Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Buzz at MIT, and not the good kind

Yvonne Abraham, a columnist in the Boston Globe, reported last week that there may be a student or two who are truly failing to grasp the basics of corporate responsibility and building brand equity. Ordinarily, this wouldn't rise to the level of news. But, in this case, the reporter tells us that last December the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Club (LGBT) sent out an invitation to the whole school for an end-of-semester celebration. This is hardly the stuff of controversy on a college campus. But someone felt that the invitation was a de facto advertisement--as if the LGBT were actually selling something--and a promotion of ideas that made him/her "sick." There was more--about how people in Russia are encouraged to beat up gays because they insult nature. In closing, this Sloan student threatened his/her fellow classmates with physical violence should he/she be contacted by the LGBT again.

School procedures ensued. Campus police determined there was no actual physical threat. No one was expelled or suspended for hate language. "But," writes Abraham, "many students, gay and straight, were angry at the apparently light punishment and said so publicly."

Whatever happened at the Sloan School, rightly or wrongly, the issue morphed out of one focused on hate speech and student affairs and, not coincidently perhaps for a management school, into the subject of brand equity. This is a phrase that college administrators have, for some time now, held as the Holy Grail. Can't get enough of that brand equity...which is the value the public think your institution holds, whether it is based on fact or fiction. The whole obsession with rankings in US News and World Report is about the fight for brand equity.

So what do these fledging marketing mogels make of this situation? On May 5, Abraham reports, the School is still dealing with the fallout from the events of the previous December. But they are not trying to uncover their hidden homophobia or learning to live together when it is not Diversity Day. No, the fuss becomes about brand equity. And this is not a director of communications or a vice president of marketing sitting in the Dean's office and discussing it either, behavior that rarely becomes fodder for the press. No. A Sloan student takes offense that the incident was reported at all. The victims of a hate crime--in seeking redress--are accused of 'causing damage to the school brand."

Fortunately, the dialogue that ensued seemed to grasp that public debate can help brand equity. But there has been a real failure to successfully communicate corporate responsibility, Abrahams suggests, when students believe that how things look is more important that doing the right thing and fixing how things are.

It is not the students responsibility to create brand equity. The fact that they, as a group, help define brand equity by the quality of their accomplishments is not the point. It is not their job. It is their job, as students of management at a prestigious institution, to get the big picture and the bigger picture still. Maybe the offending student was let off too easily with an apology. Maybe we don't know the whole story. Doesn't matter. A public forum to discuss the incident was held and would be considered common practice in higher education for dealing with such a toxic and explosive situation. Such an incident has the kind of legs that would interest the media, so it became public. The only way it could negatively and powerfully effect Sloan is if the School's administration were lax in its dealing with the event or if it fails now to explain that positive brand equity is build on values, candor, transparency, and respect.

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