When B-School Culture Goes Awry

The Wharton MBA student finished off 14 Jager bombs, six Red Bull vodkas, and an appletini for good measure — and then he prepped for a case study on Gillette.

The red-faced student was captured on a YouTube video, slurring his words and shouting numerous obscenities. To describe the case study for his upcoming class, he proudly tells the camera and everyone else: “It’s marketing. We got to learn it so that’s what I’m fucking doing.”

The video is merely a joke, a humorous skit in this year’s Wharton Follies. But the idea of portraying a drunken MBA student for a few laughs hits home. The truth is that excessive drinking and other Mad Men-like behavior has become part of the culture of getting an MBA degree at a top school, including, in some cases, sexual harassment.

Last month, at Harvard Business School, the co-president of the school’s student follies show was disciplined because empty containers of alcoholic beverages were found on campus after the show — in violation of school policy. The crackdown by HBS administrators closely followed a report of a sexual assault that “involved unwanted groping” of a female student by one of her section mates at an off-campus venue.

During the course of their investigation, administrators say they became aware of behavior that has been disturbing to many on campus. Another female first-year student, for example, had been told that the men in her section had voted her to have “the second best rack” among her classmates. Many students, the school discovered, were playing a game popularized by the TV show “30 Rock” called “Kill, Fuck, or Marry,” in which students name classmates that they would like to murder, have intercourse with, or wed.

“The vast majority of our faculty were shocked and horrified by it,” says Robin Ely, Harvard’s senior associate dean for culture and community. “As we have learned more about what our students are experiencing, a lot of us are coming home and asking our daughters and find that it is rampant in high school. It’s a larger cultural issue.”

Confronting The B-School Culture

Those attitudes are hardly exclusive to Harvard Business School. Professors at several other schools say that the revelations are neither new nor unique.

“The problem of the ‘male adolescent culture’ at business schools is widespread,” says one prominent business school professor who preferred not to be quoted directly on the issue. “And how that ‘excludes’ groups — females, married students, and even some foreign students who don’t fit in — is also an issue. This is simply the Wall Street culture, which really hasn’t changed much since the bad old days, imported to business school.”

In 2008, for example, some MBA students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management reportedly were so drunk at an event at the Field Museum in Chicago that the bar was shut down early. According to an email written by a student officer, some students attempted to smuggle into the museum “a substantial amount of alcohol” in large trash bins filled with bottles, cans, and flasks.

Some MBA candidates arrived at Kellogg’s open bar event already over-served and began to vomit on themselves. Some students spat at people and threw things at the museum’s $8.3 million Tyrannosaurus Rex. “It is
pretty embarrassing that the Field Museum will refuse to host future
Kellogg events unless they can treat it like a high school prom, with
breathalyzers, high security, and chaperones,” wrote Andrea Hanson, then a vice president of the Kellogg Student Association.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.