Community Values Issues Prompt Changes to RC Curriculum, Disciplinary Process

In April, the HBS community was shaken by two separate community values infractions that raised broader questions about the student culture at HBS and the appropriate role the administration should play in shaping and guiding that culture.

The first involved an incident of sexual assault between members of this year’s EC class. The second involved the unsanctioned use of alcohol in Burden Auditorium following a performance of the HBS Show, and the resulting outcry among students after sanctions were handed out to Show presidents.

According to Rawi Abdelal, who assumed the role of Chair of the MBA Required Curriculum on July 1st, and Clayton Rose, Chair of MBA Community Standards, a new position created over the summer, developing a response to these incidents involved reconsidering the role of the faculty and administration in the broader student life.

“Traditionally, the RC Chair job has been one that focuses on the academic curriculum,” Abdelal said. “However, to use the language of our colleague Scott Snook [MBA Class of 1958 Senior Lecturer of Business Administration], there are ‘other’ curricula that exist in an institution such as ours. Historically, the administration has owned the academics but has had a limited role in those other curricula – my goal for this year and beyond is to work with the students as a community to have a bigger influence on the cultural curriculum here.”

In response to the community values incidents, the administration will devote three Field 1 sessions over the next 4-6 weeks to “the health and vibrancy of the section and broader community,” according to Abdelal. In the administration’s view, the first 6 weeks of the school year are when section and student culture begin to be firmly established.

The administration worked closely with SA Presidents Kunal Modi and Laura Merritt, as well as WSA Presidents Deborah Singer and Parker Woltz, to create classroom materials for these sessions. Anticipated discussion topics include sexual harassment and sexual assault, gender, diversity, and community standards.

“We hope by making difficult issues discussable and transparent, students are both aware of the resources available to them on campus and the responsibilities we each have for ensuring a culture of respect at HBS,” Modi said.

These sessions will differ from the sessions EC students participated in last April, which were facilitated by LCA professors and section presidents. This year’s sessions will be facilitated by each RC section’s Field professor.

According to Abdelal, the goal of these sessions is to promote a culture that enables all members of the community to thrive, and to set in place a positive culture that can reproduce itself from year to year.

“One of the goals that all of us have is creating an environment where everyone can do their best work and get the most out of their two years here,” Rose said. “If you have a group of students who engage in behavior that creates a situation where others feel threatened or become wary of engaging, and we are silent, then the behavior may be seen as acceptable.  That, in turn, has a profound effect on whether students can achieve their goals here, and more broadly whether we are living up to our values.”

Beyond the new Field 1 sessions, over the summer a joint student-faculty committee responded to the outcry surrounding the HBS Show sanctions by developing an improved and more transparent, though not entirely revamped, disciplinary process. The committee issued the following recommendations in order to improve transparency around the disciplinary process:

  • Improve communication to enhance student understanding of the disciplinary process
  • Adopt “Guiding Principles” for the disciplinary process
  • Create the role of Faculty Chair for MBA Community Standards (in which role Rose will serve)
  • Create the role of Student Ombudsperson (Laurie Matthews) to provide students with guidance through the process
  • Enhance certain aspects of the process, with a focus on giving additional opportunities to accused students to respond and appeal

Though the administration will play an enhanced role in the dialogue around student culture, it stressed that the ultimate responsibility for that culture lies with the students.

“The culture is mostly a product of the students interacting with each other,” Abdelal said. “We feel we can be helpful in that process, however, by providing forums for discussion around sensitive topics and helpful framing mechanisms to use in their interactions with each other.”

“When there are violations of our values and rules we will deal with them through the disciplinary process. But more broadly, the goal is less about an imposition of penalties, and more about a free and open discussion and, ultimately, reaching a set of conclusions about where to draw what can sometimes be difficult lines between right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate,” Rose said. “But we can’t be effective if students are silent on the issues. Hopefully, with the steps we’re taking, we can create an environment here where students feel more empowered to raise these issues and call out bad behavior when they see it.”