The Harvard Business School Prof Who Acted Like A Jerk & Lost Tenure Is Now Suing HBS. Here’s Why He Should Lose

Harvard Business School Ben Edelman

A younger Benjamin Edelman when he was at Harvard Business School during an 11-year stint as an assistant and associate professor — Harvard photo

Former Havard Business School Professor Ben Edelman is undeniably a smart guy. After earning four degrees at Harvard, including a Ph.D. in economics and a JD, he landed a job as an assistant professor at HBS and worked at the school for 11 years from April 2007 to June 2018 until being denied tenure. The former head of HBS’ MBA program called him “a freaking genius.”

But like so many incredibly intelligent people you may know, he can be oblivious and clueless when it comes to simple human interactions. It speaks to a complete lack of self-awareness and even worse, a sense of entitlement that borders on total arrogance.

Edelman this week sued Harvard Business School after failing to get tenure and being forced to leave his position as an associate professor in 2017. The decision by the school not to grant a lifetime guarantee of a job to Edelman occurred after a highly publicized spat over a $4 overcharge on a takeout order for spicy chicken from a local Chinese restaurant in 2014.


In a series of emails, Edelman kept escalating that fight, even after the owner immediately apologized and offered him a refund. Instead of simply accepting the refund, Edelman insisted on triple damages from the mom-and-pop eatery, citing violations of consumer law. 

Those emails went public, fueling widespread media coverage and a global outpouring of scorn. When his silly feud went viral, it not only embarrassed Edelman, who was charging $800 as a consultant and earning on the order of $167,000 a year as an HBS professor; it also embarrassed the Harvard Business School, confirming every stereotype of the institution, its students and alumni. HBS students, in fact, launched a campaign to ask members of the public to donate $4 to the Greater Boston Food Bank and in a few days raised more than $5,000.

“Clearly HBS hasn’t had the greatest reputation,” one of the students told at the time. “There’s this idea that people here care only about themselves and their own advancement. We know that perception exists, and even before yesterday we all spent a lot of time defending HBS.’’

Facing mounting outrage on the Internet and in media circles, the thoroughly mocked and vilified Edelman was forced to publicly apologize. 


Now, it turns out, there were other examples involving HBS’ own staff who had run-ins with Edelman. And surprisingly, they are detailed in the 30-page civil lawsuit he filed on Feb. 14th in Suffolk Superior Court.

And just as in the case of the $4 overcharge, Edelman seems clueless that bringing up these examples would merely confirm that he is an arrogant jerk. It proves that being the smartest dude in the room and making sure you let everyone else know how smart you are isn’t always the wise path to follow. It is, indeed, possible to be brilliant without pissing people off.

He is seeking unspecified damages and for Harvard to redo the faculty review board process and “everything that follows that,” including the reconsideration of his tenure application. Whatever the merits of his case, which claims that Harvard breached its employment contract with Edelman by mishandling disciplinary proceedings, doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Harvard Business School didn’t want a trouble-making jerk on its faculty for decades to come.


In his lawsuit, Edelman claims Harvard harmed his “career, livelihood, and reputation” by failing to follow its internal policies. That is a laughable claim given the own harm Edelman has obviously done to his career, his livelihood, and his reputation. After all, it’s not as if he is starving. Edelman is earning a very good living, most likely with lucrative stock options, as the chief economist for web experiences, strategy, and policy at Microsoft. The average total cash compensation of a chief economist at Microsoft is estimated at more than $400,000.

Votes on tenure are highly confidential and the process is often secretive and mysterious. But it goes without saying that the embarrassing incident in Edelman’s past was certainly considered by his faculty colleagues in denying him tenure. But that is only the start.  It now turns out that there were 12 other anonymous complaints about his character from HBS employees, including possibly other faculty, according to his suit. 

Those complaints brought up apparent disputes Edelman had with HBS support staff over the size of classroom projectors, with the school’s IT staff over technology issues, and with the school’s travel planners over travel policies, according to messages in his tenure review file. In another spat, Edelman got into it with an HBS staffer over his business cards. That episode is reminiscent of a scene from the movie American Psycho in which one executive after another is trying to outdo the other in ever-more impressive business cards (see below). You can’t make this stuff up. He insisted on putting the URL of his personal website on his Harvard Business School business card.


How a professor, whose reputation had already been damaged by his own arrogant attitude, could get into conflicts with travel planners, classroom and IT support staff and even a low-level person over his HBS business cards is anyone’s guess.

But Edelman, if anything, is a bit tone-deaf. His take on the multiple incidents with staff: “Far from indicating anything improper, these messages showed Plaintiff to be thoughtful and successful in advancing goals including pedagogical effectiveness, generosity to colleagues, and cost reduction.”

More importantly, a report on his conduct from the school’s Faculty Review Board obtained by Edelman made this observation: 

“What concerns the FRB most is the intimation that Professor Edelman manages up, interacting differently with at least some staff than he does with faculty colleagues, and differently with staff depending on whether other faculty members are present during the exchange.”


Edelman insists that is not true, arguing in his suit that the “report is just plain wrong.  Plaintiff does not interact differently with staff than with faculty; quite the contrary, he is well-known for being outspoken about his beliefs regardless of the status of the person with whom he is speaking.”

The report also suggested that Edelman should have disclosed, in certain written work about Google, that he had consulted with Microsoft in the past. Edelman also takes issue with that claim.

All of this is a bit of a shame because if not for his cluelessness with others, Edelman would have been deserving of tenure. As he points out, at the time of his 2017 application for promotion to tenured full professor, he had published 21 peer-reviewed articles, 26 other articles (including solicited articles and book chapters), 25 cases ten supplements, 19 teaching notes, and four module notes and technical notes.


Ultimately, according to the suit, 43 of 73 faculty members voted in favor of tenure. But then Dean Nitin Nohria told Edelman that he would advance the tenure case to the university president only if two-thirds of the faculty voted for tenure. Edelman was five votes short.

Afterward, in December of 2017, Dean Nohria told Edelman that he had “dug himself into a hole with the 2015 [sic] incidents,” according to the suit.

The bottom line here is that Harvard Business School denied tenure to a brilliant and outspoken professor who would not make a very good dinner guest. The question now is what jury would weep for him?


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