Up Close with Dean Clark

Last week, Dean Clark hosted the first in a series of open forums each year where students and faculty are welcome to come and ask questions about the school and the HBS community. And ask they did. A small but lively group showed up to chat with the Dean about everything from changes in the first year curriculum, to issues regarding diversity in the student body, to interpreting the recent Wall Street Journal rankings.

Polite and engaging, the Dean answered each question with significant detail. In response to one student’s question expressing his concern that some professors are perhaps allowing for too much ambiguity when teaching corporate governance in the classroom, Clark responded that while each faculty member will teach in a slightly different manner in the classroom, the general intention is to let students wrestle with problems in a sort of “planned cognitive dissonance.” While the Dean acknowledged that there were some situations where the answer should be relatively clear, he also pointed out that there are “lots of gray areas that are quite complicated and where figuring out what the right thing to do is often not very clear.” The school’s ultimate goal, Clark explained, is to give the students the opportunity to wrestle with the thorny problems and work to identify a creative solution to solve the problem.

With regard to a question asking about the school’s process of soliciting and incorporating feedback from alumni, Clark explained that the school strives to have several points of contact, including everything from serendipitous encounters with alumni across the globe to the more formal, targeted surveys sent out to alumni every five years. Clark estimated that he meets with approximately seven to nine thousand alumni each year during which he collects input on everything from how the alumni office operates to changes in the school curriculum. From the more formal survey process with alumni, which is typically planned to coincide with reunions, several consistent themes have emerged. As an example, Clark pointed to the recurring message delivered by alumni that the school must increase its emphasis on the human side of management in its curriculum. According to Clark, the administration got the message, internalized it, and has incorporated it into the current curriculum.

With regard to the contract between HBS and Restaurant Associates (RA), one student asked about the process of policy change at the school and specifically who the key decision makers were. Dean Clark explained, “there are different time constants in each of these different decision categories. In some cases there are certain things that we can change immediately because there are no constraints. The recent decision in IT to change spam control is such an example. In that case the decision surfaced in the morning and we made the call that afternoon. In contrast, if you look at something such as housing policy the constraints on what we can do are limited by such things as the law.”

With specific regard to the contract with RA, the catering service that supplies all of the school’s meal service needs, the Dean explained that the school is legally bound to a contract with the catering service for a set period of time which consequently is not something that can be changed immediately. The Dean also explained that while they had considered changing the contract with RA in the past to incorporate other vendors, they had decided against it primarily because the cost of having multiple food vendors on campus would be prohibitively more expensive, particularly as the school has a complicated food service operation. The Dean also suggested the school would continue to monitor the situation, as the increased flexibility may one day be worth more than the expected additional cost.

Student Association Co-President, Siddhartha Yog, asked the Dean to comment on the plans to use a recent donation by alumni to improve the quality of housing for students and the general construction schedule on campus. Clark explained that the current renovation of Baker library is the major project on campus, which is expected to be competed in 2005.

Clark does not expect any additional construction on campus before 2005 simply because the Baker renovation is so large. Following 2005 however, Clark expects the next major campus renovations, as a result of the recent alumni donation, to be centered on the Hamilton, Gallatin and Morris dormitories which will realistically be completed somewhere around 2009.

In response to a question regarding the recruitment of a wider diversity of ethnic backgrounds to the school, the Dean responded that the school’s recruitment efforts to attract a wider diversity actually go back to the mid-1960’s. Clark explained that today the school employs several strategies that include inviting prospective students to campus and also going out and recruiting. The school centers its efforts primarily in the large metropolitan areas where Clark estimated the school visits between 12 and 15 major cities in the US each year. In particular, the Dean highlighted the school’s recent efforts to reach out to college campuses and start educating sophomores, juniors and seniors about HBS and the curriculum, as an important part of its diversity outreach initiative.

Reflecting on the school’s efforts to date, Clark explained, “The school’s outreach efforts will continue to widen in terms of both the type of experience and the range of backgrounds we are looking for. We are trying to find the best potential leaders in the world and it’s a retail business.”

With regard to a question about the recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) rankings and the school’s reaction to them, Clark responded, “In general we pay a lot of attention to what people say about us but we don’t govern the school according to what they say.” In particular, the Dean expressed that, in his opinion, the WSJ rankings are the worst of all the ranking systems. For example, the WSJ ranking consistently places HBS as 8th or 9th, Stanford as 39th, and MIT as 30th, which the Dean suggested, should immediately prompt one to consider “What is the question they are trying to answer?” It turns out, the Dean explained, that if you dig a little deeper it becomes clear that the WSJ’s focus centers on the experience of recruiters at schools and whether or not students accept their offers.

“Stanford students,” explained the Dean, “have a reputation for being a difficult place to recruit, partly because of the attitude of the students and partly because there is a lot of demand for its students. In contrast, HBS students have a better reputation among recruiters as being generally more friendly, but they are also in high demand, and it’s hard for recruiters to get our students to accept their offers. In general, if you are school where your students are in high demand you are not going to do well in the WSJ survey.”

The Dean went on to explain that the school works hard to communicate constantly with these recruiters, who he described as not mincing words and can be counted on to tell the school exactly what they think. Clark summarized the situation: “We have worked hard to make their experience better on campus, but frankly we are not trying to make it easy either because we want our students to have lots of opportunities and many offers. So we want it to be kind of challenging to recruit at HBS but a great experience.”

The Dean did suggest that there was one observation in the WSJ survey that was worth thinking about – the general perception that HBS students are arrogant – a stereotype that has been long-standing and will take time to change. The Dean suggested that while he believes the school is changing that impression, it will take a collaborative effort by the entire HBS community to make a lasting change.

A student asked the Dean to identify the school’s top competitors in attracting the world-class leaders – be it from other business
schools or other graduate schools – and whether he is confident the school is succeeding in attracting the best candidates. The Dean responded that, “In the MBA market, the school’s primary competitor is Stanford. In executive education the school competes heavily with Wharton and Columbia, and very little with Stanford. In the faculty market, our primary competitors are Stanford, Chicago and MIT.”

Clark acknowledged however that there is a group of people who never apply to HBS that come from a much larger universe than just the MBA world. “This group represents people who are making decisions such as going to law school who really belong here. They don’t really want to be lawyers but they perceive that as the best option and they are making a mistake. In the end they will do fine because they are bright and capable but they won’t get the type of training that they can get here. In other words, they could be even better with HBS training,” explained the Dean.

Clark went on to point out that it is for precisely this reason that the school is expanding its outreach efforts and physically going out to recruit at colleges. The Dean concluded, “We need to reach people earlier in their careers to help them understand who and what we are. We are looking for people who have a desire in life to change the world. If you want to be a judge or a lawyer, you should go to law school. But if your visions is less defined, but you know you want to have a great impact on the world, you should really look at HBS as an excellent opportunity to do just that.”

December 8, 2003
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