HBS Alum Slams Alma Mater Culture

by John A. Byrne on

Mary van Valkenburg, HBS '81 graduate

An alum of the Harvard Business School has written a scathing critique of the school’s culture and students in The Nation. Under the headline “At Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria Pushes Reforms on a Bankrupt Culture,” Mary van Valkenburg writes that the school nurtures “a culture of greed, rash decisions, and disregard for the humanity of people in the workplace.”

Van Valkenburg, who graduated from Harvard with her MBA in 1981, goes on to accuse the school’s famous case study method of producing graduates with “hard hearts, superficial thinking, and arrogance.” Ultimately, the alum calls on new Dean Nitin Nohria to step up the teaching of ethics and reduce the number of finance types entering Harvard, which in fact, he has already done with the school’s incoming class this fall.

Of course, she’s not the first and probably will not be the last alum to write with great contempt about the school and its powerful influence on business around the world. Philip Delves Broughton, a former Daily Telegraph writer, went to Harvard to gain his MBA and wrote a highly critical 2008 book about the experience, “Ahead of the Curve.”

But van Valkenburg’s attack seems witheringly scornful, given the fact that her assumptions are largely based on experiences that are three decades old. And on The Nation’s social network, she noted “I’ve been waiting 30 years to put this in print. It’s just an awful place.” After graduating from Harvard, van Valkenburg joined the pioneering Wall Street firm of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette as an investment analyst covering the publishing industry, but left to become an opera singer for some 15 years. She has been the controller at The Nation since 2001.

Years ago, she says, van Valkenburg had written a long private letter to Kim Clark, who served as HBS dean from 1995 to 2005, after he announced an ethics agenda, but never received a reply. “When Dean Nohria came along,” she says, “I pulled out that old letter and shared it with some colleagues at The Nation. To my surprise, the editor asked me to write this piece. As an opera singer I have to sing out loudly when I feel passionately about something.”

Her passion was clearly stirred in writing the piece for The Nation, a liberal weekly magazine that calls itself “the flagship of the left.” Among other things, she recalls a specific class lecture that appears to have appalled her. “A realistic assessment of the outcome of an HBS education can be gleaned from the unforgettable comments of my Business Policy professor on our last day of class thirty years ago,” writes van Valkenburg. “Summing up he said, ‘We don’t teach business, we work on your minds. We don’t teach you how to be Harold Geneen; we teach you that you want to be Harold Geneen.’”

Geneen, she goes on to write, “was a ruthless empire-builder who as president and CEO of ITT created the archetypal modern multinational conglomerate in the 1960-70s through 350 acquisitions. The professor’s summation was spot on. To become a Harvard MBA is transformational. It forges a new identity as a permanent member of the business elite.

“The B-School’s training is designed to break down and remold in its image some of the world’s smartest, most energetic young people,” van Valkenburg adds. “It teaches students to want power and believe they deserve it. That result is orchestrated, not accidental. Surviving the psychological pummeling and unrelenting competitiveness at the heart and soul of the training leads inevitably to a sense of entitlement far removed from “ordinary” lives, a utilitarian view of colleagues and employees, not as humans but as “working capital” and, in the guise of rational decision-making for profits’ sake, a merciless attitude toward others judged to be weak. There is a lot of meanness built into the training intended to toughen egos day after day, and it works. In the classroom, any vulnerability elicits contempt, and that is fundamentally how the B-School fosters inhumane values.

“Will the HBS community ever agree to disrupt the system that gives its members a disproportionate share of our world’s riches? Hard to imagine. As long as HBS cultivates, and global business rewards, elitism and overconfidence among quick-tongued, unreflective scramblers, the 26-year-old landing a $250,000 starting salary at a hedge fund will not be moved to question the ethics of his prize.

“Does Dean Nohria have the courage to admit that HBS’s core methods produce hard hearts, superficial thinking, and arrogance? Is he serious enough about nurturing competence and character to ease the callous competition in the classroom and introduce time for reflection? The new dean could break the cycle of greed by rejecting money-hungry applicants in the first place and halting the current flow of new-minted MBAs into the financial industry. Now that would be radical, and that would make a positive difference in our world.”

DON’T MISS: THE REINVENTION OF HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL or THE FIVE PRIORITIES OF NITIN NOHRIA

  • pop

    I don’t entirely agree with her, not from personal experience, but from a more theoretical standpoint. I don’t think 2 years of education can trump the previous 15 years. It can’t trump 25 years of who you were, who you are, where you’ve been etc… It’s like those people who urge MBA schools to teach ethics. I’m all for it, but if you didn’t learn that stealing from people is wrong after having lived 24-30 years (if you didn’t pick it up from your parents, 12 years of compulsory education from K-12, 4 years of college, religion, social clubs, TV or books), then a quick 2 hours every couple days during your MBA won’t make a difference. The sculpture is as much a product of the artist’s skills as it is a product of the raw material that was used in the process. People expect MBA schools to be schools of magic, and to a degree they can impart upon you power (through knowledge or network), but don’t forget that individuals guide their own views and lives as well.

