Friday, March 11, 2005

HBS, Hackers and Ethical Issues

Harvard Business School uses the Apply Yourself website for making it easier for prospective students to apply to the college. In fact I used the website for writing a referral to a colleague for HBS and will be writing another one for Stanford. SlashDot carried a story a couple of days back on how a hacker found a way to know your application status to HBS before the deadline.

The hacker after finding the hack, posted it on Business Week forums. This set off a series of discussion and 119 applicants decided to check their status. What did HBS do? They rejected all the 119 applicants as this was unethical. MIT and others followed soon. Stanford did not decide on rejecting on all the students.

Now, was HBS right in rejecting all the students? I would say that Hravard was right. Even though you could explain that the original hacker was the doing the wrong thing, the 119 who followed did actually use a public hack to know their status knowing that this would be wrong.

Could HBS handle it differently, I think so. However, they would not be wrong in not accepting the students.

I would like to point to this comment on the SlashDot thread where one of the 119 applicants explained what happened.

He says:

People are discussing the posting on the BW forums, with people wondering if the link works or not. People report seeing one of two things:

1. A ding letter, like the one brookbond saw. (Which is what I saw.)
2. A blank screen.


Period, point blank. Anyone who says they did, is lying.

This is interesting that only rejected offers were shown and all the others were blank. The blank responses could be rejections or acceptances. That we will not know now.

I liked the way this guy ended his comment on a positive note. I am sure he would get in one of the other schools. No despair.

Personally, I think the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. HBS has to reject fully 90% of its applicants. It's easy to grandstand and reject people when you can simply fill the class with other, equally talented people. The "hackers", as long as they didn't make the mistake of checking their status at every school they applied to, will probably all get in somewhere else. By the numbers, only 10 to 15 or so would have made it in anyway.

Personally, I'm glad I checked my own status. Do I think I'm unethical? I'm willing to bet 90%+ of the people who actually saw the technique and applied to HBS in Round 2 (the round currently awaiting decisions) tried it. Seeing the ding got me off my duff and got me preparing another app to get another iron in the fire. Sitting until the 30th would have been too late. Am I upset that I'm not going to HBS? Of course. But at least I found out sooner, rather than later. Obviously, since I already had the ding letter, I'm not as crushed as someone who saw a blank screen and thus had hope. But they'll move on. HBS will continue to turn out people we can all admire, like Jeff Skilling, and the world will continue turning. No big deal, unless you're a reporter with a deadline and no story ideas.

And one more thing, this guy is selling FREE the HBS 199 T-shirts. If you want to fund his applications you can buy one!


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