Harvard Business School’s Bizarre Rich Kids Problem

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.

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  1. middle seaman

    There are two separate issues here: women at HBS and HBS relationship with rich kids.

    It’s a well-established practice to help the disadvantaged. We try to do it with the poor (though ever less so), members of minority groups, people with special obstacles (ADA). Morally and socially it’s the efficient and right thing to do. Discrimination and disadvantages of women in many fields doesn’t require repetition. HBS is doing the right thing. Are they doing it well? We don’t know.

    HBS attitude towards its rich students resembles the government attitude towards the rich. We don’t like it, but it isn’t going to change.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You haven’t seen my post on what HBS is treating a women’s issue. It is not a women’s issue. It’s a program design issue that has broader ramifications.

      In addition, there’s no evidence what they’ve done is helpful (remember, the goal is to help women have more career success, not feel better about HBS…unless, again, the real goal is to get more alumni donations). Way too soon to tell. Consider Head Start. The extra attention led to superior performance while the kids were in the program, but the gains deteriorated, with the result the impact was not durable. And the HBS efforts (as I will discuss) had more of a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” flavor than Head Start, which is a well established, widely lauded program.


      1. Linden

        According to the article: “By graduation, the school had become a markedly better place for female students, according to interviews with more than 70 professors, administrators and students, who cited more women participating in class, record numbers of women winning academic awards and a much-improved environment, down to the male students drifting through the cafeteria wearing T-shirts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the admission of women. Women at the school finally felt like, “ ‘Hey, people like me are an equal part of this institution,’ ” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a longtime professor.”

        I wouldn’t call that nothing.

    2. winstongator

      Are you sure that there aren’t special policies to admit these ultra-rich students? Do you think they have the most impressive grades, GMAT, & work experience? The easy way to fix the problem, and one Yves alludes to, is to not admit them unless they have fairly earned their way in. When in, force them to do the same caliber of work.

      Does Stanford or other top MBA programs have similar problems?

      1. s spade

        GW Bush went there. Does that tell you anything?

        HBS has been living on its reputation for about thirty years, during which time business has abandoned even the pretense of serving social goals. What is left is not worth agonizing about. Meritocracy was always mostly myth; these days it is nothing but myth.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I came across a video clip of GW when he was in a debate as a candidate for Texas governor. He was able to make unscripted, cogent arguments, and use complex sentence structures and multi-syallble words correctly. It was a stunning contrast with Bush as Prez.

          It made the claim that he wasn’t stupid when he went to HBS more credible. Bush looks to have seriously pickled his brain with all his years of alcohol abuse.

          I don’t know why HBS has gone to such lengths to curry rich donors. The school never needed money. It always shown a good profit on its program. Why does HBS need a $2 billion endowment? That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t do real research and can’t possibly give out that much in financial aid. This is clearly about enriching the administrators.

          1. ScottS

            Regarding Dubya, I’ve heard that when he ran for governor he was practically run out on a rail for being the “egghead from Harvard” and a Connecticut Yankee.

            If true, it seems he internalized that particular lesson.

            Aside from all the awful things he did, I feel like he’s a bit of a sad, pitiful, tragic figure. All he wanted was to be president of baseball, but they wouldn’t take him. He had to settle for president of the US.

            But to your point — I don’t imagine HBS needs the money as a resource to do things with. I imagine the culture is rotten and the kind of people there now are the kind who think money is just a way of keeping score. Hence the large “endowment.”

            1. ScottS

              Sorry, not governor — Texas’s 19th congressional district, 1978.
              From: http://wthefilm.com/guide/pages/27-Hance-Defeats-Bush.html

              Hance Defeats Bush

              “Kent Hance served in the Texas State Senate from 1973 to 1978, when he ran successfully as a Democrat for the 19th Congressional District. The seat had been held for a generation by popular Democrat George H. Mahon, long-time chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Hance’s opponent in the general election was a young Republican businessman from Midland, George W. Bush. The 19th had long been one of the more conservative areas of Texas, and this conservative trend should have favored Bush. However, Hance portrayed Bush as “not a real Texan” because of his privileged upbringing and Yale education. Hance won by six points–the only time Bush was ever defeated in an election. Hance later said in an interview that after that election, Bush vowed that “he wasn’t going to be out-Christianed or out-good-old-boyed again,” and developed the folksy image that eventually carried him to the White House. Hance was reelected two times.”

