Before this week, Ben Edelman was best known as an up-and-coming professor at Harvard Business School. He has economics and law degrees. He writes both for academics and for a popular audience outside the ivory tower. And he offers a successful course on the online economy. As of this Tuesday, though, you probably know him for something less illustrious: He’s the guy who got in a heated spat with a Chinese restaurant over a $4 overcharge.
As an academic who researches in Edelman’s field of digital business and interacts with him regularly, I wasn’t surprised when Boston.com published a set of emails in which he had taken an employee of the restaurant Sichuan Garden to task and asked for a triple refund, according to his understanding of Massachusetts law. In some sense, Edelman takes everyone to task and encourages others—myself included—to do the same. And that’s a quality we should admire in academics.
In my interactions with Edelman, I’ve found myself both frustrated by his choices and impressed by his gumption. In an era in which there is heretofore-unmatched pressure to publish in the best journals with the most technical methodologies and to not otherwise make waves, Edelman doesn’t play by the rules. His papers are provocative. Rather than, say, advising Google on improving their market design, he’s highlighted carefully tended evidence that the company seems to be manipulating search rankings. While journalists are now portraying him as an entitled elite, I’ve always considered him a maverick. He reminds me of someone like the late activist Aaron Swartz, acting fearlessly and, often, selflessly. It is inspirational in many ways.
First, it’s important to realize that Edelman’s complaint and lengthy email exchange were private. He didn’t forward it to Boston.com; that was the restaurant. As it appears that business may have broken the law by charging more than advertised prices without letting customers know, Edelman could be forgiven for being surprised. More importantly, he didn’t use his Harvard affiliation in any form in that exchange. Not even his email. But Boston.com and all of the other headlines played up the Harvard association. Why? Because portraying Edelman as an Ivy League bully guaranteed clicks.
Second, Edelman doesn’t have tenure. I’ve seen untenured professors get bad publicity—both fairly and unfairly—and it can have the effect of harming their chances. Harvard Business School junior faculty have a very tough run, and most drop off before they get to the promised land of tenure. The system says that they should, therefore, play it safe. And that makes academia a less daring place.
In Edelman’s case, the passion that makes his research on unsavory and hidden practices by online firms compelling bled into a dispute over takeout; as the articles exploded on Twitter and Facebook, he wrote Wednesday that he is genuinely sorry for how this turned out. But who among us hasn’t had some sort of heated customer service argument at some time? We should be concerned when the defense the business uses is to forward an email exchange to the press. It means that semipublic figures who are more vulnerable to bad press cannot even operate within the bounds of normal life. And it means, in this case, that we’re chastising an academic for qualities we should hope to see more of in academic life.
In Edelman’s exchange with Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden, you can see his maverick side at work. He knows this isn’t personally a big deal, but he also knows he’s complaining about the same thing he tries to hold big businesses accountable for. And if no one calls them out, the law is meaningless. Put simply, things that hurt lots of people a little bit are socially damaging, but it’s hard to initiate action against them. It is death by a thousand little cuts.
I want our Harvard professors to be more like Ben Edelman and take up causes that are controversial but that they are passionate about. The moment we let them be punished disproportionately for these traits, conformity wins.