Harvard Business School Must Improve Student Culture

The American Dream isn’t just about personal aggrandizement.

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The BWW 2014 328d is presented at the New York International Auto Show, in New York's Javits Center, Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in New York.

The Sunday New York Times carried a rather shocking front page story about efforts to combat inherent sexism that was holding female students back at Harvard Business School.

The shocking thing for me wasn't that male students might dominate classroom discussions or that female students might need coaching on how to speak up or that mostly male faculty might have an intrinsic bias towards assertive male students when it comes time to give grades, half of which are based on amorphous "class participation."

To me, the most shocking report in the story was that the social culture amongst the students places immense value on their personal wealth, such that students form a social hierarchy – infecting even the dating scene – based partly on personal wealth. There seemed to be a glorification of wealth. "The men at the top of the heap worked in finance, drove luxury cars, and [posted pictures of] lavish weekend getaways on Instagram, many students observed in interviews," Jodi Kantor reported. Students described a "Section X" secret society of super wealthy male students, who live in luxury hotels and won't ever need a paying job, attending Harvard just so they can learn to invest their family money. Women students reported feeling sized up according to the most materialistic qualities.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Is that really the deal at Harvard Business School? Maybe I'm naive, but I found it disconcerting. Is that really how we're preparing the next generation of our best and brightest? (Note that when I did ask one friend, who graduated from Harvard Business School a decade ago, she said this was not at all her experience.)

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted in response to the article: "Dear Yale Law School: Thank you for being the antithesis of Harvard Business School." She's on to something here. Harvard Business School could change its culture of worshiping personal wealth. At Yale Law School (from where Neera and I both graduated) students have no idea who among them comes from a wealthy family. Indeed, a student driving a Ferrari would likely be off-putting or seen as ostentatious. The most admired students are those who impress others with particularly insightful comments. The Yale School of Management (the university's business school) is similar, as it tends to attract business students more curious about theories than about the practice of business.

This culture of valuing intellectual curiosity isn't an accident. There are no grades at Yale's law or business schools (nor, for that matter, at its medical school). So there's no need to compete against each other or for the professor's attention. Indeed, one reason students choose Yale's law, medical or business schools over Harvard's is because of the collaborative environment at Yale compared to that at Harvard, where rumors have it that Harvard students will tear pages out of library books to ensure other students can't learn the material.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

And, perhaps more important, Yale places extremely high value on public service. Students spend considerable pro bono time solving real problems facing low income Americans. And Yale faculty and deans openly urge students to go on to serve at the Justice Department or to work on behalf of poor people who cannot afford legal help or to become law faculty themselves.

There's no reason Harvard can't improve its student culture.

First, Harvard's graduate programs should drop grades altogether – as Yale has done. In addition to improving the feeling of community and collaboration, eliminating grades might also solve the current problem at Harvard Business School of male faculty unconsciously giving male students better grades because of the subjective grading where 50 percent of the grade is based on the professor's view of a student's class participation.

Second, Harvard Business School could help its students get outside their own skin and get in touch with the struggles many people face. Rather than assigning Harvard students to convince poor people in Ghana to buy L'Oreal shampoo or in China to buy Intel computers, Harvard Business faculty could help students gain practical experience improving the efficiency of a free medical clinic in Ghana or a failing public school in Boston. Helping those less fortunate might leave Harvard students feeling a little less self-satisfied with their own inherited wealth and/or a little less enamored of other students' inherited wealth.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Third, faculty may want to self-assess how much they may be glamorizing wealth in their off-hand remarks as they teach. Faculty can do much to set the tone and pass along values because students look up to them.

Finally, to the extent that Harvard's admissions decisions are not wealth-blind, it may be time to rethink that. Harvard's endowment is plenty big as it is.

America has high hopes for what its brightest students can produce. And yes, of course, the American dream is partly about maximizing the entrepreneurial opportunities that our free society and capitalist economy offers. But the American dream isn't just about personal aggrandizement. What would our Founding Fathers think of America's brightest students worshiping private jets and Ferrari cars? Don't forget, our Founding Fathers were willing to pledge their fortunes (as well as their lives and sacred honor) to the cause of building a true democracy and a community of free thinkers. Harvard Business School may need to rethink the values it is passing on and the type of community it is building.

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