Concern Over HBS’ ‘Mad Men’ Culture

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.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.