An End to Grade Non-Disclosure at HBS?

In his recent meeting with the Student Senate, MBA Program Chair Rick Ruback, announced that the HBS administration may suspend the grade non-disclosure policy in the near future. While the announcement stirred a great deal of anxiety and confusion among the RCs, the controversy has subsided quickly, as the administration made it clear that the potential change in policy will not affect existing classes.

Realizing that my career rests unaffected by the potential change, I remain concerned whether the new policy will impact the overall education philosophy and student culture at HBS. Having always been a big believer in “the HBS education,” I now wonder whether the school remains truly committed to the core elements of participatory learning that distinguish it from any other academic institution.

Based on a brief survey, I found that an overwhelming majority of my classmates consider class discussion the crucial part of their academic experience at HBS. They value the open environment where they can argue and disagree, provide and receive criticism, and support or dismiss outrageous, out-of-the-box ideas. While this unique environment differentiates HBS positively from all other academic institutions, it introduces a serious degree of randomness to our ultimate “for-the-record” performance.

Sometimes we don’t get to say what we think; sometimes our best ideas get expressed just before we get a chance to speak; sometimes we withhold a comment, in order to let the discussion converge toward a new path. In other words, even if we put an outstanding effort into preparation for each class, nothing ever guarantees that this effort will get adequate recognition. So, if our ultimate “recorded” performance usually remains beyond our control, why should it ever be used to judge our abilities?

According to school officials, “Grades students earn are their own, and thus it seems fair that they be able to use them in their career search.” But how can a student’s grade be considered truly his or her own if it depends so heavily on 90 other people? If students start taking serious ownership of their grades, they would be foolish to continue contributing to their peers’ development; why educate competitors? If students focus exclusively on personal development and performance, how much of the “HBS community” will remain in Aldrich?

Recently, I lent a few handouts from my LEAD class to a friend from law school. Picking the most relevant and insightful articles, I realized that I hadn’t found them particularly exciting when I first read them individually. I started to appreciate them only after class. I tried to imagine how little benefit I would have extracted from the readings, had I not been guided by numerous insights and the personal experiences shared by my classmates. How much of that would I have enjoyed if my peers’ careers depended on how well I do in LEAD?

School officials maintain that grade non-disclosure makes it difficult for recruiters to select potential candidates. Moreover, they claim that it makes it difficult for career-changing students to distinguish themselves from the competition or to demonstrate their abilities in certain subjects. However, in submitting to these justified and reasonable claims, the proponents of the policy change are downplaying the importance of non-number-based evaluation and development of students that positively distinguishes HBS from competition.

If recruiters come to HBS to select candidates based on numbers, they are making the mistake of searching for talent in a pool that has been pre-selected based on factors other than numbers. If young professionals enroll at HBS hoping to distinguish themselves based on their classroom success, they are making the mistake of coming to an institution that claims to provide the majority of its opportunities outside the classroom.

Thus, if recruiters come to HBS, they should commit to investing time and effort into getting to know their candidates personally, instead of just screening through their grades. Similarly, if young professionals come to HBS seeking a successful career change, they should invest time and effort to distinguish themselves through diverse academic and professional opportunities across campus, instead of focusing on simple, air-time consumption in class.

Finally, in addition to career-related reasons for the policy change, the school administration expresses concern regarding overall student motivation, citing evidence that “many students feel that they have insufficient performance incentives at HBS because they conclude early on that they will neither become a Baker Scholar nor have difficulty meeting the graduation requirements.” But isn’t this the very factor that fosters the open and collaborative collegial environment in the classroom? Isn’t it also the very factor that motivates students to explore numerous extracurricular activities on campus-activities that would otherwise seem like a mere distraction from studying?

Two months into my HBS experience, I have yet to see any evidence of the “lack of motivation” among my peers…

Quick Facts:

* The current policy will be grandfathered for current classes.
* If enacted, the new policy would only allow, but not
require, students to disclose their grades. The
school will never disclose the grades without a
student’s permission.
* The current grading system (I, II, III, IV) will remain
in place.