Section X: Harvard’s Secret Society

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

Would you get your MBA from a business school where:

A secret society of ultra-wealthy, mostly male, mostly international students is called Section X and known for decadent parties and travel.

Men commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members. They openly ruminated on whom they would “kill, sleep with or marry” (in cruder terms).

Women were more likely to be sized up on how they look and some dressed up as Playboy bunnies at social parties.

One student lived in a penthouse apartment at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Boston.

A former female McKinsey consultant publicly admits to taking a mid-tern marketing exam when she was hung over and getting a grade that was a “disaster.”


These are just a few of the assertions in a New York Times article published today (Sept. 8) on the Harvard Business School. The lengthy front page story with a jump to two full inside pages by Harvard Law School dropout Jodi Kantor describes what it calls an experiment by Harvard to give itself “a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success.” It is based on interviews with “more than 70 professors, administrators and students.”

Truth is, there is little new in the article. In fact, regular readers of Poets&Quants will have read much of what the Times is reporting in a series of articles written over the past two years:

Concern Over Harvard Business School’s ‘Mad Men’ Culture in April of 2012

Why Men Outperform Women At Harvard Business School in April of 2011

Sheryl Sandberg Congrats HBS For Closing Academic Gap in April of 2013

Indeed, in an interview with Poets&Quants last year, Dean Nitin Nohria directly addressed the issues at length. His interest in the school’s gender challenges occurred well before he became dean when the Women’s Student Association discovered that proportionally more men than women receive academic honors at Harvard and that has been the case for many years. Nohria called for a study of the issue and of student culture generally to get to the bottom of the problem.

“We wondered whether this was happening because we are engaging in some rare form of affirmative action, that the quality of the women we were admitting was not good,”  Nohria told P&Q. “That turns out to be absolutely not true. Whether you measure by test scores, GPA, the quality of work experience, whatever metric you can think of, the quality of our men and women are comparable. But we tested that. We didn’t say that as a matter of faith.

“It was not a question of selection,” he added. “It was subtle things that were happening: the calling patterns of faculty members, women not leaning forward to get more attention, women feeling anxious about being too smart and feeling less desirable. There was this likability and competence tradeoff that women suffer much more than men. There is a lot of research that shows it is harder for a woman to be both well liked and competent than it is for a man. So when it comes to women, we tend to see them as either competent but not likable or likeable but not competent. We have a harder time placing them in the category of being both, and women intuitively understand that and therefore sometimes may have been saying that at Harvard Business School I want to be liked so I don’t want to be the person who is the smartest in the class. Men didn’t have that issue.”

Nohria also did not shy away from confronting another sticky issue that emerged last year when a female MBA student disclosed an off campus sexual assault that involved “unwanted groping” of her breasts. The incident was part of a broader pattern of Mad Men-like behavior at HBS, including excessive drinking and behavior that many would consider sexual harassment. One female first-year student had been informed that the men in her section had voted her to have “the second best rack”  (see Concern Over HBS’ ‘Man Men’ Culture).

  • PDS

    lol. What bull crap is that. Confirm your statement before posting.

  • Secret Person

    Which is why the super wealthy should NOT be allowed to attend any elite schools. Let those who are disadvantaged attend and get a shot at the opportunities that are deemed a “right” for the wealthy aholes. Each elite institution gets a huge number of great applications, there is no question that rich scions of families can be replaced at these schools with equal or brighter applicants. Let the elite institutions be a place for the people, not the rich.

  • Secret Person

    It wouldn’t be unfair. It’s just some liberal POSs think it would be.

  • Secret Person

    You’re a moron. Ethnicity most certainly determines a predisposition to sexual harassment. Latin America, the Middle East, Asia all have a male dominant culture where women are second class. Those who don’t are the exceptions. Harvard and the rest of the elites should not be accepting rich aholes from those regions. Let disadvantaged Americans take their places. Harvard and their ilk admitting rich ethnic aholes proves that they are unbelievable hypocrites. Where’s the commitment to equality and a discrimination free environment? It’s not there because the elite institutions are frauds. They discriminate against lower class Americans while sucking up to the rich.

