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Debate on Grade Disclosure Takes Center Stage In Spangler Auditorium

Evolution vs. Intelligent Design. Redline vs. Grafton Street. NPV vs. APV. These are big questions. But none has gotten the HBS population as energized as the debate over grade disclosure.
Students, faculty and the administration are awaiting the results of a recent Student Association poll, but those in attendance at the Leadership & Ethics Forum’s Debate on Grade Disclosure in Spangler Auditorium on December 7 got an early taste of the arguments on both sides of the issue. Members of SA, as well as MBA Program Chair Rick Ruback were in the audience.

The motion for the debate was “This House would allow grade disclosure.” Mike Walsh (NJ) for the proposition, opened by giving some history behind the decision to end grade disclosure in 1998. Originally, he explained, non-disclosure was an effort to reduce the differences in the competitiveness of the January and September cohorts. Walsh went on to present the benefits of allowing grade disclosure: providing students with the right incentives to focus on academics, reducing negative perception among outsiders, and returning to the method of doing things that had served the school well for three quarters of a century.

Rob Bennett (ND) led the opposition charge. “HBS students do not need external motivation to perform,” he explained, citing students’ strong academic motivation. Instead, he argued, the two crucial pillars of HBS are a balance between academics and extracurricular activities and encouraging academic risk-taking.

The argument moved on with the next two speakers. Dylan Bourguignon (NH) for the proposition, focused on the needs of career switchers. Sandra Nudelman (NI), the fourth speaker, replied that career switchers might be hurt by disclosure. Far from it, replied the proposition: a poor grade in FIN1 could helpfully steer a would-be investment banker away from a disastrous career move.

Next Bourguignon argued the value of an HBS MBA would be destroyed by the continued refusal to disclose grades, especially as other business schools move toward disclosure. The opposition countered that grading at HBS was too subjective to be a valuable test given the significance of class participation and the inherent disadvantage for non-native English speakers. Furthermore, Nudelman went on, there would be no brand dilution. Leadership, she argued, is learned through activities, not just in section, and business skills are acquired both in and out of the classroom. Disclosing grades would inevitably diminish teamwork, she insisted.

“What would Eric Peterson do?” demanded Jonathan Kelly (ND), the final speaker for the proposition. “He would argue just as the opposition has.” Citing the need for everyone to bring their best effort to the classroom, and the injustice for employers, Kelly argued that HBS students must be accountable. The closing speaker was Adrian Brown (NC) who countered provocatively by asking the audience why, if we were great leaders before we came to HBS, we should suddenly turn into “a bunch of miserable failures” upon arrival. Grade disclosure, he insisted, was a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and going back to the old way of doing things cannot be the right solution.

Following the formal debate, the floor was opened to the audience, who responded enthusiastically with their opinions and questions. Among the points raised was the harm done to non-traditional students; the benefits of having professors take more responsibility for improving class discussion; the impact of the popular press on the administration’s decision to reexamine the grade disclosure policy; and the possibility of changing the current grading system by adding more categories or changing the percentage of each category awarded.

To close the debate, the chairman took two votes. The first vote was against the motion, by a majority of 44 to 6, with 4 abstentions. The second vote asked the audience to vote on which side had made the stronger case in the debate. Again the opposition won, but this time by just a single vote, showing how evenly matched the teams were.

From the vigorous debate and strong audience participation, it’s clear that while some at HBS may see grade disclosure as a fait accompli, many others are eager to have their voices heard before any final decision is made.

Leadership & Ethics Forum

Wednesday’s debate on grade disclosure brings to a close a busy term for the Leadership & Ethics Forum. Over the past three months, the club has organised over one dozen events in its mission to “challenge the HBS Community to consider, and debate leadership and ethical issues.” Many of these have been featured in the Harbus.

Some of the term’s highlights include:

The very first student club event of the term, speaker Stephen Young on the subject of moral capitalism.

A mixed team of experienced KSG and HBS debaters successfully persuading an HBS audience that “management consulting creates no value.”

The annual grudge match HBS-Yale SOM debate in New Haven, in which Yale unjustly snatched a late victory.

Professor Robert Frank, a leading thinker on game theory and corporate ethics, with his fascinating lecture on the topic “What price is the moral high ground?’

Film showings of Wall Street, A Few Good Men, and The Corporation.

The interview last Tuesday between Professor Bill George and ex-Co-Chair of Goldman Sachs John Whitehead, a Leadership & Values Initiative event that the club co-sponsored with the Finance Club and the Social Enterprise Club.

Early next semester, the club will host several high-profile speakers, including:

Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways, January 19

Hank Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs , February13

Dov Seidman, a leading thinker on ethics and corporate governance (TBA)

December 12, 2005
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