22 May 2020

All in on Front Row: A Closer Look at the New Series


by Shona Simkin

In the weeks between the end of exams and Commencement, Harvard Business School (HBS) students and soon-to-be graduates are usually still bustling around campus. Classes are over, and students are packing up, coordinating plans for internships, jobs, and summer travel, perhaps heading out for a quick vacation with friends, or going to graduation parties and greeting family members arriving for the grand Commencement celebration. This year, of course, none of that is happening. Students are dispersed, Commencement is virtual, and many internships and jobs have shifted online. What if, thought Dean Nohria, instead of several weeks of quiet, we maintained the intellectual connection between faculty and students? What if we offered a series of Zoom sessions focused on what faculty are working on and thinking about right now?

Emails and conversations started flying between the organizing team in the Dean’s Office, Professor Suraj Srinivasan, Director of Campus Activation Madeline Meehan, HBS faculty, and Student Association leaders (MBA class of 2020’s Rachel Brown and Billy Tabrizi, and class of 2021’s Kathy Yu and Veronica Polin). The quick turnaround time relied heavily on faculty buy-in, and more than 100 responded immediately with fully-conceived ideas for their sessions. Four days later (yes, four days later), the first week of Front Row meetings were scheduled and open for registration via HBSConnects, the team that looks for intellectual and social connection opportunities to join our many campus constituencies.

Comprised of intimate chats, small seminars, and larger webinars, Front Row sessions are designed to engage students with HBS faculty during this unusual and unprecedented time and to enhance the sense of community. Faculty members determine their subject and focus, from book or paper research, to course previewing, to new ideas and passions.

The first week of Front Row, May 11-15, featured nine sessions including Pandemonium: Globalization and the Pandemic with Professor Rawi Abdelal; Grand Challenges for Entrepreneurs with Professor Tarun Khanna; China’s Management of the COVID-19 Outbreak with Associate Professor Meg Rithmire; and the Behavioral Science of Influence with Associate Professor Leslie John. The response—and attendance—was remarkable, with nearly 250 attendees in the webinars (open to students, staff, and faculty) and surpassing goals for smaller sessions (open to students only to allow for more personal interaction).

This week’s attendance followed the popular trend, and featured 10 sessions including The Ritual Effect with Professor Michael Norton; The Simple Steel Box that Drives Global Trade with Professor Malcolm Baker; Contemplating Conundrums with Professor Scott Kominers; and COVID Outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt with Senior Lecturer Jim Matheson.

“It has been incredible to see so many faculty members willing to share their research and perspectives, and they’ve really helped to re-energize our entire student community over this traditional break,” said Tabrizi.

It’s also been energizing for the faculty. “One of the silver linings of this crisis is that we've found this way of engaging with faculty about their research and ideas,” said Srinivasan, who is coordinating faculty participation. “There is a real sense of excitement from the faculty—those planning future sessions and those who have already held them—they’ve found it very rewarding.”

Indeed, the series has been a way for the entire community to connect and learn during this uncertain and unsettling time. “It’s been a great way for staff to experience the new Zoom classroom, and for students and faculty to engage on issues outside of class subjects,” said Meehan.

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