  • Guy Fawkes

    If people are complaining about class-divide, gender-divide etc., the blame falls squarely on the Admissions office. There are plenty of ways to apply filters and better understand candidates and thus, select a better class. Instead, HBS gives you a blank sheet of paper to write whatever you’d like to supplement your application. Clearly, the school intends not to filter out unworthy candidates. I remember reading this story, I think on P&Q itself, about the Dean of Admissions at HBS. Basically, she was impressed by this kid who told her that he’d forgotten to pack a formal shirt for his interview, then realized it the night before the interview, went out on the street, hustled and exchanged a funky t-shirt for a formal shirt and showed up fresh at the interview.

    I read it, and just to make sure I got it right, I re-read the article. I realized that that was her evaluation of a candidate. That was the moment I decided not to apply to HBS. Where is an objective standard there ? Does the school hire behavioral experts to evaluate personality traits – since that’s something they’re looking for ? It was one of those moments – eye openers !

    I may not be 100% right, but I am confident I am partly correct when I say that the success of Harvard Business School is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They say HBS opens doors. Why though ? I don’t think it’s the smartness of the kids (which I don’t doubt) that opens the doors for them. They would have been smart with or without HBS. The H tag opens doors basically. Of course they have alums in PE shops in NYC and London. But HBS also has more alums scattered in far-flung places than anywhere else. In fact this article provides some of the allure that Harvard holds for students in the first place – for most common people, it is very very difficult to gain access to super-elite networks. Some of the only places to do that are schools and colleges. I am a middle-class individual. By a twist of fortune, I went to an elite high school. Some of my friends from there are billionaires. I went to a public university after. None of my friends from there are ultra-wealthy. There is very little possibility that in the future I will reconnect and get acquainted with that kind of circle unless I go to a place like HBS. Sure I might meet and live with people earning good money working for a Mckinsey or Goldman, but it’s unlikely I’d get to know people who were worth $500 million the day they were born. In any case, I don’t think that having such a network of super-privileged friends is actually worth much. In my experience, transacting with the super-privileged lot is a bigger burden than it is a gain. Most professional deals, investments etc. (even those that are birthed on a pure meritocratic understanding), have an undercurrent of gratitude attached – almost a polished form of servitude. I’d rather operate in a pure meritocracy.

    I understand this is a touchy topic. These are my views and they may not reflect another persons’ worldview.

    There will be no doubt that HBS grads will shape the future of the world – the question to be asked here is ‘Why ?’

  • Katherine

    It will be a miracle if things ever substantially improve at this school because of the self-perpetuating cycle of dependence on wealthy patrons. The equation is simple really: The ‘greatness’ of HBS is sadly dependent on the wealth of its partrons, wealth unfortunately
    brings along with it a certain air of privilege (or douchiness as we say in
    todays world) due to the power imbalance between the wealthy and the not, and
    so it follows that unless HBS is willing to let go of its wealthy patrons- highly
    unlikely because then that would mean it’s also letting go of the very thing
    that gives HBS its greatness/high rankings (or its elite network) – it
    will continue to keep creating the breeding grounds for a douchtastic,
    materialistic, and privilege-high culture. It will also continue to create
    financial leaders who collectively set off global economic recessions probably
    because they were too high off of their sense of privilege and infallibility to
    begin with. It’s a catch 22 really, and any b-school student worth their word
    understands this. The only sad thing about all of this is that HBS continues to
    brand itself as the B-school that shapes leaders “who change the world” LOL. And I’m
    sure some graduates do go on to do just that, but that is likely not the norm as the average HBS student unfortunately has his/her eyes set on the much worthier cause of getting into PE or becoming a CEO. The only other option I can think of is making some sort of “value-system” or “psychometric” testing a mandatory part of admissions to weed out the wealthy losers, from those who actually have some sort of value-based merit and actually want to use their wealth/privilege to make an actual difference in the world- and I mean the kind of difference that doesnt involve just trying to accumulate more wealth. Who knows maybe one day but for now I choose not to fool myself about how the harvard ‘system’ actually works.

  • Rob Roy

    I think you make some good points worth having some attention to be drawn to it.

  • HakaWaka

    you are jealous! focus on yourself. American universities know what they are doing..

  • Renault


  • Renault

    Why would it be unfair to stop allowing non-Western immigrants to attend American schools?

  • Christine Grace

    I am not a HBS student so I can only speculate. I can understand the chauvinistic student culture being an issue. Which from my experience and those of my female friends – really any college, including the public universities, when there’s a great deal of middle eastern & asian immigrants attending there’s issues of sexual harassment & other sexist delinquent misdeeds going on. So I’m not sure how to remedy this, expect to stop allowing non-western immigrants with a student visa to be allowed access to any American higher education. Which would be unfair.

