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Opinion: Mandatory Section Discussions on Inclusivity Aren’t the Answer

While I respect and admire the administration for its commitment to making Harvard Business School a more inclusive place, I strongly oppose its decision to impose mandatory section discussions on the matter. The case environment, which an Aldrich classroom discourse with 90 students led by an HBS faculty member inevitably becomes, is absolutely the wrong forum for exchanges of this type, for several reasons. Mandatory discussions are not the conversations we need, are likely to further engender a culture of exclusion, will be devoid of opinions that really matter, and have a patronizing and misguided air to them.

Case discussions are not a conversation in the true sense of the word. Sure, people are talking, there are opposing viewpoints, and there is a back-and-forth. But the debate is among 90 people. Sensitive topics like inclusion require a depth of discussion only possible in small groups, where people have a chance to clarify their points, speak multiple times, and truly engage everyone in the conversation. We often offend each other based on what discount rate to use in a cash flow analysis. Imagine the reputational risk of speaking up in such a heterogeneous group of people, many of whom bring strong, and very different, mindsets to bear. I’ve seen it happen—someone says something a bit touchy, and all of a sudden that person represents an un-nuanced viewpoint.

Expecting people to air their grievances about being excluded in front of the very people who are possibly excluding them sounds to me like a recipe for disaster. A real conversation, in which people don’t feel that they have to have a life’s worth of informed perspective delivered in a perfect comment or risk ostracizing, is what’s needed.

Case discussions by their very nature are exclusive. In a typical 80-minute discussion, say half the participants have a chance to air their thoughts. More importantly, a much smaller share of the wide array of opinions on any given matter are broached. To say that this is just the start of the conversation, and that a class discussion will spur a further debate in which other opinions will be aired, is mis-guided. The framing of the debate will be disproportionately influenced by the people who are able to insert their opinions this week. This is not a full course, in which the professors are able to track participation and ensure that everyone contributes. It’s a one-off lunch talk, and you can expect it to be dominated by those who are either the loudest, the most politically correct, or both.

If the administration really wants to know what being excluded at HBS feels like, it needs the opinions of both those who have felt excluded and those who have been excluding. (It also should provide data to support such a culture so that everyone is working with some measure of the same case facts.) I can assure you it will be very difficult to get those opinions in a 90-person discussion. Without those opinions, we’re just spinning our wheels. We’re making ourselves feel good that we talk about inclusion. Meanwhile, if you feel excluded (and I have spoken with people who feel this way), what good will come out of these talks if your opinion isn’t aired? If you’re among those who may be contributing to the culture, what good comes of this? You get a guilt trip? You make some disingenuous invitations next time?

We cannot expect to put a class of more than 900 people together and not have cliques develop around various common interests, backgrounds, experiences, schools, nationalities, etc. It’s not HBS’ role to assign friends at the beginning of the year, a la discussion groups, and expect them to remain ad infinitum? Where you have cliques forming, and a historically advantaged clique has a disproportionate share of the social capital or power in a place, then yes, we should talk about the implications of such a dynamic. But we should do that in a safe, back-and-forth, small group environment.

Forcing students to get in a room and talk about inclusion comes across as patronizing. I’ve had numerous conversations with classmates about the social environment at HBS. The week of the Black and White party, I talked to people about the implications of such an event and of the group behind it. I have opinions on the matter, but frankly I’d rather combat whatever negative implications there are and encourage the positive ones on my own. HBS students are grown adults, and I worry that there will be a sizable minority (or even majority) of students who find such a required lunch to not be a valuable experience.

While I disagree with the decision to have these conversations in class, I encourage everyone to make the most of them. They’re mandatory, and we should try to start a dialogue while recognizing the enormous flaws in such an environment for these very important conversations.

April 25, 2012

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Opinion: Mandatory Section Discussions on Inclusivity Aren’t the Answer”

  1. Luke says:

    Have to disagree that because it is mandatory, it is something that should be done away with. The many things HBS forces us to do – including these sort of discussions – go a long way toward creating a culture where we have a shared vocabulary about authenticity and inclusivity.

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  • Luke says:

    Have to disagree that because it is mandatory, it is something that should be done away with. The many things HBS forces us to do – including these sort of discussions – go a long way toward creating a culture where we have a shared vocabulary about authenticity and inclusivity.

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