HBS Alum Slams Alma Mater Culture

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.”


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