              So, Dubya isn’t that stupid.

            2. JTFaraday

              Yeah, there was an awful lot of score keeping evidenced in that article. At that level especially, I’m not sure why it’s supposed to matter so much.

              Is there anything they don’t keep score on?

          2. Synopticist

            George Bush was never dumb, and he still isn’t. He’s smart as a whip.

            He’s lazy, and intellectually incurious, but he’s very, very clever. The whole folksy cowboy thing was always a fake.

            That’s the great secret of GW’s political success. He ISN’T stupid. His opponents always always though he was an idiot, and as a consequence, never properly prepared, they never took him seriously enough. They thought he was dumb, and they could take him on with one hand behind their back, and still whip him easy.
            So that’s what they did. But he wasn’t, and they couldn’t.

            The pattern goes back to his first victory as Texas governor, right up to fighting al qeada in Iraq. His enemies never realised they were up against a guy as clever as they were. they mis-underestimated him. Again and again.

            Gore reckoned he could win just by sneering at him. In 2004 the dems thought all they needed was a guy who’d served in Vietnam. If people had just cottoned onto the fact that he was genuinely clever, he’s never had achieved anything.

            1. skippy

              Cunning methinks… with lots of support from the right people.

              skippy… Remember what he did to his Enron buddies… eh… lol… X-mas cards with congrats and expectations of WH sleepovers… ROFLMMAO~

            2. anon y'mouse

              during Bush’s campaign, Pelosi’s daughter was in the press corp and doing a documentary on him which later received attention in alternative parts.

              there’s 5 minutes of that film that prove that the dumb yokel thing was an act. in some personal comments to her, the mask dropped. that guy was sharp.

              that is when I first became very worried about the constant “he’s so dumb. if it weren’t tragic for us, it’d be funny” atmosphere being generated in the public arena.

      2. Jim in SC

        I have heard for years that ‘if you need to go to Harvard’ because of your wealth or status–if you are, say, an African prince with immense oil or mineral wealth–then you have preference in getting into the business school.

        I don’t have any association with HBS, however. In my own business school, we were working too hard to notice people overspending.

  2. capitalistic

    Not sure why this HBS article is surprising. I didn’t attend HBS but I attended a nearby private business school and witnessed the same excess, preferential treatment and apathy. It’s part of life actually: Remember, Mitt Romney was given the fast track due to his lineage.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I think you are missing the issue. You might need to read the article to get a better flavor, if you haven’t yet.

      When I was at HBS, there were rich kids. Pretty much everyone ignored them except as objects of curiousity. We didn’t see them as all that different. And if they had gone off on expensive ski trips together, no one would have cared.

      The anxiety about the socializing suggests that HBS is now perceived to be much more about networking than it used to be. That’s actually sort of misguided, since a lot of evidence suggests that people who have a lot of weak ties do better than people who have fewer strong ties (in terms of job searches, for instance). So you don’t need to go pal around with these folks to get the bennies. A casual acquaintance will probably be just as useful (maybe even more so. For instance, I wouldn’t want to invest my money with a former drinking buddy. I’d worry the relationship would cloud my judgment and make it hard to fire them if they screwed up).

      1. Jim Haygood

        ‘HBS is now perceived to be much more about networking than it used to be.’

        It’s ALL about networking in politics. Look at the long run of Ivy League presidential governance since 1988.

        Was G. W. Bush at HBS to learn about business management? He made his first millions via a minority share in a Texas Rangers sports franchise that he had nothing to do with managing, other than supplying political favors.

        This is the American system!

        1. sierra7

          Mr. Haygood….good comment!
          I have several grandchildren here in college here in CA….
          I often forcefully encourage them to “….build their ‘Roledex'”.
          It’s so overwhelmingly about “connections” as it is about shoclastic achievements…..No matter HBS or a small college in the Midwest…….
          Build your Roledex…..

      2. DavidS

        Business school is 100% about the social side.

        No one cares what you learn while you’re enrolled or after you graduate as soon as you receive your piece of paper with the luxury brand name on it.

        The network is everything.

        The most striking thing about the follow-up NYT article was how none of the students were willing to go on record to speak against the wealthy students.

        Mammon is America’s only god now. We’ll hardly hear a peep from the 99.9% as the extremely wealthy complete their friendly takeover of society.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          No, that isn’t correct.

