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2008 – Retrospectives – The HBS Image

As 2008 comes to a close, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on some of the controversy the Harbus has chronicled in the first half of this academic year. From the Japan trek fiasco to Ahead of the Curve, these pages have brought some less-than-palatable topics to light over the past several months. As a result, many of us have been forced to take a closer look at the HBS community to which we belong and ask ourselves, how have these incidents affected our view of HBS?

Prior to coming to HBS, we were all aware of the school’s impressive reputation for accepting only the highest caliber applicants and helping graduates reach the apex of professional success. The fact that 90% of people accept the offer of admission to HBS is yet another sign of the school’s prestige. However, many of the students who are currently on campus chose to attend HBS despite some significant reservations about what their experience would be like.

One of the most common concerns among students was that their fellow classmates would be elitist or “a little stuck up.” This fear is probably grounded in the anti-HBS biases to which many of us were exposed before coming here. As described in When the Glory Fades (published in the September 29th issue of the Harbus), co-workers and friends often issued warnings not to “become one of them” or “come back ‘different'” after attending HBS.

Many people also worried that HBS “would be an isolated experience” where people were fiercely competitive. During the application process, an HBS grad told me that HBS “can be harsh,” and if I wanted a place where everyone would “be friendly and hug each other,” I should go to Kellogg. (Luckily, despite my strong preference for friendly places over harsh ones, I ignored his warning and applied anyway.)

Although I’m sure exceptions do exist, literally everyone I talked to who was concerned about being in an ultra-competitive environment has found HBS to be a warm, welcoming, and collaborative place. Those who feared their classmates would be “snobby” have realized that HBS “is filled with incredibly smart, driven, but down-to-earth people.” Many feel that, by and large, “the vast majority of people are humble and level-headed.” (Cue kumbaya singing.)

It is not terribly surprising that our perceptions of HBS changed as we transitioned from applicants to students. Not only have we gotten to know our classmates, our professors, and all the other people who are a part of this community, but many of us have also realized that we are not the outliers among our fellow students that we thought we would be. We knew we would be in a very diverse environment, but perhaps what we didn’t realize was that even with this diversity, HBS is, in many ways, a reflection of ourselves. Each of our classmates, no matter what their background, shares some components of our personalities in varying degrees, so on the whole, the image of HBS that we see isn’t very different from our own reflection.

Of course, HBS isn’t perfect, and this year we have seen some noticeable departures from the collaborative, down-to-earth community I’ve described. So, how have Ahead of the Curve and the Japan trek fiasco affected the warm and fuzzy feelings we’ve developed for this place? At first glance, Ahead of the Curve does not seem to have affected students’ perceptions of HBS, largely because most of us have not read the book. Students are aware that the book paints an unflattering picture of the school; however, most people feel it is not representative of HBS as a whole. One student commented, “I do think that it is likely an over-dramatization of the school in order to generate sales. That would be a shame.”

As for the Japan trek fiasco, while most people were disappointed and saddened by the incident, many saw this type of behavior as atypical for HBS, yet something that every large community must face. One student said, “While I wish the fact that we are at a top tier school would mean that people who would behave in such a way would already be screened out, I think that is just never going to happen. There will always be a subset of people who will act on poor judgment, but I don’t think it’s any more or less likely to happen here than other places. ”

Others, however, viewed the incident as confirmation of some of their fears about HBS. One student commented, “The Japan Trek fiasco reinforced my perception that there are indeed people at HBS who deeply embody the common stereotypes I held beforehand. In this case, the laid-back jokers who treat the MBA experience as an extended vacation.” Another said, “it did affect my perception, corroborating a belief that many people here behave immaturely and act with a sense of entitlement.”

It is clear that some students are more optimistic than others about the degree to which the fiasco and the book are representative of our community, but I think most people can’t help being affected by them. Like many students, I have not read Ahead of the Curve, and I can’t imagine doing so anytime soon. (I prefer to form my perception of this school based on my own experience, not a distorted view of someone else’s.) However, I still can’t say it hasn’t affected me. While I can’t be swayed by the book’s contents, its very existence represents a threat to the supportive, tightly-knit community most of us hope to cultivate. The Japan trek fiasco, which reminds us that the type of behavior we would like to eradicate from our community still exists here, has a similar effect. It forces us to accept that HBS can never quite live up to our ideal of it.

The end of the year is not only a chance for reflection but also a time to look to the future. So, what will affect our perceptions of HBS going forward? Although, we might wish to be rid of bad behavior and negative publicity, I think we have to realize that any large community can never entirely eliminate these problems. In accepting this fact, we can resist resorting to cynicism while still striving to live up to our highest ideals. Our mistakes should humble us but not cause us to give up entirely. Instead, we should simply resolve to learn from them and move on.

December 8, 2008
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