HBS Dean Makes An Unusual Public Apology

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

The dean of the Harvard Business School made an extraordinary public apology last night (Jan. 27) in San Francisco for his school’s past behavior toward women. At a ballroom in the Ritz Carlton Hotel before 600 alumni and guests, Dean Nitin Nohria acknowledged that HBS had sometimes offensively treated its own female students and professors.

Nohria conceded there were times when women at Harvard felt “disrespected, left out, and unloved by the school. I’m sorry on behalf of the business school,” he told a hushed room. “The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.”


Among other things, he pledged to more than double the percentage of women who are protagonists in Harvard case studies over the next five years to 20%. Currently, about 9% of Harvard case studies—which account for 80% of the cases studied at business schools around the world—have women as protagonists. He said he would meet with HBS faculty on Wednesday (Jan. 29) to discuss the objective.

Many of the women in the audience, including more than 100 Harvard alumnae who were being honored by the HBS Association of Northern California for their impact on business and community, let out a audible sigh at the 20% goal, thinking it was not ambitious enough. But they were unaware that the dean’s objective would amount to a more than doubling of the current cases in which women are portrayed as central leaders in business problems.

His comments come five months after a lengthy front-page article in The New York Times that described the school’s efforts to deal with gender inequality. The story fueled a major debate on gender issues at Harvard and many other business schools, bringing attention to a problem that is rarely openly discussed or acknowledged. Yet, business schools remain male-dominated cultures where men compose the vast majority of students, faculty and administrators.


After the highly provocative article was published. Nohria had sent a memo to faculty and staff that was neither defensive nor apologetic about the Times’ coverage. “Initial reactions have run the spectrum from congratulations and encouragement for our efforts to concern and disappointment at the one-sided portrayal of the School, including our MBA students,” wrote Nohria. “This range is to be expected—these are matters that we filter through our own experiences…Tackling deep-seated issues that affect not just business education, but business and society more broadly, necessitates sustained commitment.  It requires courage to take action, and humility to recognize that the road will be long and may include missteps. 

Source: Harvard Business School

Source: Harvard Business School

Nohira’s newly stated objective for case studies would have a big impact on the way leadership is taught in the world’s business schools because almost all MBA students are exposed to HBS cases. His new initiative would be as ambitious as  a previous effort by the school to make its case studies more global. Today, some 57% of Harvard’s cases are international in nature, up from less than 5% a decade ago. The school produces roughly 250 new case studies a year so if it achieves Nohira’s goal Harvard would generate about 50 cases a year with female protagonists, up from less than two dozen now. The current number of case students currently on sale to educators by Harvard is 18,981.

At the event, Nohria said that a record 41% of this year’s entering class of MBAs were women, up from 35% ten years ago and only 25% in the Class of 1985. “A lot of people wondered if we had to put a thumb on the scale,” he said, to reach the record female enrollment number. “Everyone of those women deserve to be at Harvard Business School.”

Harvard Business School began admitting women to its two-year MBA program in 1963 with eight students. Last year, the school ran a series of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary, using the shorthand “W50” to acknowledge the milestone. The School now has 11,000 MBA alumnae around the globe, including more than 1,200 women in Northern California.


The dean also told the group that last year’s class of female MBA graduates at Harvard received a higher percentage of academic honors than their actual representation in the Class of 2013. A record 38% of last year’s Baker Scholars were women. Baker Scholars are graduates who make up the top 5% of Harvard’s graduating class.

Noting a recent World Economic Forum report which showed the U.S. trailing more than 20 other countries when it comes to women in leadership roles, Nohria said “we can do better and we must do better. Harvard Business School has to lead the way to make that happen. We are taking many steps to insure that W50 is not an event.”

Besides the effort to “dramatically” increase the number of female protagonists in case studies, Nohria also pledged to launch a program to help more women serve on boards of directors and to more meaningfully encourage mentorship of female students and alumni. “We want to make sure the school provides pathways for alumni to help each other,” added Nohria. Rather than a two-year experience that ends with a degree, the dean said he wants to shift to the notion of “your Harvard Business School for life…to make sure the school becomes a resource throughout your life.”

