3 Valuable Business Lessons from Harvard's Unabomber College Reunion Controversy In 2012, Harvard mailed out a questionnaire to its alumni. One of their alum, Theodore Kaczynski (The Unabomber), mailed back a response from prison... and Harvard published it, hurting their reputation. Here are three business risk mitigation lessons to learn from the debacle.
- Risk is always asymmetrically negative.
- The most common cause of preventable risk is complacency.
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Written by Jon B. Becker and Jonathan C. Becker
In 2012, the Harvard Alumni Office mailed out fifty-year class reunion notices to the Class of 1962 for Harvard University and the Radcliff School. In these notices, they included a questionnaire inviting alums to share what they have accomplished since graduation and to update their class on their current occupation and the awards they have received. The responses to these questionnaires were then published in the alum book.
Among the many distinguished alums who responded was perhaps the most famous or, more accurately, most infamous graduate of Harvard, Theodore Kaczynski (aka The Unabomber). Kaczynski was a convicted domestic terrorist responsible for the deaths of three people and injury of twenty-three others in a bombing spree that began in 1978 and lasted almost two decades.
In his response to the alumni office, Mr. Kaczynski listed his current occupation as "Prisoner," included his infamous Manifesto as a "publication," and under awards listed his "eight life sentences, issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, 1998."
The alumni association then published these responses in the "Harvard and Radcliffe Classes of 1962 -- Fiftieth Anniversary Report." The reaction from families of Kaczynski's victims, other Harvard alums and the media was, of course, swift and well publicized.
Although this error was met with a mix of laughter and dismay, the negative publicity Harvard received was very real and very embarrassing. Sadly, it was also totally avoidable if Harvard had just paid a bit more attention.
This, of course, makes it a great cautionary tale for business leaders teaching three truths of business risk mitigation: 1) all risks are asymmetrically negative, 2) near misses must always trigger reassessment, and 3) complacency is usually the root cause of error.
1. Risk is always asymmetrically negative
Events that have the potential to harm an organization are almost always asymmetrically negative. In other words, while they may contribute little to no positive impact on the organization if they go well, they will have a disproportionately negative impact if they go poorly.
For example, airlines fly tens of thousands of safe flights daily. Taken on their own, none of these flights help a given airline to build its reputation. Even collectively, they are, at best, mildly positive to neutral in their contribution to the airline's brand. After all, we expect airlines to be safe, so a safe flight is not newsworthy.
By contrast, crashes are extraordinary. As such, even a single crash can attract much attention and destroy the airline's reputation.
The same is true in the Unabomber's case. Harvard has tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of alumni. Almost all these alumni do not affect their reputation. A few highly successful (e.g., Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, Natalie Portman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, etc.) may have a very slight positive effect.
However, the association with a single graduate who engages in terrible behavior, which then becomes associated with the school (In this case, serial murder by bombing and terrorism) is extremely negative for the school's reputation.
2. Near misses are a cautionary tale to reassess prevention
It is essential for risk prevention that any near miss is treated as though the event occurred. The difference between a near miss and a catastrophe is often just luck. As a result, a near miss should be viewed as an opportunity to learn the lessons of a disaster without suffering the losses. For example, two airplanes that almost collide, no matter the reason, are always viewed by the FAA as a near-fatal collision and investigated to prevent an actual fatality in the future. Yet, too often, close calls are just brushed off as "we got lucky there," and no further action is taken. A near miss simply must drive the same type of self-assessment process that the actual accident would have driven, or it will eventually be followed by disaster.
In the case of the Unabomber, Harvard had already had several prior indications that he was damaging their brand. These included a book arguing that his experiences at Harvard may have been the root of his evil, numerous articles and book chapters discussing Kaczynski's time at Harvard and, of course, the news media constantly drawing the association between him and Harvard during his trial and sentencing.
None of these painted Harvard in a positive light. All of these should have provoked a risk assessment on the part of Harvard and a very clear distancing between themselves and Kaczynski, not the least of which should have included them purging him from their mailing and invitation lists. Yet, it would appear that this didn't happen, which created yet another chance for him to damage their brand, which he certainly seized upon.
3. Complacency is the real enemy
The most common cause of preventable risk is complacency. When one conducts root cause analysis on catastrophic events, they almost always find that those in a position to prevent the event failed to do so because they had grown complacent to the threats posed.
This is rooted in two things: positive results bias and asymmetry of risk for positive and negative events. First, virtually every time before the accident, the thing that caused it went perfectly and was uneventful. This positive results bias causes those tasked with handling it to be lulled into believing that the risk of a negative outcome is near zero and, therefore, not a danger.
Additionally, because the impact of each single event has no apparent effect on the brand, its potential downside to the organization begins to get underestimated. Since the perceived danger of a failure is seen as unlikely, and the potential risk is underestimated, it becomes easy for those who are facing the risk to become complacent about the risks posed and relax their vigilance and safety procedures. This, of course, actually increases the risk of an adverse event.
While there is no way to know precisely what the level of complacency was at Harvard, one thing is clear: there were undoubtedly many people who could have prevented this from occurring and didn't. After all, someone changed his address to the Supermax Prison, someone received his response, someone copied that response into the Alumni Report, and someone proofread that report. What is clear is that none of these people caught this problem, which should have mandated action.
Initially, the news coverage of the Unabomber's college reunion prank was just an embarrassment to Harvard. It created an opportunity for people to mock the college and allowed Kaczynski to use his sense of humor to humanize himself. However, the story quickly moved to deeply negative narratives about Harvard's psychology experiments on Kaczynski as an undergrad and questioned whether Harvard had somehow "caused" his evil.
It also gave pundits more opportunities to revive the topic and damage the school's reputation on news programs and Sunday morning TV. While this incident was annoying to the families of his victims, mildly amusing to bystanders, and fun for Kaczynski, it also created a memorable opportunity to see how seemingly small errors can lead to significant issues if risk mitigation is not properly handled.