This post is a little late. I’ve been mulling over the New York Times article and started drafting this piece almost immediately. However, work and pleasure prevented me from completing it earlier. In any case, here’s my 2¢.
It all began one early Sunday morning when the New York Times published its front page story, “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.” The article put this elite business school – and many of its social weaknesses – in the limelight, and has led to a flood of commentary about what is and what should be at Harvard Business School, at least when it comes to gender and class equality.
There is much to be unearthed here – pages of stories and statistics that point to the fact that HBS just simply isn’t measuring up when it comes to gender and class equality, and that much of the problem stems from the attitudes of the students themselves.
Here’s a brief summary of the article: For the past few years HBS has made a distinct effort to get more female professors on a tenured track, to assist female students who were falling behind in classes, to encourage more class participation from women, to help women balance their academic and social lives, and to generally improve the attitude of students and faculty towards women. Female professors and students were encouraged to assert themselves more.
Many students didn’t like this “unapologetic” approach to improving the situation of women on campus. Many felt that professors and administrators were meddling, engaging in social engineering. But the campaign had impact: The sexist and cruel remarks towards women seemed to decrease, and the grade gap between men and women disappeared.
However what started as a story on gender morphed into an animated discussion of class, wealth, and privilege at an elite institution. A follow-up New York Times article, “Class Is Seen Dividing Harvard Business School,” focuses almost exclusively on the problem of class divisions.
The article quotes one recent student who said she was advised to budget $20,000 to have a “great experience” at Harvard and lead a successful and active social life. The budget included such items as $400 to first-year sections, the $1,000 ski trip, the $200 winter ball, and other thousands of dollars that go towards lavish parties and weekend trips around the world.
Of utmost concern is “Section X,” a secret society for ultra-wealthy students in which the rich – mostly men and mostly international students – separate themselves from the rest of the students by throwing around money in a way that the rest of the students (65% receive financial aid) simply cannot do.
In an effort to reduce the student-induced classism on campus, some students are working to introduce less expensive activities and events.
Thomas J. Peters, the management guru who wrote In Search of Excellence, suggests that to “help bring the school’s culture back down to earth” the admissions board only accept ultra-moneyed students who have also “done something of significant social value.”
Some suggest that this is not a Harvard-specific problem but an international problem due to increased wealth inequality in the world. In a Businessweek article, “When Did Business School Become All About the Parties?” Jeffrey Pfeffer mentions a similar class divide at Stanford GSB and other top business schools. He also points out that students from all financial backgrounds apply to HBS (and other top schools) and that less advantaged students are equally capable of competing academically as the super-advantaged ones.
Pfeffer explains, however, that once students arrive on campus, there’s no way for less privileged students to compete with the more privileged students on a social, and consequently professional, level.
If this is an international problem, then why are its effects seen mostly in the b-school scene and not in law schools, med schools, or other graduate programs?
Pfeffer continues to suggest that the reason for this issue is that when students shell out the big bucks to attend b-school, they are investing in the understanding that they’ll gain exposure to and networking opportunities with wealthy and well-connected people.
Pfeffer concludes that b-school adcoms MUST put a stronger emphasis on the academic and professional accomplishments of its students if it wants to “change for the better – from booze, cars, and houses to ideas.”
So what does HBS have to say about all this? The most thoughtful response came in the Harbus article, “Culture at HBS: A Response to Jodi Kantor,” in which Eric Lonstein, a second-year HBS student, urges readers and HBS culture critics to think about the majority: that the HBS majority is intelligent, caring, inclusive, and courageous, and the majority IS committed to gender equality and the development of a improved modern-day work/life paradigm.
What we often see, both within HBS classrooms and from afar, is a culture defined by the outliers. When classmates, administration and the media focus on the individuals who have either committed severe offenses or have in some way remarkably beat the odds, these outliers in turn define our culture. This is unsurprising – the business community is often characterized negatively as a result of notable but essentially isolated scandals.
He admits that the negative shouldn’t be ignored and that weaknesses and misdeeds need to be addressed and rectified; but, he implores, the positive must be celebrated.
1. My first reaction is that the HBS administration should be commended for attempting to tackle a tough problem. A problem that the NY Times described as “seemingly intractable.” Was the effort sometimes heavy-handed or perhaps patronizing? Maybe. But very conscious of its role as a leading educational institution, Harvard tried. I admire effort.
2. The issue of elitism at this most elite institution is probably knottier than sexism. HBS wants to attract the super-successful and those who will become super-successful and have children raised with extraordinary wealth and opportunity. Since the beginning of time, some such children have grown up to become overbearing snobs and spoiled brats. I don’t think HBS can change that pattern, unless it stops admitting the children of the super-wealthy. And I don’t think it wants to do so. I don’t even believe that those who attend HBS want it to stop admitting the uber-wealthy and powerful.
3. Peters’ criticism of Harvard surprised me. Leadership and impact define the successful HBS applicant. If Harvard gave a few passes on these criteria, refusing to give out those passes, if they exist, would reduce the elitism problem, but not eliminate it.
4. I was disturbed by the lack of numbers and data in the elitism aspect of the story. How big is Section X – if it exists? Is its alleged existence a reflection of HBS’s size as well as its status? There are approximately 1850 MBA students at HBS. If 1% are in Section X, you can have a “section” of 20. At other smaller schools, 1% would not be even enough for a good party. And even at the bigger and wealthier schools, do they have the same issues? Probably, but on a smaller scale.
5. Like Dr. Pfeffer, I too wonder if the “networking” aspects of the MBA have not grown to be too big a part of the experience. The “network” should not be a prime motivation for getting an MBA; it is a benefit of the MBA experience. Also the best way to grow one’s network is to show how much you can do for others.
6. Again, the most thoughtful response was Lonstein’s in Harbus. The HBS students I know both professionally and personally do not resemble the ones described in the NY Times article. In the mid-1990’s, my late son’s counselor at a camp for children with cancer happened to be an HBS student. Other HBS students whom I have met through my work have been truly impressive people of fine character. Have I met a few bad apples? Yes, but I have at other schools too. Does HBS attract more of them than other schools? Probably. But they still are not the majority and should not be perceived as defining the school’s culture.
By Linda Abraham, president and founder of Accepted.com and co-author of the new, definitive book on MBA admissions, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.