          The HBS network never did me an iota of good. “Networking” is completely overrated. It’s a bunch of people selling and no one buying. And exposure to many of the people in my section and class often made me LESS, not more, inclined to work with or engage them. Prolonged interaction allows you to see someone’s warts. The people I know who did network a lot (as in were deeply involved in campus activities that exposed them to a lot of people) weren’t more successful in career terms than the nerds who kept their noses to the grindstone so they could land a good summer job the first year which would then position them to get hired by a well-respected employer.

          Put it another way: Jamie Dimon is considered to be a standout HBS success. I know people in his class (the year behind mine) and he was considered to be a flaming asshole back then. I’ve not heard anything to suggest he “networked” or that he or his classmates regard that has having an iota to do with how he did.

          Harvard is an employment agency. What did me good was that my credentials got me into Goldman and later McKinsey. Those brand names on my resume (and the McKinsey network) did me good. Harvard, not at all save the credential.

          1. Jim in SC

            I think Yves is right about networking being overrated. I think the nerds did just as well in their careers as the big networkers at my business school (Columbia) too. It’s interesting that she thinks that internships would have been viewed as bs in her time at HBS. I started in Columbia’s January session twenty years ago, and didn’t get an internship, despite a lot of effort. Competition was huge. Now I think the January session is billed as for entrepreneurs and people who are going to be re-entering family businesses(as I eventually did). I think there is a recognition that the jobs just aren’t there. It’s not like the class of ’68, who had six or eight offers for every graduate.

            That said, I think the people who spent all their time looking for internships and jobs and barely went to class missed out. Maybe they were smart enough to get the grades, but not smart enough to understand the significance of the material, because I absolutely learned a ton at Columbia; my classmates were brilliant, and my professors fantastic. My business school experience could not have been better. I was coming from a background of philosophy, literature, and history of science. Studying economics, accounting, etcetera, was all completely new. It was necessary knowledge, and I think it is a wonderful preparation for entrepreneurship.

  3. Frederic Mari

    I went to London Business School recently and the criteria haven’t changed much… But, as usual, there is a lot of leeway in the way you interpret things.

    Something of significant social value? Plenty of rich kids will be able to point out to internships, summers in NGOs etc (indeed, far more than poor kids) to prove their leadership/social usefulness.

    That’s what’s going on, actually.

    It’s kinda sad it took business schools so long to figure out what gold diggers know: A bird in the hand beats two in the bush…

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      In the stone ages of my time at HBS, “experience” like internships and summers would have been seen as BS. It would not be seen as an accomplishment, which is what the admissions department required. Even the kids of CEOs and scions of rich families had to have gotten their hands dirty. But I agree, the Tom Peters idea is window-dressing.

  4. Roquentin

    I read the NY Times article and it all sounded like “This just in: water is wet and ice is cold.” You mean there’s class stratification at HBS? Next you’re going to tell me that there are criminals in prison.

    What’s shocking is how strangely sentimental they get about education, because it appears far too many people do really believe that tripe about it being a meritocracy. Education has nothing to do with that, it’s all about preserving class structure and passing on advantages and privileges to one’s offspring. This is also a big part of why people will put up with getting gouged on tuition endlessly. It’s barely about knowledge at all. It’s about getting into the club, stamping your resume with the right institution, meeting the people who can connect you with most of the power and money in the US and rest of the world.

    I should also probably admit that since I spent my entire upbringing in public schools and went to a large, land-grant state university talk like this really gets under my skin.

    1. petridish

      Absolutely, “water is wet.”

      Yves says,

      “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”

      Don’t have to worry about PERFORMANCE??? Remind me again why a HBS “degree” is worth ANYTHING? And more to the point, why anyone who doesn’t breathe the rarefied air of Harvard should worry about what goes on there?

      So some at HBS aren’t getting the “experience” they think they deserve because others have too much money.

      Boo effin’ Hoo. Welcome to the real world.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        HBS has a forced grading curve and a certain % (about 7%) is guaranteed to be expelled or quit in anticipation of that.

        Moreover, the plum employers hire only people who got honors the first year (top 20% of class). So believe it or not, academic performance does matter, particularly if you want to get hired by a consulting firm or on the investment banking side of Wall Street, and at most PE funds (not as sure re hedge funds, I think they’d want people with trading acumen, which means I can’t see why they’d recruit much from HBS. But there are always exceptions). McKinsey and Goldman in my day hired only from the top 10% of the HBS class (as in both would talk to the second year profs to find out who in the first year honors crowd were the standouts, since people would already have gotten and accepted offers by the time the school had determined who would be a Baker Scholar, which is the top 5% of the class).

