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Maybe It Is Time to Clean the Tank

Jonathan ponders how too much of a good thing can be a detriment-such as the overwhelming presence of recruiters at HBS.

My father purchased an aquarium and a number of goldfish when my brother and I were very young. As we grew older, my brother and I saw a number of fish come and go. My father was careful to clean the aquarium regularly and experiment with the environment that he created for fish, sometimes adding different plants, pebbles, innovative filtration systems, and from time to time decorative structures like a bubble powered treasure chest. In middle school I would later come to understand some of the more important idiosyncrasies of ecological systems and why my father’s maintenance of the aquarium was important in specific ways-ranging from getting rid of waste to accommodating the growth of the fish to moderating algae growth. Of these three, I was most taken by the role that algae played in an aquatic ecological system like the aquarium at my house.

As I remember it from Ms. Bryant’s eighth grade biology class, algae played a vital role in a pond but if allowed to grow out of control it could reach a point that was harmful even to the fish who loved its presence. I find something curious and telling about such a relationship, one in which too much of a seemingly good thing can become bad. It is even ironic, precisely because I usually subscribe to Warren Buffet’s notion from Mae West that “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Looking to my colleagues both in the EC and RC and empathizing with their current and heightening anxiety about recruiting I wonder if too much of a good thing is turning out to be bad for the students and the Harvard Business School as a whole.

In some ways the analogy between the Harvard Business School and an Aquarium is a little discomforting, but when you think about the attention to detail we pay to the aesthetic appearance of the community, the support systems in place that make this community run, the continuous experimentation, and the fact that students ultimately come and go year in and year out, it then becomes more plausible to conceive of the similarities. Now for a place like the Harvard Business School the algae in our ecological system would have to be recruiting, which in itself is a very good thing, its presence speaks to the health of the school, but in an overgrown state where it is known to the typical student as “Hell Week”…not so much. Over the past quarter century the school has found ways to navigate the difficult challenge of providing for the education of its students while acknowledging the need for many students to secure employment with the school’s help. Numerous accounts from alumni and faculty tell how the school took great care over the years to balance the role of recruiting on campus, sometimes with more success than other times.

In an aquarium, algae becomes problematic when it takes hold of the aquarium and instead of helping the fish to breathe it begins to suffocate them. Many students come to the Harvard Business School to have their dreams nourished; these ambitions are described in short order when making application to this school. The magic of the case method and the transformational experience percolates in the first few months of the RC and then the process is seemingly short circuited by recruiting. Time after time I have spoken with classmates and heard the angst in their voices as they decide to put their passions on the shelf beside dusty cases to pursue the “right job.” As they describe the “right job” I find that they are often not excited about it, consider it a stepping stone, they cannot go wrong with it, and they know that there is something better out there if they could stay away from the “herd.” On the other hand I have spoken with professors who bemoan second term of the RC when students’ intensity in the classroom tapers off and student absences become more casual both against the backdrop of recruiting. For these reasons it is time that the faculty respond to the growing influence of recruiters at the Harvard Business School thereby affirming the educational purpose of the school. I know that there are a number of things that compete for the faculty’s attention in moving the institution forward but I think addressing this issue would be time well spent. We are first and foremost in the business of educating leaders. How can we purport to be committed to high academic standards without a more affirmative stance in protecting the integrity of the learning environment? The faculty is the conscience of the school and such it is their responsibility to intervene and restore the balance. Although students will remain as helpless as Odysseus to the siren of recruiters, the faculty can protectively bind students to their purpose in studying here so that students can still hear the sirens and yet not lose sight of their path.

To be clear recruiting fulfils a vital role in helping to facilitate the process through which many of our students become gainfully employed between the RC and EC year and after school. It is important that the school develop vibrant and meaningful relationships with employers to secure a number of the operational aims of the institution including our ongoing relevance in business community as demonstrated by the ability of graduates to perform in “premier” enterprises. However, if we do indeed believe that the Harvard Business School has something special to offer to the world and the marketplace, then we should have enough integrity to stand firm and limit the interference of recruiting with the educational process.

Sweetheart deals with recruiters to facilitate organized, easier, and earlier access to students seems fundamentally at odds with fostering the vibrant academic standards extolled here. We cannot seriously expect that our students should not succumb to the suffocating of their passion and development without the faculty speaking together, both in word and deed, to reinforce the importance of what happens in the classroom. How much more could we accomplish if students were better able to focus on utilizing the classroom to incubate their passions rather than seeing the classroom as a distraction from getting the “right job.” If the “herd” is about anything-it is about safety in numbers. So, if it is the case that our students are not made to feel safe following their own path, I hope the faculty will help us figure out the way back home as individuals.

October 23, 2006
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