Concern Over HBS’ ‘Mad Men’ Culture

by John A. Byrne on

The student newspaper at Harvard Business School reported today (April 30) that an off campus sexual assault on an unidentified MBA student is prompting deeper questions about the broader culture of the famous business school.

According to the report in The Harbus, written by The Harbus’ recently elected co-editor Bart Clareman, the assault “involved unwanted groping” of a female first year student’s breasts by one of her section mates at an off-campus venue. “The victim has decided not to pursued criminal charges against her assailant,” wrote The Harbus. “In accordance with her wishes, the administration has not undertaken an investigation to identify the perpetrator of the assault.”


The incident, however, appears to be part of a broader pattern of Mad Men-like behavior at Harvard Business School, including excessive drinking and behavior that many would consider sexual harassment. According to the story, another incident earlier this year involved a female first-year student who was informed that the men in her section had voted her to have “the second best rack” in section.

The Harbus also reported on the “prevalence” of section games, specifically citing one such game as “Kill, Fuck, or Marry” in which male students name the women in their classes that they would most like to murder, have intercourse with, or wed. The game gained popularity by radio shock jock Howard Stern and was later given wider exposure on the television show “30 Rock.”

At least one student told Poets&Quants the game playing is not an unusual occurrence. “My sense is that the game is played with some frequency, and that many students were surprised that it was cited as part of the ‘problem’ that might exist within the culture here,” said one Harvard MBA student to Poets&Quants who wanted to remain anonymous. “The game is played very casually by some, and to many it seems unreasonable to draw a line between that game being played and an incident of sexual assault. But I think you’d find student opinion unanimous around the idea that it’s wrong for a sexual assault to occur or for students to rank the breasts of their female classmates. My sense is that students are far less unanimous on the idea that this game is unambiguously wrong.”

Harvard also recently banned the top organizers of the annual HBS follies show from attending all non-academic social activities and placed them on probation until graduation. The disciplinary action occurred after several empty alcohol containers were found in Burden Auditorium after the April 13th show.

Ben Story, co-president of the HBS Show, was told by administrators that, in his words, “my inability to prevent alcohol consumption that night represents ‘failed leadership’ and an inability to uphold HBS Community Values.” Yet, in an essay in The Harbus, he says he was out of town on the night of the performance. The sanctions are meant to send a message that the school is cracking down hard on any violations of its community values which prohibit alcohol consumption on campus.


The broader harassment problem surfaced largely because of a decision by Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria to aggressively tackle the issue after learning about it within the past couple of months rather than to “sweep it under the rug.” The administration first approached MBA student leaders and asked their advice on how best to initiate an open and honest discussion with all the first-year MBA candidates. Student leaders suggested a series of mandatory meetings led by both faculty and student leadership.

Professor Robin Ely is Harvard's first dean for "culture and community"

Those meetings occurred last Thursday (April 26) with mandatory lunches for all ten of the school’s 90-person sections of first-year MBA students. Some participants in those sessions describe them as candid and often highly emotional conversations. Some students apparently had no idea they were hurting others by playing the games. One section apparently made a pledge to end the practice and be far more sensitive to each others feelings. Other students believe there is a “generational divide” between what they believe is harmless behavior and what some faculty are horrified by. They pointed out that some women play the “30 Rock” game as well as men.

To address gender and cultural issues on campus, Dean Nohria has for the first time appointed a senior associate dean for “culture and community.” Robin J. Ely, the professor who has that title, is an academic expert on conflict, power, and social identity. Her research involves studying how organizations can better manage their race and gender relations.

In an interview with The Harbus, Francis Frei, an HBS professor and chair of the school’s required first year curriculum, said “I think most people would agree that the sexual assault and the voting incident are fairly black and white as far as being unacceptable. In some of these other situations, however, there is likely a broad spectrum of views on what’s harmful and what’s all in good fun. By talking about these issues, we hope to raise awareness of them and enable students to draw the bright lines between black and gray.”

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  • Man in B School

    I go to a top b-school and know for a fact that women play this game also. I haven’t heard about any groping though.

  • Guest

    I met my wife at business school and first thing I noticed was her “rack” tbh so it goes on, much as it does in any bunch of young(ish) people living a life largely without the serious responsibility that comes later with kids and careers. Sexual assault is criminal activity however and should be dealt with as such, why were criminal charges not pressed?

  • Anonymousonex1

     I agree. I think the games are justified by the players b/c they’re not disparaging characteristics that others are born with i.e. race, sexual orientation, disabilities, facial/body features & they don’t see it as so overtly & aggressively malicious as racial jokes are. However, just the idea that groups of young men (& apparently some women as well) are playing a game where they are asked to pick a person that they would not mind murdering, as in the ”killl, f**k, marry” game, is very disturbing. I for one DO see what that has to do with &/or how it can lead to a sexual assault & frankly don’t see how anyone else couldn’t see that.  I’m sorry that it even happens in peoples homes/apartments/dorms during parties with only close friends in attendance so for that game to be played with, among & in ear shot of classmates, in such a supposedly prestigious school no less, is beyond inappropriate & offensive.Especially when we are striving so hard to stop that “game” from actually being played out in real life against women. It’s no secret that women are sometimes used for sex, married for rather superficial reasons & most importantly murdered all the time, so for a game to be played that makes light of these situations is reprehensible & careless to the extreme.   

  • Anonymousonex1

     I don’t think anyone else thinks that these issues are exclusive to Harvard at all. Rather quite the opposite, I think a lot are disappointed that these things are still found even at Harvard, where most may have a perception of a more enlightened crowd. Sort of like, “Yeah, I see it all the time too but….Harvard!? Really? Well, if it goes on all the time even there then what hope is there?” Which may be an unfair standard, i don’t know. Just saying that this is how I gather that a lot of people, upon hearing this & similar stories, react. 

  • Anonymousonex1

    Also, the under reporting of sexual assaults is but a symptom of the problem. The real problem being the stigma attached & the looks, whispers & attentions of friends, strangers, etc. they receive, no matter how well intentioned they may be. Even the most well meaning people can sometimes make a victim feel victimized all over again. This time not just by their attacker/s but by everyone around them. It can’t help that this very personal decision also has a huge societal value. Some may feel like they don’t want to report but ”what if they do it to someone else” or ”I don’t want to contribute to the problem of under reporting or have my decision cause someone else not to report” & the last thing a victim of sexual assault needs is guilt. Overall, its a no-win situation compounded by the difficulties in obtaining justice because while reporting a sexual assault has a huge societal value it is , after all a very painful & very personal decision. 

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