    Elitist socialites not including others in their group, I don’t understand why most students would even care. Who cares what a few sophomoric arrogant douchbags think or do? Seeing that it sounds like they are only the Old Money and that’s the only reason they got into Harvard, I’m guessing they aren’t uniquely that bright or interesting in the first place. And I’m guessing there’s more talented and clever students available that would prove to be more fruitful for future networking in business. Ignore the over-pampered, hedonistic kids who aren’t going anywhere in life and be grateful for having access to some of the best education offered in America. Make friends with more worthy students there on merit and scholarship alone and/or make friends outside of school. It doesn’t sound like such an issue.

  • Trevar

    How on earth is this elitist?

  • Rob Roy

    Sounds like a lot of petty griping from a few who aren’t included. C’est la vie.

  • cantabrigan

    To be honest, this kind of behaviour is not uncommon even at an undergraduate level. As a current first year student at a West Coast Business School in the Full Time MBA Program, I can happily confirm that I have not witnessed any such elitist culture where I am.

    It’s not surprising however that this behaviour exists at HBS. As an undergraduate several years ago at Cambridge University, there was a similarly elitist institution by the name of the Pitt Club. I cannot comment upon holidays, sports cars etc but I can verify that it was largely an all-white society, predominantly made up of ex Public School boys (had to be the right kind of public school mind…) who would hold regular parties in their club house inviting what they deemed to be, the most attractive women from many of Cambridge’s colleges. If you take the same people, fast-forward 5-10 years where they are back in a similar institution, is it any wonder that old habits will resurface?

  • dricka

    amazing that the dean needs to grovel to these special interests…my god! proportionately fewer women get honors? hello? it is easier to get in if you are a woman, lower gmats, lower standards, everyone knows that… maybe fewer honors is a logical result

  • gipper

    gimme a break…every male thinks the same way in every school in the world…what a NON-ARTICLE…all this victimization…women feel uncomfortable leaning forward until they need to lean forward to get an advantage

  • Vesna

    I can see now that its true what he wrote – you just confirmed it.

  • David

    HBS can do several things to rectify this, but of course these changes would NEVER be implemented.
    1. Lower the class participation component of the grade; it’s ridiculous that 50% of the grade is based on discussion in a class of 90 students, all eager to speak out. This type of grading works in a small seminar for instance but not in such a large classroom.
    2. Implement letter grades, so students take the academics more seriously.
    3. Accept fewer rich mediocre internationals who are just there to party and travel and return to their home countries to inherit their family fortunes. This will certainly never happen since HBS has strong self-interest in accepting these people (ie, donations, connections, etc.).

  • David

    Section X is determined strictly by your family net worth. Even my buddies who made tons of money at elite private equity firms and hedge funds before HBS were not invited.

  • nonhbsguru

    The article does not mention but certainly implies other top-ranking programs are doing better at providing well-rounded education. Your comments are indicative of self-centered elitism and only serve to bolster the negative tone of the article

  • Frank

    LOL… lots of bitter people posting, including the author. John couldn’t get into Harvard and now holds it accountable for his jealousy and life failures.

  • Correction

    Actually, the Bus is a football tailgate open to everyone, literally, as even UM alumni, undergrads and opposing team’s fans wandering by the Bus will join in on the pre-game festivities.
    Nice try though

  • Faith

    Is this the transformational experience mixed with leadership that B-School adcoms rave about?

    Some NYT posters suggested remedy and point out that the overreliance on case studies and class participation (50% of grades) may be the cause of ‘guys behaving badly in class rooms’.

  • Lifeasweknowit

    Michigan Ross has this club — it’s called the Bus — all wealthy white males and females who take weekly ski trips and vacations funded by mom and dad. At least HBS includes minorities if they have $$$

  • Shaniqua James

    The two douchiest years of your life, now with douchier women.

  • AS

    The 160+ comments (mostly made by top mba alums) after the article are great reads. I see compassion and respect.

  • hbsguru

    haha, great summary John, one thing HBS is happy about — the article does not mention Stanford, or any other business school, thus its total world view is that old snow globe which contains only ONE business school alone in the lovely, snowy and fairy tale woods. Cannot get better press than that, no matter what the endless text reports. Also the pics were all puffers, so, despite some oddball details, the impact for HBS is great!!!!! Altho insiders may be chewing this over to death.