    If you want to change the “culture” then the only way is to start looking for the type of people who can create the right culture. If you want to have graduates who follow ethical rules and look out for the best of society (rather than profit alone), then it’s time to look for students who are geared towards such interests. If the majority of your class has a consulting, finance background (fields I assume is geared towards money making), then you are accepting people who come in with that mindset and goal (otherwise they’d be part of a non-profit, not Goldman Sachs, people of like interest and mind naturally congregate in my opinion in this way).

    I don’t think it’s the case study method that corrupts a student. It’s the students who take from it what they will. Harvard I think has recently recognized this and has begun to accept students with a more diverse background (cutting from traditional finance types for example), and I think this will give you some of the desired results you seek by publishing this article.

  • Becky

    I also feel her comments may not be entirely accurate. It is not the case study method that makes students this way, it is often the students it attracts coupled with the strong sense of self pride the school tries to heap onto students with already inflated narcissistic tendencies. I will say from an outsider’s perspective it seems Harvard is trying to soften the reputation it has without losing its identity.

  • Momo

    I would like to see a happiness index. Are HBS students, 10, 20, 30 years out more or less happy than MBA graduates of other schools? How happy are HBS grads compared to the overall population? This seems like a good measure of whether or not HBS is gettting it right.
    Relyng on anecodtes and analysis from disgruntled alumni isn’t sufficient info for me to make up my mind on the top business school in the world.

  • Tholo

    May the Lord bless Harvard.

    In the name of the Father, of the Son and of Harvard- Amen.

  • Bruce Vann

    Tholo’s got Harvard replacing Jesus. It’s amazing but it is that serious to some.

  • Jacob R

    I also agree. HBS obviously attracts not the smartest students, but those most obsessed with worldy prestige (usually spurred on by equally or more obsessed parents paying large tutoring bills). Obviously they get a lot of the smartest students as well, but you’d be surprised how stupid a great portion of all Ivy League graduates are. The author does hit the nail on the head about their super abilities at certain finance related skills often come to nothing because, ethically and morally speaking, they’re still operating at the level of an adolescent.

  • Jacob R

    often coming to nothing* (I know I’m stupid too!)

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Momo,

    I like your idea for a “happiness index.” Dan Lufkin, a 1957 HBS grad who famously co-founded Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, puts it this way: “Everyone looks for a return on investment and very few people look for a return on life. As you get older, as you move through life’s stages, you begin to look for different kinds of return.” Indeed.

  • blance

    Take a look at Larry Summers and some of the things he says and you will start to wonder if HBS ever imparts a balanced perspective on business and life. Makes me wonder about the role the institution plays in our society.

  • Guiseppe

    I think HBS’s overemphasis on leadership attracts certain alpha type applicants. Combined with case studies teaching methods and participation as part of grades, it leads to fighting for airtime and defending your findings in front of profs and class. Teamwork and humility come second. Hence, at worst case the outcome could be overconfidence in one’s ability.

    A HBS student wrote in its student paper Harbus that class diversity is a myth as most students are actually quite similar: Middle to upper class professionals with business friendly outlook.

  • pop

    I’m not fond of terms such as HBS “attracting” students who have traits X, Y and Z. I personally think HBS attracts students who have non-monetary goals as well. When I say attract, I only means in term of attracting applicants of course. The key is that the adcom chooses who gets in based on such subjective criteria as work experience as well (easier to compare a top line bank to a more small regional bank and say the top guy is better, but what about total different fields altogether?).

    Traditionally, I think the problem is that when it comes to HBS, it’s the work experience and how this is weighted is what determines the culture of a class. If applicant A has a GMAT of 730, GPA of 3.5 and has work experience with Goldman Sachs and applicant B has exactly the same GMAT and GPA but has work experience with a non-profit UN humanitarian organization but wants an MBA to learn how to optimally run and utilize funds efficiently, applicant A traditionally would gets in before applicant B would (or this is the impression i get). So HBS, in my opinion, probably attracts ethically minded students as well, but the profile that HBS traditionally looked for in an admit was different. So HBS attracts these students, but they don’t admit them. So rather than having problems of attracting such students, I think they simply had problems seeing these students as worthy. Which has, in recent years, been changing.

    That’s the impression I’m getting anyway.

  • Ravi

    How incredibly naive of the leftist ideologues to shout that smarts are ruthless,criminals!How can making money by making money for others be a crime ? Managing the corpus of a pension funds & mutual funds of millions of investors is as much a social responsibility as helping poor families in India or Africa get access to education! It drives me nuts that birthplace of capitalism – India & the current champion – USA elicit such contempt about capitalism & the winners it produces! Now, if Nitin Noria & his ilk are arrogant enough to deny Harvard admit to smarts, so then Harvard will be replaced just as Yahoo! was replaced!Faust & Co. can keep their prestige & their non profits, “We admit only smarts” B school will keep their students & then their endowments , Amen!

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