Something subtle changed this past year…

Something subtle changed this past year..This institution stopped its use of the adjective “transformational” to describe the MBA Program. A query of the MBA Program website’s searchable text for the word “transformational” yielded eight hits four of which where from the same student quote and the others about a summer program. It is not uncommon in business to under promise and over deliver but there is also such a thing as truth in advertising. I wonder which one of these reason accounts for our silence about a transformational student experience.

As I told a friend the other day, “Grade disclosure was supposed to be part of a process and not and end state.” The goal in my mind was to foster an environment where community collaboration and individual academic vigor were maximized, but what seems to have occurred is that while students put increasingly more value on the class room experience other aspects of the equation were reduced in a zero sum fashion. I have to say that’s a bit sad, because even the best case method professors know that what makes the classroom experience meaningful is the relevance the case conversation has outside the classroom. In the classroom I have been appalled by the number of times in the first few weeks of class that a professor has asked a question, called on someone to answer the question only to have the student respond that they have that they have no intention of answering current the question but that they plan to with respond with the analysis he/she did the night before that was covered twenty minutes earlier in class. This phenomena in tandem with an increased willingness to shoot chip shots seems to characterize an academic experience that seems to be more largely comprehended in terms of individual achievement rather than the collective learning of the community. But it is more than form or technique in class that troubling, it is the realization that we are having fewer meaningful and substantive conversations as a community both inside and outside of the classroom in large part because our mindset about what matters has changed.

A conversation by definition (Merriam & Webster) is fundamentally about an exchange of intellectual or emotional currency. A reduction in the amount and quality of conversation in our community seems to signal that we view each other as having less to contribute to each other.

Our biggest challenge in raising the quality of our conversation as a community is our willingness overcome or fear associated with taking the risk to truly listen to others. The fear in these cases is that the payoff for the investment of time and energy to listen will be a paltry sum, to be delivered so far in the future it might be dismissed. But this mindset is not a community mindset; it is also a mindset that easily leads to a transformational experience. Many of most meaningful conversations that I have had have taken place with staff members; John and Kathy in the Post Office, Taalib in MBA IT, Matt in Media Services, and countless others from administrative assistants in Morgan Hall to emeriti faculty in Cumnock. These conversations in tandem with the conversations I had with my classmates solidified my experience at Harvard Business School as a transformational one. Such conversations helped me to go after the things I was most passionate about here and they also helped me to know what to fight for.

And for what its worth I don’t think the students here now are being collectively enabled by the institution to think more broadly about where they might invest their time in this regard. Lest we forget, Leadership is about setting priorities whereas the search balance is often about little more than failing to make priorities. Leaders, even those who attend HBS, have to make tradeoffs to be effective but being part of and building a greater sense of community should not be tradeoffs that students are encouraged to make, especially if they are to be equipped for the vocation of making a difference in the world.

We do a disserve as an academic enterprise when we forget that it is the process that matters most in the pursuit of the questions that matter most in our lives. In fact it is these very conversations that have fueled the pursuit of purpose in our students and has made Harvard Business School more than a transactional experience for many students over the past century. Going forward we should shudder to think that less conversation as community could in fact be more beneficial to the institution.

October 1, 2007
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