He said that some thought it “quaint” when Harvard first admitted women to the business school some 50 years ago and some could think it quaint that he wants to increase female protagonists to 20%. “More than anything else, you have my deep and solid commitment that the entire school will be more open to and encouraging to women,” Nohria vowed. “These ideas will only be quaint unless we work relentlessly to improve things.”

  • Bikky Kanenine

    What he says is completely valid, get a life yourself Dutch

  • philosopher

    Why? They can simply change the name and gender of the protagonists of the cases to women. That will keep the same stories but get to the 50% target overnite.

  • justsayin

    He is a genius testing his story about feminism. That’s certainly a great way to corner HBS. In your application tell how much of a feminist you are as a man, that will probably triple your chances to get in.

  • Not sure what the point of your comment is. I love the case method and find it to be extremely insightful and effective.

  • bwanamia

    All of this is about preferring to have 1st world problems of his choosing rather than the 3rd world problems that belong to him by right of inheritance. I’d like to see Nitin pledge to accept a percentage of lower caste Indians at HBS equal to their numbers worldwide.

  • Dutch Ducre

    get a life lol

  • Dutch Ducre

    HBS should apologize for creating the pathetic case method and horrible cases, by far the worst virus to have penetrated the business school landscape

  • not again

    HBS cases reflect, but do not make the world. Imo, HBS should work on a wider range of cases. What about cases that cover early stage startups? Good luck pushing that quota beyond 10% in that area (just like in so many). I have had it with this idiotic activism that focuses on superficial things such as gender and color.
    What’s next, making a commitment that 20% of cases protagonists are balled or wear a beard?

  • bwanamia

    There should be more Dalits in cases. There should be a larger representation of Dalits in HBS accepted classes. And Nitin ought to get cracking on an apology to all of the millions of Dalits both in India and in the US whom he and HBS have worked for centuries to oppress.

  • NY

    You make reasonable and fair points. I think I’m just a bit let down by both the tone of Byrne’s article here (that these women were somehow missing something in their disappointment), and also of the gap between Noria’s rhetoric and the rather meager goal of 20%.

    He has an opportunity to thrust HBS into the center of an important conversation about gender equity and leadership in business. I’m reminded of when Mary Barra was named upcoming CEO of GM, and she was introduced as a “car gal.” Noria could use HBS’s public profile to broaden the debate and discussion about perceptions of women in leadership, how the discourse among men and media shapes those views, how these views affect young women and how they may feel about future careers in business, etc. HBS’s profile makes it easier for him to get coverage in major national media.

    I’d have been impressed if he’d said something like “changing the conversation about women in business is a long-term project, and we’re hoping to have 50% female protagonists in cases in 10 years. In the meantime we’re setting an interim goal of 20% in 3 years, and I’ve convened an advisory board of leading faculty, business leaders, and alumni of both genders to demonstrate our commitment.”

  • Truth

    At a certain point you have to weigh the reality of the world against the quest for parity. If the split between male and female business leaders was 50/50 then yes your goal would be reasonable, and more importantly could be accomplished without a drop in quality or relevancy of case studies. However the outside world hasn’t achieved that parity yet. So to make it a 50/50 split would require ignoring some very relevant cases just because their protagonists were male (which would be a disservice to the students). I’m not saying 20% is an acceptable number (I don’t know what the full data-set looks like), but to request 50 percent given the above would not be feasible or efficient (at least not as the world stands today).

  • NY

    “But they were unaware that the dean’s objective would amount to a more than doubling of the current cases in which women are portrayed as central leaders in business problems.”

    Really? How do you know they were unaware? And why use that as an explanation for why they sighed? As a man who grew up in a feminist household, joined a feminist club at my high school, and hopes to attend HBS this next year, I agree with those women who think there should be more than 20% female protagonists in cases. It’s stunning that the number is as low as it is, and anything lower than 50% seems…lackluster.