A Judge Opens The Curtain On Harvard Business School’s Tenure Process

most popular MBA programs

Harvard Business School (HBS) campus.

A judge has rejected Harvard Business School’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit by former HBS Associate Professor Benjamin G. “Ben” Edelman. The ruling will effectively pull back the curtain on Harvard Business School’s tenure process, a less than fully transparent process shrouded in mystery. 

A tenure-track professor at HBS for more than a decade from 2007 to 2018, Edelman sued Harvard last year, claiming the school mishandled his tenure review process. and unfairly denied him tenure. He alleged that HBS unfairly denied him tenure because of an earlier public controversy he had over a bill at a Chinese restaurant.

Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Hélene Kazanjian denied on Monday all of Harvard’s arguments to get the case dismissed. The judge noted that “there is no privilege against the disclosure of tenure peer review materials” and added that Edelman needs the documents used by HBS to prove his case.


Ben Edelman at Harvard Business School

Former HBS Professor Ben Edelman

The decision moves the case to  the discovery phase in which Edelman, now chief economist for Web Experiences, Strategy, and Policy at Microsoft, will gain access to now secret and confidential files to “determine whether the review process met reasonable expectations.” In his lawsuit, Edelman is asking the court to award him damages and order the school to review his application for tenure once again. 

In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Edelman says that the underlying cause of his lawsuit reveals deeper flaws in the business school’s leadership. “HBS, on its face, appears to be a very well-run place,” Edelman told the Crimson. “But underneath this facade of how beautiful and perfect HBS is,, there’s this slightly unpleasant undercurrent of things that are not quite right, that are broken.” Harvard is now involved in two high-profile lawsuits with former faculty, including a $25 million lawsuit for defamation, gender discrimination and breach of contract from Professor Francesca Gino who was fired over allegiations of research misconduct.

The ruling will allow outsiders to get a detailed look at an opaque tenure process that is highly subjective, anonymous, and often unpredictable. Over many years, Harvard and its business school have gone to great lengths to protect the confidentiality of that process.  Now, the school will be required to hand over all of the documentation , including statements from outside letter-writers evaluating Edelman’s research.


“I’m particularly looking forward to discovery because Harvard has withheld so much information from me,” wrote Edelman in a blog post on a website devoted to the case, Edelman v. Harvard. “For example, the governing policy required Harvard to provide me (as well as readers of the report about me) “the evidence gathered” by the investigating committee. But Harvard did nothing of the kind, instead resorting to anonymous quotes entirely without context.  Now that I am entitled to discovery, I will demand the entire corpus from which these quotes were taken.  That will certainly include all the notes prepared by the investigating committee. It should also include full interview recordings. With this information, I will no longer have to speculate about what these speakers might have been talking about. At long last, I will be able to say for sure – putting me on track to defend myself in substance and without resorting to hypotheticals.”

Edelman said he would seek the tally sheets that recorded the votes of Harvard Business School’s Appointments Committee that evaluated his case. “These tally sheets give each person’s contemporaneous statement of the basis for their vote,” he added. “The tally sheets will therefore reveal what the Appointments Committee learned (or thought they learned) from the FRB report about me, versus what they found from other independent sources not the subject of my lawsuit.  No doubt Harvard would prefer to keep faculty notes confidential.”

In a highly embarrassing incident for both Edelman and the Harvard Business School, the professor became the subject of public controversy in 2014 after disputing a $57.35 bill for Chinese takeout, claiming the Sichuan Garden restaurant overcharged him $4. The dispute over his spicy chicken order went viral, after Edelman escalated the 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 the 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; the incident confirmed every stereotype of the institution, its students, and alumni. HBS students 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.

Instead of ruling on Edelman tenure during the following year in 2015, the business school delayed his tenure process by two years, giving him the chance to take steps to contribute to the HBS community and demonstrate his fitness for tenure. Among other things, he was required to teach a business ethics course. Two years later, the school convened its Faculty Review Board (FSB) which then gathered a dozen anonymous criticisms of Edelman. 

The professor argues that the FSB failed to share its evidence, preventing Edelman from refuting the claims. The board’s final report was the sole negative input into the tenure process, and the sole cause for denial tenure, claims Edelman. “

In his reaction to the court’s latest decision, Edelman concedes: “I’m not perfect. “But I don’t have the flaws alleged in the 2017 FRB report about me. The Appointments Committee faculty who judged my case based on that flawed report provided incorrect facts about me, and their misinformed votes were pivotal to the failure of my promotion to tenure.  With the benefit of discovery, I will prove every link of the logic: I will establish not just that the report didn’t follow the promised procedure but that it was incorrect, and I will show how the faulty report influenced Appointments Committee members.”

DON’T MISS: The Harvard Business School Prof Who Acted Like A Jerk & Lost Tenure Is Now Suing HBS. Here’s Why He Should Lose

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.