        The hiring top academic performers is (or at least was) part of the branding of big ticket service providers. They’d walk into big corporate clients with the client knowing EVEN IF IT HAD B-SCHOOL GRADS that its staffers were the ones who couldn’t get hired by Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Bain, etc.

  5. allcoppedout

    Sociology takes a very different tack on this – a good summary is Jane Marceau’s work – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Family-Business-Making-International-Elite/dp/0521125553/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378982439&sr=1-6&keywords=making+business+elite

    She develops Parkin’s notion of techniques of exclusion used to keep the best education and work for the already affluent. When I worked at INSEAD (France’s HBS) it was more or less impossible to find any students who were not networked through a royal route of prep schools, the right universities or grandes ecoles. There was much less privilege at Lille Polytechnique, probably better teaching and student performance …

    Teaching in business schools is mostly junk and massively biased to managerialism/financialisation. Standard books on organisational behaviour, business economics, business ethics, HRM, strategy, research methods, marketing, finance and planning cover a tiny portion of real world issues and are all standardly acritical – as bad as neo-classical economics as all there is to say on that subject. Entry qualifications can usually be crammed.

    There is some business education using critical perspectives, typically Critical Theory or what we now see as Hudson, Black, Kelton, Keen heterodox offerings and even deconstructive approaches to organisation behaviour and design.

    The massive ‘professionalisation’ of management has developed as a fashion industry – a classic paper is http://www.mbc.org.br/mbc/uploads/biblioteca/1158003535.99A.pdf

    My own view is we have generally been shafted by business school teaching-indoctrination and find it hard to escape the sunk costs involved in working hard to pass tests set. On the gender issues I’m inclined to think we should look harder at how we exclude decent people not conned by our medieval work ethic through workplaces not fit for family or democratic values. Thanks to the ‘success’ of business schools, America has more poor than the whole population of Spain. The rise of business education correlates rather well with manufacturing decline and the finance curse.

    In the middle of this spectacular failure, students are far more likely to be taught by academics rather than former practitioners and to seek ‘prestige’ degrees in a world with less social mobility than ever. Around the world you find something very similar to the 7% of British kids sent to private schools and their massive over-representation in our best universities and professional training. I did my graduate school about the same time as Yves and didn’t notice a rich brat problem either. Going back to my old university to teach the following year I was amazed by the 35% of private school kids and the total absence of the old ‘university of the people’ ethos.

  6. Swedish Lex

    Our daughter (12) lives in France and:
    1) want’s to be a lawyer in NYC defending abused women, half time.
    2) other half spent at the NY ballet (she dances 15 hrs/week)
    3) third half spent hanging out in NYC.

    She is a self-declared feminist (as of 3 years ago) with a great interest in fashion.

    She also want’s to attend “a great American university”. Larry Summers, you had it coming :)

  7. Massinisa

    Yves, fat?! Looking at her now makes that VERY difficult to imagine!

    Good job Yves. Must have taken some work.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, when I was 11, I was 5’2″ and weighed 155 lbs. I’d been fat and totally non-athletic from the get-go (I was even a really big fat baby, 30 lbs at my first birthday).

      Now that many kids are fat, it probably wouldn’t be so terrible but I was huge by the standards of that day.

      1. Lumberjack76HC80

        Yves, for the record, you were neither fat (actually you were quite thin) nor unattractive by high school (or in college, for that matter). But the rest of your point about “gender programming” is spot on.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          How considerate of you to weigh in! I recognize “jack” (I’m flattered you read the blog!), who was a fellow competitive speaking/debater in high school. But I had gone through 2 rounds of dieting by the time you met me.

  8. steve

    This same thing went on at Ivy league medical schools also. The rich kids went to Aruba on breaks. Like you, I didnt care that much as i was married and working full time (just for the first two years before clinical, then just part-time). What did hurt was that test dates were changed to accommodate the parties and trip dates of the rich kids, making it difficult on us who were working and had arranged our schedules with the scheduled test dates in mind. I actually had one professor apologize to me for this. Yes, the rich kids got into the good residencies also. Just the way the world works. The surprising thing is that so many people are surprised when these kinds of stories come out.

  9. Massinissa

    The REAL takeaway from this article is how SUCCESSFUL the meritocracy propaganda has been.

