Iit was an inhospitable winter in Boston. Following the resignation of Claudine Gay from the presidency of Harvard University on January 2, her interim replacement said she did not remember a “period of comparable tension” within the institution. Ms. Gay was ousted after a plagiarism scandal broke over her academic work. But his situation had been precarious for months; some donors were upset that she seemed to tolerate students' anti-Semitic outbursts. For conservatives, Ms. Gay, who was the first black woman and second female president of Harvard, was also a symbol of liberal elites' fixation on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
One might expect the seemingly stubborn people who attend Harvard's business school, and that school's ties to America's toughest businesses, to protect it from broader campus convulsions. Not enough. Businesses are also facing a DEI account. As a result, Harvard Business School (HBS) faces pressure on two fronts.
The students at HBS are the holders of the winning tickets in the lottery of American capitalism. On average, they arrive with five years of professional experience, almost half of which in prestigious consulting or financial firms. Two years of study for the 115-year-old establishment MBA degree almost guarantee a comfortable professional perch. Some do even better. The fortunes of HBS former students have helped build the reputation of the school and, thanks to their generous donations, replenish its coffers (combined with the annual income of MBA tuition fees, executive training, publishing activity and online courses, in 2022 the school achieved a turnover of 966 million dollars).
After the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a police officer in May 2020 HBS underwent a self-examination typical of other American institutions of the time. “What we can agree on is that the experience of black students at school, as they reported after graduation, was not quite the same. same as that of white students. There was a deficit,” says Robert Kaplan, a faculty member involved in the review. HBSthe approach of DEI has since then resembled that of corporate America – and the rest of Harvard. In 2021, it hired a diversity and inclusion manager and attempted to increase the diversity of the student body and faculty.
Bringing DEI getting into class at a business school was more controversial. Compared to the rest of the university, HBS the teachers are probably less awake. The pressure for more DEI came mainly from students, says a professor. And if the goal of management education is, even in part, to simulate the challenges faced by adult managers, it is difficult to imagine a program that completely ignores these issues. America's demographics are changing, and so are employees' expectations of what their workplace should look like. The current reaction against DEI Policies require bosses to be much more thoughtful in how they approach them. The same goes for business schools. It's easier said than done.
MBA students at HBS are taught using the “case method”. The courses ask students to put themselves in the place of bosses faced with a specific problem. Since 2020, students have been complaining that these shoes don't fit them. The result was a significant increase in the ethnic and gender diversity of the “protagonists” in the case. But, as one faculty member notes, “the idea that you would study a CFO running a discounted cash flow model, substituting a white man for a black woman, and then praising everyone else is ridiculous.”
HBS made a course called “inclusion” compulsory in the first year MBA students during the 2021-22 academic year. A version of it, heavily focused on race and gender, was previously optional; “Students have told us that you're teaching the course to people who don't need it,” says a faculty member familiar with the course. But many students and staff felt the new course lacked rigor and, in part because it was taught to a single group of 1,000 people, discouraged discussion.
Echoing concerns about free speech on other campuses, professors murmur that conservative and religious students feel less able to express themselves more generally. This view is supported by the results of a student survey presented to faculty last year. Shortly after the October 7 attacks on Israel and the invasion of Gaza, Bill Ackman's comments on war and Harvard campus politics raised some concerns. HBS students pressure the school to disinvite the billionaire investor (and HBS graduate) to appear on campus as a “protagonist” in a case involving his hedge fund.
As in meeting rooms, HBSI'm thinking about DEI is evolving. The inclusion course was first redesigned, with less damning criticism, then shelved. In June 2023, Francesca Gino, one of its architects, was placed on unpaid administrative leave after accusations of fraud in her employment (she filed a lawsuit against Harvard University for breach of contract and discrimination based on sex). Finally, Mr. Ackman came. Like America Inc, HBS learn to walk DEI the tightrope – the hard way. ■
To stay on top of the biggest business and technology news, sign up for Bottom Line, our weekly subscribers-only newsletter.