Harvard Fights a Defamation Lawsuit From the Founder of HBO Sports

In court papers, the school says Stephen Powell can't be considered a graduate because he owes debt.
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Got student debt? You're not alone, but maybe it means you really didn't graduate from college. Sound outlandish? Well, consider the position now being taken by Harvard University in response to a defamation lawsuit from entertainment industry veteran Stephen Powell.

"Powell claims that Harvard conferred an MPA degree on him in 1994, and is now suing Harvard seeking an order that Harvard be stopped from denying that he is a graduate of the Kennedy School," states a December 22 court filing by Harvard. "However, Powell never paid Harvard for any of the costs of obtaining an MPA degree, and indeed deliberately avoided paying Harvard for the costs of that degree. Fundamental principles of equity dictate that Powell cannot claim entitlement to a degree without paying for it."

Represented by the same attorney at Clare Locke who took on Rolling Stone magazine over the infamous campus rape article, Powell filed his lawsuit in June. In his complaint, Powell identifies himself as the founder of HBO Sports, the first programming chief at ESPN, and later, an investment banker specializing in media transactions. He is the founder of SinoPowell Capital, and with an undergraduate degree in economics from Brown and an MBA from Harvard Business School, Powell sought in the early 1990s to round out his impressive educational bona fides with a master's in public administration at Harvard's prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government. Since then, he's remained active with the school's alumni organizations.

But around May 2016, a fight erupted over a website for alumni.

According to Powell's complaint, he was acting as the president of the HKS DC Alumni Council and helping develop a website when he learned that the school led by Elizabeth Nunez, then-senior director of alumni relations, was developing a different website. Powell reports being disappointed by the potential waste of time and costs in the duplicative efforts and requested a meeting during a reunion weekend. It apparently didn't go well, although he denies having "berated" Nunez and used threatening language to staff.

Later, Powell's background was researched by those in the alumni relations department at Harvard, with a senior associate dean named Charles Haight sending out an email to Powell about "two matters of serious concern."

In that email, with others copied, Haight wrote that "you [Mr. Powell] have a significant outstanding debt from the 1994 academic year in the amount of $22k while you were enrolled in the mid-career MPA program," and that "your degree was not conferred due to this outstanding debt." Haight continued that this was "problematic for the School, and as a matter of policy, you cannot be considered a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School until this is remedied."

Powell asserts such statements are false and defamatory and that his employer at the time of study — New England Broadcasting —paid his tuition in full and that he completed all requirements for a degree. He's further suing Harvard for invading his privacy by disclosing his financial status to others without consent.

So what's Harvard response? Represented by Davis Wright Tremaine — the very law firm that handled Rolling Stone's defense in that campus rape defamation case — the smart folks at Harvard are sticking to their guns.

In counterclaims filed late last month, Harvard says that Powell was well aware of his debt, that he didn't attend the graduation ceremony and didn't receive a diploma. The school says it has made repeated efforts to collect debt and that it's entitled to equitably recoup the claimed owed money. Until then, Harvard insists the alleged debtor is not a graduate.