    When Toto pulls away the curtains, people are blindsided and the way they thought the world worked turns out to be a cruel fiction. “If America is NOT a meritocracy, then golly gee willikers, what have I been TAUGHT all my life?!”

    It would be nice if more people woke up from this silly fantasy, but for the most part pulling away the curtains only induces denial.

    1. ambrit

      Dear Massinissa;
      The Toto analogy resonates. Pull the curtain away, and we’re still in the Wonderful Land of Oz!
      What worries me is; what happens next? The curtain has been whisked away, the wizard exposed, our dreams shattered. The usual next act in this play is the ‘liquidation’ of the wizard and his/her minions. There’s the rub. Can anyone provide an example of a major social change that skips the ‘Terror’ phase?

    2. jrs

      David Greaber is interesting on this. He says that even though the average lower middle class person has very little chance of say starting a business and getting filthy rich off it, or using their state college degree to become a wealthy executive that chance is still better than the chance they have to suceed through the elite college and internship track. Hence the support among some for the right. Though if we had an egalitarian radical left ..

  10. vlade

    Modern BS are, to a nontrivial extent, marketing themselves as places where you can network and they even teach networking. Bringing in rich kids helps networking (but ideally you incentivise them not only to network with whom they know already… ) – or at least helps to sell networking (when they do end up talking only to their old pals).

    It’s more and more not what you know, but who you know. There’s also the old saw (how true, I don’t know) that 80% of higer level jobs are might be advertised, but will end up being filled by a friend of a friend.

  11. craazyman

    why don’t they get together and hold a bake sale?

    that’s how churches used to do it when they needed the cash.

    They’ve already sold their souls, but selling cupcakes and cookies might work! ho ho ho. Hohos. Anybody remember those? they were pretty good.

    1. ambrit

      Dear craazyman;
      Bake sale!?
      Comeon now craazy, the time honoured tradition here is to have a Financial Books Cook Off!

  12. Peripheral Visionary

    The Ivy Leagues have always attempted to maintain a precarious balancing act, between admitting extremely competent and very promising students, and admitting the less-than-competent children of the ultra-rich. They have succeeded over the years by keeping the ratio of very competent on the high side.

    That may be changing, however, as the enormous financial burden of running a brand-name university (new dorms! new administration buildings! super-famous professors! new athletic facilities!) puts additional financial pressures on the universities that in turn lead to a more aggressive push for admissions that will drive donations. What really needs to change is for university finances to be brought into balance, but that is a much larger issue.

    I will disagree, however, with the service requirement: in many ways, it will be even more of a filter for the super-rich. Young people from impoverished families have bills to pay and don’t have the time to float around developing countries padding their resumes with nominal positions at nice-sounding non-profits while living it up with the locals. Resume-padding is already rampant, and would simply kick into an even higher gear with that kind of a requirement, further benefitting those who can afford the resume padding.

    The best solution on admissions is to go back to the basics: work samples. There are pluses and minuses to standardized testing, but if as part of admissions you simply sat the candidates down and handed them the sort of work they would be doing in their classes and saw how well they did at it, you would, well, figure out how well they would actually do at their classes.

  13. Banger

    The reason why HBS may show a preference for rich kids may be a little ore complex than you think. We have seen, in the past few decades a stunning growth in wealthy and very wealthy families. These families can afford enormous advantages in going to the best schools, hiring excellent tutors who use more sophisticated techniques based on social-science research whereas the public school system has cut back on enrichment programs and has, in many ways, ignored learning theory in creating classes.

    Frankly, and no offense to you Yves, whether HBS turns out to be a finishing school for hereditary aristocrats or to enable middle-class students to become more expert operatives for the oligarchs is utterly irrelevant to me since the policies taught at biz graduate schools are often destructive to civilized life, in my view. I’ve worked with the high flyers and the spreadsheet jokeys and have never been that impressed. Just look at the results.

    1. AbyNormal

      ‘just look at the results’…hi5 Banger!

      “Increase Mather, President of Harvard University, in his treatise on Remarkable Providences, insists that the smell of herbs alarms the Devil and that medicine expels him. Such beliefs have probably even now not wholly disappeared from among us.”
      James Henry Breasted, The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus: Hieroglyphic Transliteration, Translation and Commentary

      Glad to see you chime in Yves!!

