This second reported restaurant dispute also generated contemptuous commentary from the public, but it had been the first spat, over the $4, that prompted three HBS students to fight back against potential damage to the school’s reputation.
First-year student Jon Staff said he took action for two reasons. His parents, he said, are small business owners, who operated a bar for years and now run a small shipping and distribution company.
“I just kind of put myself in their shoes and thought how it would feel to receive those emails,” Staff said.
A PERCEPTION THAT HBS PEOPLE ARE OVERLY MOTIVATED BY MONEY
Also, Staff said he’s well aware of a widespread perception “that people at HBS are overly motivated by money and only care about their career, that they don’t care about other people.”
He’s discovered since enrolling that this view is false, but he worried Edelman’s behavior “casts us in a pretty negative light,” Staff said.
On Wednesday, Dec. 10, he and section-mates Lisa Marrone and Amanda Grobler put up an online campaign on FundRazr.com. “Negative stereotypes of Harvard and HBS were reinforced by an article in Boston.com about a $4 dispute between an HBS professor and a small business owner,” the campaign’s home page said. “In accordance with our community values, we are calling on all Harvard students to flip the script by donating $4 to provide food for those in need.”
By mid-day Thursday, in less than 24 hours, the campaign had raised more than $5,000, from 352 contributors, for The Greater Boston Food Bank. The food bank has told Staff that an anonymous donor will match all the funds the campaign raises.
EDELMAN HAS GONE INTO A FULL GROVEL
“It’s the holidays, and it was a food related issue,” Staff said of the decision to support the food bank. “What better thing to do than try to provide some meals to people in need during the holidays to try to make a little good come of this.”
It appears the majority of the donated funds came from within the Harvard University community, Staff said.
Staff said he’s satisfied with Edelman’s response to the controversy that gave birth to the fundraising campaign.
“He was on solid ground I think with the point he was making, he just made it in a very poor manner,” Staff said. “He’s apologized now and I think that was appropriate.”
However, it appears one of the many, many people who disagreed with Edelman’s approach with Sichuan Garden decided to take action. Boston.com on Thursday published an email, purportedly from Edelman, to Duan, in which a racist comment was made. Soon after publishing, the website took down the article containing the email, saying it couldn’t verify that Edelman had sent it. Because the email was sent via the restaurant’s website, unlike Edelman’s messages directly to Duan’s email address, it appears likely that a hoaxer impersonated the professor.
“The email you saw is a counterfeit, not sent by me,” Edelman wrote in an email to Poets&Quants. “I don’t know what, if anything, Boston.com did to confirm its authenticity before publishing it.”
Asked by Poets&Quants whether he’s considering any action against Boston.com, Edelman said, “I haven’t thought about action against Boston.com, but I do think they’re out of line.”
After publicly defending his behavior with Duan, Edelman had on Wednesday abruptly and abjectly gone into a full grovel:
“Many people have seen my emails with Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden restaurant in Brookline,” Edelman wrote in a statement. “Having reflected on my interaction with Ran, including what I said and how I said it, it’s clear that I was very much out of line. I aspire to act with great respect and humility in dealing with others, no matter what the situation. Clearly I failed to do so. I am sorry, and I intend to do better in the future. I have reached out to Ran and will apologize to him personally as well.”
THE PROFESSOR SAYS ‘THERE ARE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS LEFT OPEN’
On Thursday, Edelman responded to Poets&Quants in an email, reiterating his apology but standing firm on the deceptive pricing allegation. “There are important questions left open, like what happens in the event that (the restaurant’s online pricing) is out of date and who should get refunds when and how.”
Edelman seems to have realized that his manner of dealing with people during the restaurant disputes left a great deal to be desired. But it’s reassuring to see him continuing to defend the grounds for his Sichuan Garden complaint. The man is a crusader. He’s taken on Google, Bing, and major airlines over alleged deceptive advertising. He’s investigated racist discrimination in the use of accommodations website Airbnb; he’s probed fraud in the realm of online affiliate advertising. And Edelman crusades on behalf of us, the American public. In the “Wild West” of the internet, Nobel laureate economist Alvin Roth told Bloomberg News in February, Edelman is the “sheriff.”
However, the good professor appears to have no “off” switch. He’s obviously obsessive about the need for companies of any size to honor the prices and special offers they present to the public, and to compensate people who pay an improper price.
As American consumers, we should be grateful to have a principled, smart guy like Edelman on our side. He should keep fighting the good fight, whatever the scale. He just shouldn’t be a jerk about it.