HBS Loses ‘Rock Star’ Prof to MIT

by John A. Byrne on

Professor Ton in her very last class at Harvard Business School. Photo by Eugenia Eliseeva.

One of the Harvard Business School’s most admired and respected faculty members is leaving Harvard to go to rival MIT Sloan School.

Zeynep Ton, recently named by Poets&Quants to be among the 40 best business school professors under 40, announced her departure on her blog. It’s a significant loss for Harvard which has had some problems hanging on to female faculty members over the years.

Currently, only 17 of 93 full professors at HBS are women and only two out of 11 high-level management practice professors at HBS are women. Some 11 of the school’s 45 associate professors are female as well as 16 of Harvard’s 43 assistant professors. In every professorial category, the percentage of women who teach at HBS is far below the percentage of women enrolled as MBA students.

Ton is a highly popular professor. Students think so highly of her teaching abilities that she was awarded the HBS Faculty Teaching award for teaching excellence from the graduating class of 2010–even gaining plaudits from Ahead of the Curve author and Harvard MBA Philip Delves Broughton who wrote that Ton is “an improbably chic and energetic guide to the world of factory design, manufacturing schedules, supply chains, and process management.”

Despite her sterling reputation in the classroom, Harvard decided not to promote the assistant professor who had been at the business school since 2002. The decision was a surprise to many on campus given her widespread popularity. Indeed. some students could be seen crying in the classroom when she taught the last session of a supply chain elective course.

In a blog post on that last session, the Turkish-born Ton wrote that “this was not just the last class of the semester but also my last class at HBS.  This summer, I am joining the Sloan School of Management at MIT.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with world-class researchers in my field, teach Sloan students, and have time to write my book. But I will miss the HBS classroom.

Some MBA students could be seen crying in Professor Ton's last class because of her departure from Harvard. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.

“Teaching at HBS was an incredibly rewarding experience for me.  During the first years, my objective was simply surviving in the classroom.  I can’t tell you how many bad dreams I had in which I did not know the material or I was not able to control the 90 bright students.  I had nightmares about chaos in the classroom with students dancing, yelling, and walking in and out. Surviving in the classroom was a lot more difficult than I had predicted.”

Ton, however, clearly passed the test. “It was an absolute privilege to take part in the development of leaders who will make a positive difference in the world,” she wrote. “Thank you HBS for the opportunity!  And thank you my students this term who made my last class one I will never forget.”
Wrote one HBS student in response: “We’ll miss you so much! HBS is losing a rock star– I’m jealous of the Sloanies!”
  • Anonymous

    The article makes it seem as if she left voluntarily. My understanding is that that is not the case. Her research must have been below par.

  • jason h.

    I thought the article was pretty clear that she was an assistant professor who didn’t earn tenure. As the saying goes, show me an assistant professor with a teaching award and I’ll show you someone who won’t get tenure. Great for Sloan students, to be sure.

    Key quote from article: “Despite her sterling reputation in the classroom, Harvard decided not to promote the assistant professor who had been at the business school since 2002.”

  • Guiseppe

    The ancient comment on academic promotion still rings true: ‘It is publish or perish’, teaching awards count less. It would be informative if the author researched into Prof. Ton’s research impact of her peer reviewed articles in journals.

    A loss to HBS, a gain to MIT.

  • Mini Me

    This “publish or perish” ethos is even taking hold at smaller, liberal arts colleges. In my own undergrad experience, the most published profs were often the most out-of-touch (both with students and reality), and often the least practiced in real-world professional settings. They often represented the bulk of those profs who returned assignments with a grade and no comments, if they even returned assignments at all.

    To contrast with these black hole experiences, the profs who were actually interested in students — especially those who might be struggling the most and need a mentor — were the ones who were often shown the door and/or denied promotion.

    I entered college thinking it would be a uptopian environment of fairness and empathy. I left feeling like I hadn’t learned a thing since high school, wasted the bulk of my $200k for tuition and living expenses and that never before (and not since) have I been in an world driven by such arrogance, back-stabbing and pragmatism (as strongly opposed to ethics) … and that was just the administration and faculty.

    Never met Prof. Ton, but as a wise friend once said, “a club that makes such a bad decision as to reject a person of quality is a club that a person of quality does well to be rejected by.”

  • tay120@psu.edu

    Maybe they prefer researchers with strong publication records over rock stars.

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