    2. susan the other

      Always have a hard time stereotyping subgroups. I’ve got no problem stereotyping the entire system. It sucks. One thing has always annoyed me beyond ever being polite about it – it is the glossed over fact that the system, for all of its affirmative little actions, avoids women, poor people and minorities and this avoidance is still bred in the bone. it is just one more form of extraction. The system has a life of its own. Remember, “the purpose of the system is to perpetuate the system.”

      1. Banger

        It is central to understand that one of the central truths about the study of systems is that systems seek to perpetuate themselves unless they are populated by human beings who have some sense of being part of a larger system.

    3. jrs

      Yea, there may be a belief it is defending intellectual standards, and aiming for intellectual standards I have no problem with. But defending the system is really just defending the system. A system in which most of the good things in life (from access to healthcare to political influence to interesting work) will flow to the very few.

  14. allcoppedout

    Some recent work at the London School of Economics shows most people would rather be anywhere else but work most of the time. I can detail 40 years of similar and to be honest I hate most work environments, though enjoy other aspects of work.
    Business schools rarely let students loose in such research or genuine reflexive methods and instead teach dross that allows answers to questions totally distorted from reality and a questioning approach. Taddle like excellence is taught with no mention of devastating critical material. We knew our economies were being hollowed-out back in the 80s, but continued to teach the very apparatchiks doing it, certifying them through programmes riddled with ideology. Even neo-classical economics has some scant material worth argument against – management theories are just fit for ridicule. One reason for the chronic levels in business schools is that the book-based teaching is cheap.

    Gender issues have been skewed towards the selfish group interests of middle and aristo women. Men, as Susan Faludi reminded us, get stiffed too and the big lesson of all this is the female lecturer who uses up the place a harassed student needs for her kids in the creche and various posh people lay claim to have fixed the problem for all. The single parent guy gets even less of a look in.

  15. RueTheDay

    “(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”

    This is the key issue IMO. Noblesse oblige is dead. The concept that with great wealth and power comes great responsibility (not only to the family business, but to society broadly) no longer exists with the last couple of generations of the inherited uber rich.

  16. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

    Wow – 40% of the grade was class participation? Boy, did I pick the wrong grad school!

    Had a friend in undergrad tear up his Harvard admission, despite being a full free ride, as they’d asked “how will you pay for you education if we can’t continue your award?” Since no other sociology grad school had asked something so insulting (and he had his pick of the litter for acceptances) he saw no need to bother with an institution unable to keep to its committments…

  17. F. Beard

    It probably is about Who you know. Pondering the identity of the 1%, I reckon a large number of them are believing Christians. I came to faith late in life but if I had done so earlier I might have had it all:

    It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it. Proverbs 10:22

    Ironically, it is non-Christians who would benefit from ethical money creation but if they insist on winner-take-all then they should be content with little.

  18. Hugh

    For a while there with the GI bill, higher education was democratized. It was about personal growth, creating an informed citizenry, and a trainer for American industry. Universities then became more corporate in outlook, structure, and mission. They saw themselves as the trainers of the elites who would run the place. More recently, they have morphed again into a credentialing engine for kleptocracy. Ordinary Americans are increasingly being priced out of higher education all together. Those who persist take on vast and unrepayable debt. And what we are talking about with the Harvard Business School is a couple levels above that, first because it is a graduate program and second because it is at one of the ultra elite schools.

    Personally, I have no sympathy for either side in this. I could care less about the frictions between would-be elites and their rich masters, when the purpose of both groups is to gain the social, not educational, credentializing necessary to enter into the highest levels of those who loot and prosecute a class war against us. If the Harvard Business School fell into a crack in the earth tomorrow, we all would be better off.

  19. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Rich kids don’t really need to go to Harvard.

    But they go because they need to see, for the first time, how the 99.99% they have to ‘manage’ for the rest of their lives look like.

    It’s no good living on the top floor of the Metropolis all the time.

  20. Neal Deesit

    One of his former professors at HBS recalls the Shrub :

    “[George W. Bush] didn’t stand out as the most promising student, but…he made it sure we understood how well he was connected,” Tsurumi said. “He wasn’t bashful about how he was being pushed upward by Dad’s connections.”

  21. The Dork of Cork.

    Sorry my eyes glazed over on this…….

    Who the hell cares about this shit ? its important if you have the particular “management” skills to farm $$ but means jack shit in the great scheme of things.

