, which have the potential to upset other students.

I fully agree that our classes should serve to elevate our minds and our professors should strive to guide us during each case to discover new and exciting insights. What’s missing, however, is an appropriate open forum where students can openly discuss their thoughts, not simply about the HBS curriculum, flaws in the recruiting process, or other administrative issues, but even geopolitical events and cultural issues we read about in the press and which may impact our thoughts here at HBS.

The Dean’s meeting with students on November 25th will certainly give us an opportunity to discuss with the administration the myriad school-wide issues which have recently gripped the HBS campus; nevertheless, we must also take time to address cultural issues on campus which have the potential to fester and manifest themselves many years later.

Given the multicultural background of our student body, I think it’s important that we hold discussions related to these issues; simply sweeping them under the rug in class and acting as if they no longer exist sets a dangerous precedent. HBS does an impressive job in preparing us to lead companies in the future as entrepreneurs or general managers; during LVDM, we’re given sensitivity training to issues relating to ethics in business and the tradeoffs between profit maximization and our social responsibility for the common good.

What we may also want to consider are more frequent discussions about issues which transcend discounted cash flows, the four “Ps” of Marketing, and supply chain integration–cultural issues which may ultimately be even more important in an increasingly globalized world.

With this in mind and with the help of a few friends, I decided to hold an open forum on December 3rd, to which the entire campus is invited and which will have speakers discussing both sides of the protracted Arab/Israeli conflict, followed by questions and answers. Since the U.S. is the largest donor of foreign aid to Israel, and given the Harvard Divestment Petition (where signatories urged Harvard to divest of its investments in Israel), the conflict in the Middle East has reverberations here on our own soil and affects each of us as taxpayers.

With the wide-ranging views on our campus about our foreign policy, and, particularly, America’s stance in the Middle East, my goal is for this event to foster a healthy exchange of ideas and perspectives, similar to the open forums at Dartmouth College. I hope this forum will serve as the first of many events where students are encouraged to discuss global events which relate to our lives as businesspeople and which may drive many of the decisions we make, not only while at HBS, but especially after graduation. It would be great for other clubs to hold similar forums to allow students to learn more about cultural differences, ask appropriate questions, and come away with a more informed view not tainted by reports in the media or other sources.

The EC class graduates in just a few short months, eager to take on every professional challenge that comes our way. But part of learning to lead and influence others in business is a sensitivity to others’ backgrounds and a certain knowledge about their thought process. I applaud colleagues of mine who had the courage in a recent class to point out certain persistent character flaws in our case protagonist, even while the CFO of the company was there as a guest. Part of being a good leader, as I see it, is the mettle to make tough decisions, confront issues head on, and speak your mind in the appropriate forum and in a way that’s probing, but intellectually honest, respectful of others, and mindful of others’ sensitivities.

Born in America, I consider it my ultimate home and believe it is my obligation to help ensure a more stable and prosperous future for the many generations of Americans who will succeed me. I hope that at HBS, we can continue to have the difficult discussions that cross our minds and help us become better leaders.

The future is hard to predict and no one can say for sure where our paths will cross in the years to come. But the chances of students of various nationalities doing business with each other, not just in the U.S., but around the globe, are high. If we don’t confront the cultural issues which may resonate with us today, now, we risk their manifestation in more pernicious ways in the not-so-distant future.