It’s something no one should ever have to experience. Yet on a late March afternoon, nightmares became reality for a group of MBAs at Harvard Business School. Kel Jackson, Lindsey Morrow, Amanda Tyson, and other members of the African-American Student Union at HBS received an anonymous email sent directly to their individual addresses containing death threats. Besides the threats, the emails also contained racist, hateful language and threats of genocide against specific ethnic groups and religions, as well as references to recent terrorist events.
“When several students opened their inboxes as part of their normal afternoon routine, a message straight from the depraved underbelly of humanity was waiting for them,” Jackson wrote in an essay published on his personal website and The Harbus, HBS’s student newspaper.
‘NO CONCERN OF DIRECT PHYSICAL HARM’
The email was originally sent on March 28 and was received by 18 members of the AASU. The next day, HBS Dean Nitin Nohria wrote to the entire full-time MBA student body condemning the email and assuring students that authorities did not believe students were in immediate danger. He also promised that an investigation would be launched.
“We have taken immediate steps, including to notify the police, and we are doing everything we can to support our students and to learn more about the incident,” Nohria wrote March 29. “Our initial assessment is that there is no concern of direct physical harm to any member of our community, but we are investigating the matter fully.”
Nohria also wrote about the need for the rest of the HBS community to offer extra support to the African-American community.
QUICK RESPONSES FROM STUDENTS, PROFESSORS & ADMINISTRATION
Upon receiving the email, Morrow and Tyson immediately reached out to HBS administration to inform them of the email, Jackson wrote in his essay. Not only that, but the two HBS students — who graduate with their MBAs this spring — communicated with Harvard security, filed a report with law enforcement, and began communicating with key stakeholders, current AASU members, and other students and recipients of the email.
Kim Foster and Malcolm Ruffin, incoming AASU co-presidents, “organized a rapid-response team to drive communication of the incident to the RC (required curriculum) class,” Jackson wrote. Then the team identified RCs in each section that would take ownership of the conversation the following day. The next day, Jackson says, 10 RCs — all of whom were black — led discussions across all sections.
The HBS administration also acted rapidly, Jackson said. Jan Rivkin, a professor and chair of the MBA program, notified Dean Nohria as soon as she learned of the situation. Rivkin, along with other HBS professors and administrators “activated key HBS resources internally and communicated regularly with recipients of the email throughout the afternoon and evening, sharing new information, providing resources and next steps, and making themselves available for whatever we needed,” Jackson also wrote.
HBS GOES ON THE OFFENSIVE
After the initial shock and fear was processed and law enforcement did not see any immediate threat, Jackson says the HBS community went on the offensive.
“We knew that as a community, we were stronger than this attempt to create division and ignite fear. We would not allow hatred to separate us,” Jackson wrote. “So we decided to address this incident head-on by organizing a community-wide conversation focused not on black students alone, but on marginalized people throughout our greater community. By sharing the email, asking a few students to speak, and opening the floor to the broader community, we hoped to create an opportunity to forge greater understanding and empathy.”
A campus-wide community conversation followed and Jackson described the day as the “single most moving” day he’s ever experienced. The attendance was so massive, standing room wasn’t even enough. “We had to send people to an overflow room where the proceedings were simulcast,” Jackson wrote. Andy Zelleke, another HBS professor helped the AASU host and moderate the event. Marginalized groups of all sorts spoke about their experiences.
“This was an opportunity for all of us to listen and make a good faith effort to understand,” Jackson wrote. “To assume positive intent, shed our pride, and reflect on whether there were things we should do differently to be better friends, classmates, co-workers, and allies to each other. To seek awareness of our own blindness and search for work to be done.”
‘SUGARCOATING REALITY FOOLS NO ONE’
Still, Jackson said, the response should go beyond HBS and business school. And the response lends a lesson in the very reason HBS was established in the first place — to prepare exceptional leaders. “I believe that effective leaders must name difficult issues and address them head-on,” Jackson wrote. “Sugarcoating reality fools no one and only serves to erode a leader’s credibility and legitimacy.”
And in that sense, the lessons from the event and response serves to help MBAs and beyond.
“The upshot for business schools and MBAs is that even in the context of declining faith in institutions, business leaders are viewed as highly capable of effecting change: a vast majority of the global informed public expect CEOs to take action instead of waiting for their governments to act,” Jackson wrote. “Sizable majorities believe business leaders can solve the most pressing issues of our time, including equal pay, climate change, prejudice, discrimination, and the future of work. We must not waste this delicate hope with which we have been entrusted.”
And in a world that increasingly needs bold and audacious leadership for pressing change to be made, Jackson says it falls on future leaders to see that change through.
“We leaders. We privileged few. We who have been lucky enough to taste opportunity,” Jackson wrote. “We who have the agency to act must not be afraid to choose.”