    Whats so interesting about social entropy dynamics anyway…….I mean it is important in so much as this affects the basis of normal peoples existence via the extraction of wealth but its only a fucking ants nest.
    Its a complex system full of simple people.

  22. Eric377

    If you are 27, why should the HBS know anything about whether you were given a lot of money? That’s far too old to be asking for parental income or wealth data, isn’t it?

  23. Cameron Hoppe

    Every job I’ve ever gotten, I’ve gotten by walking into the building and asking to speak with one of the managers, usually by name. I’d get the name by calling ahead. I’d just say I wanted to send my resume over and needed to know the name of the person to send it to. Put on a suit (bought at GoodWill for $25 or less), and show up the next morning. Ask for the guy or gal, then when they were in front of me, introduce myself, say I’d faxed over my resume the day before and happened to be in the area. Just wanted to make sure he or she had gotten it and see if there were any questions. What happened next? They would go get the resume, and start asking questions. Instant interview!

    Now I’m doing the job hunt thing again, and my old ways do not work at all. Every place says apply through the website. Who’s the hiring manager, the recruiter? How do you find out? Unless you know someone in the company close to the division, you can’t find out. Everything is black-boxed now. Job submissions are to a computer, programmed to dust-bin 90% of applicants without so much as an explanation. How do you break through it? You need to know people. You need connections. The network is swiftly becoming all that matters. Talent, guts, willingness to learn, openness, honesty? They are seeming less and less valuable every day. In the formal economy, at least. HBS may just be a microcosm of that.

    1. JTFaraday

      No, I’ve gotten in “over the transom” in the back box era, albeit not in an economy this bad.

      I’m not sure one completely useless HR office, with which I later had occasion to grow intimately intimate (LOL), didn’t forever hold said insubordination against me.

      I went over their heads. I wasn’t one of their people. They didn’t want to make me one of their people. They wanted people the incoming MPA/MBA managers they wanted to hire could manage and that wasn’t me. It wasn’t my fancy degree snarling up their hierarchy, because I don’t have one.

      But you were always risking the possibility of running afoul of HR or another hiring authority doing that, breaking with stated procedure. What difference does it make if now there’s a computer?

      It is true some environments are more opaque than others, but that was also always true. If anything, the internet generally makes it easier, not harder.

      You have to do what you have to do.

    2. bob

      Very good summation of the “hiring” process these days.

      The cultural shift to everyone being a CEO in training doesn’t help either. No one will take responsibility for hiring someone!

      1. JTFaraday

        No, that just means you have to “hire” yourself and take responsibility for it yourself.

        In my last job, I think I even filled out my own “reference check” forms and filed all the paperwork with HR myself. No, I don’t “think”– I did!

        This might be an extreme case– or might not be, given how overworked people are– but I can see you’ve never worked in sales.

  24. Lune

    If you define a “network” as a way to gain advantage by excluding qualified people who are outside of the network, then it’s quite ironic that people who go to HBS so they can develop such a network are taken aback that there are actually networks out there that exclude *them*. Not a single student quoted in that article railed against the idea of an old-boys’ network; they’re merely upset that they’re not part of the most exclusive one. Pardon me while I get out the world’s smallest violin.

    I wonder if this movement towards emphasizing alumni networks is at all related with the movement away from training MBAs in actually running businesses and towards meta-industries like finance and consulting. It sounds archaic now, but plenty of folks with dirty shirtsleeves would go to business school and then go back to their industrial corporations to run factories or engineering shops. Now this seems so rare that they actually create special programs just for it (implying that a general MBA doesn’t actually serve to, you know, administer a business…)

    P.S. In my University days, it was widely believed that the smartest kids went into the PhD programs (especially science), the next smartest kids went to law and medical schools, the “average” kids got jobs right out of college, and the dumbest, loudest, most obnoxious frat boys ended up in B-school. And it killed the rest of us knowing that they would end up as our bosses one day.

  25. Odo

    What pisses me off is that bankers who buy an HBS degree call themselves “Harvard alums” on their CVs, when we who graduated from Harvard College know that only we are truly “Harvard alums”.

    1. John Jones


      In terms of learning do you think Harvard College
      will produce a better student/graduate than another University?

      Did you find any advantage of going there in terms
      of what or how you learn?

  26. Igor

    The blog post says:

    I’m sensitive to the issue [of gender biases of the society] by virtue of getting pretty much no gender programming from my parents

    So… maybe the problem is not with the society, but with children not being raised properly as boys and girls?

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