I’m late to write about the cover story in the Sunday New York Times magazine, on Harvard Business School’s efforts to promote “gender equity”. Part of my tardiness is simply due to being in catch-up mode, and because the piece is still generating conversation (see for instance, Paul Krugman), I put it on the back burner. Another reason is I’m loath to discuss the premise of the Harvard initiative, that women need special handling in order to do well. It’s the sort of framing of a problem that unwittingly reinforces gender bias. I’m sensitive to the issue by virtue of getting pretty much no gender programming from my parents (for instance, it was always “when you go to college and get a job” and never “when you get married and have kids”) and less than the normal amount from peers and teachers (by virtue of moving a lot and also being a fat and unattractive kid, and thus being taunted rather than being encouraged to be cute and flirtatious). For instance, women are trained not to interrupt men. I didn’t get that lesson, and my casualness about interrupting men horrifies some women and triggers certain men (and I’m not bothered by their anger, which I can tell pisses them off even more*), but it also means I don’t get interrupted by men anywhere near as much as most women do. To me, a lot of the cultural programming most women internalize as the proper way for them to behave is so unhelpful to them that it’s as if they believe that having their feet bound is a good thing.
In fact, it’s pretty clear that the various problems unwittingly revealed in the New York Times article are actually more fundamental, and the focus on gender issues allows Harvard Business School to sidestep more basic problems with its program. I’ll hopefully address that when I figure out how to do that without going on at undue length.
One proof of the thesis that the HBS program needs a serious rethink comes with the reactions to one of the themes of the article, that wealth stratification was an even more serious issue in the eyes of many students. The phenomenon was referred to as “Section X”, that the richer students socialized at a level (expensive junkets during school holidays! Pricey parties and meals while classes were in session!) that excluded most of their fellow students. The few that tried to keep up did so by going into hock.
My reaction? Who the hell cares about the social side of HBS? A graduate school is a professional school. You are there to learn skills. HBS in particular is a combination of trade school and employment agency. Its brand promise has been that it is a big factory that produces corporate executives, particularly CEOs. When I went to HBS, about 15% or 20% of the students were married and barely spent any time socializing at all. They lived off campus, went to classes, did their case preparation (daily sections meant homework every weeknight and over weekends), perhaps met with a study group, and kept social interaction with their classmates to a minimum because they needed to reserve what free time they had for their spouse. They didn’t seem to fare any worse, in terms of career success, for not being well integrated socially. Ditto the JD-MBAs (HBS and the law school did such a terrible job of coordinating calendars back then that the JD-MBAs had a nightmarish time and were clearly overbooked and overstressed).
But what appears to have changed since I attended HBS (1979 to 1981) is that the school has been targeting the children of wealthy families, presumably to cultivate them as future donors (why grow students to become rich people later? Just give rich people greater preference now!). The tipoff is this comment from management guru Tom Peters in a follow-up article in the Times:
To help bring the school’s culture back down to earth, Thomas J. Peters, a co-author of “In Search of Excellence” who has spoken at the Harvard Business School and has been a frequent critic of business education, suggested that the school apply a simple admissions rule: anyone from an ultraprivileged background needs to have done something of significant social value to be admitted.
“If you’re 27 years old and you’ve been given a lot of money, that’s plenty of time to have done something,” he said, adding that he and many of his friends at Stanford Business School in the 1970s were veterans. “Why can’t that be in the admissions criteria flat out?”
This section suggests that HBS has abandoned what was the single most important question in its application (and the essays were weighed heavily in the admissions process): “Describe your three most important accomplishments and explain why you view them as such.” Another important admission criterion was the reference letters (I can’t recall whether two or three were required), and it was pretty much impossible to get admitted if you didn’t have at least one from a boss type who knew your work well.
I have no idea how the admission process has been changed to serve the school’s fundraising aims, but clearly, that’s what happened. And the reason for the fixation with trying to run with the rich kids is that it appears to have become a parallel employment track (or at least some of the students rationalize it as such). If you become good buddies with these heirs, maybe they’ll bring you into the family business. Or if you go into wealth or asset management or want to start a venture, you’ll have a leg up in getting them to invest in your company’s products or your fledgling enterprise.
The other reason having ultra-rich kids is that they don’t have to worry about performance. Do you think any professor would fail the child of a heavyweight monied family unless he asked for it (say by bad behavior or by not participating in class, which in my day was 40% of your grade)? So even someone who was not intimidated by the habits of the uberrich in their midst could be rankled if some of those students weren’t as serious about the classroom experience as those less well off, who, gasp, really do need to get jobs (in my day, with one noteworthy exception, the heirs of wealthy families went to some length not to stand out and felt responsible to learn what the school had to offer since they expected to run or play lead roles in their family empires).
So the part that is suspect here isn’t that this is happening, but that the Harvard Business School administrators pretend that they are shocked that there is gambling in Casablanca:
Asked in an interview about Section X, Nitin Nohria, the school’s dean, sounded crestfallen because he had hoped the group had disappeared. “I thought it had pretty much been on its fingernail edges,” he said.
One has to question the dean’s sincerity or his understanding of organizational design, which is something business schools teach. Either way, his lack of understanding of how the student body operates, particularly after the school has engaged in a large-scale, unusual social experiment, does not reflect well on him and his colleagues.
* Mind you, I can behave myself in a professional context, as in being suitably respectful to clients. But that’s a different set of status rules.