HBS Does Damage Control On Times Story

Reflections on the NYT Story

A Memo to MBA Students

Hi everyone,

As anticipated, the New York Times has published a story about us. As you can imagine, this is not the kind of media attention we ever look for or seek to attract, but it’s also one of those things we can’t really control. I have now read the story a few times, and I thought I would share with you my personal reflections, particularly with respect to the part of the story that looked at MBA student culture.

First, a little context. It seems that every five to ten years or so, some major publication—whether it be the New York Times, Inc., the New Yorker, etc.—decides it is going to write about us in a big way. Invariably, they get some of it right and they get some of it wrong. This is not necessarily because the journalism is weak (although in some cases, it has been) but rather because modern journalism is, by nature, a blunt instrument. The idea that a reporter can come in and capture something as multidimensional as the HBS culture after having studied it for just a few weeks or months is simply unrealistic.

Now, we could resent this kind of attention and be somewhat bitter about it, but that wouldn’t quite be fair. We can’t simultaneously relish the fact that we are affiliated with an institution with a global reputation while also complaining about the media scrutiny. Rather, the balance we need to strike, in my mind, is a delicate one: On the one hand, we should care about perception, we should care about reputation; we should, at all times, be cognizant of the messages we are sending—explicitly and implicitly—with our actions, our words, our institutional policies, and our internal culture. On the other hand, we have to be careful not to become preoccupied with our external reputation to the point where it ceases to be constructive. Yes, I personally felt there were parts of the article that were misleading, and you may have felt the same way… but we can’t worry about that. We don’t need to argue our case in the media.

Which actually brings me to my first point of reflection:

Our culture is, without question, a work in progress.

If I had to boil down the thesis of the NYT story to just a few words, it would probably come down to something like this: “While HBS is a place that has historically struggled with gender issues, it appears to be making some progress… but there continue to be a number of questions as to how healthy the gender dynamics are…“

Now, would I agree with this overall thesis? Honestly, I would. While I believe we have made a lot of progress, I also believe that our culture is not yet at the place where we would want it to be. This is not only underscored by some of the experiences described by students in the New York Times, it is buttressed by additional stories—in some cases, heartbreaking stories—that many of you have shared with me about your individual experiences at HBS.

I cannot say this strongly enough: All of us on the MBA leadership team are committed to making our culture as healthy as it can be for all students.

What’s difficult is that the way to do so is not entirely obvious. From an administrative standpoint, what I’ve learned is that sometimes our efforts in this regard have been experienced by you as patronizing and overbearing, and that’s obviously no good. In fact, over the years, we have tried to do a number of things to address the more troubling aspects of our culture; some of those things have worked very well and some of those things have not gone so well. I hope you know we have always been well- intentioned in our motivations. But we have also made mistakes, and as a result, I have personally shed any hubris that there exists an easy approach to things.

Here is what I do know. Any forward progress we make will only come as a result of a shared commitment. We’ve all got to be fully invested in improving our culture or it’s not going to happen.

As a start, if there is one very personal thing I could respectfully ask each one of you to do, it is this. Please. If you ever find yourself in a situation in which the social dynamics do not feel consistent with your personal values, then please, try to influence the situation in a positive way. Or at the very least, extricate yourself from the situation. I know this is not always an easy thing to do. HBS is a place where your social lives and your professional lives and your academic lives can become intertwined in complicated, and at times, difficult-to-navigate ways. Trust me, I know how hard it can be. Still. If you ever find yourself in the middle of something that has the potential to send the wrong message about who you are and the values for which you stand, then I would encourage you, with the deepest respect and admiration, to try to dig deep and do the right thing.

More broadly, I truly believe that if we are going to continue to improve our culture, we are not only going to need your help, we are going to need your engagement, your ingenuity, your leadership. One of the big lessons I have internalized over the past few years is that we are so much better when we work with you to figure out the way forward. I can think of so many recent examples of this: You helped us redesign the community values/disciplinary process and made it significantly better; you put together a deeply impactful EC Ambassador program to strengthen the norm-setting we did in the START orientation for RCs this year; you built the My Take series into the vibrant community bonding experience that it now is. The bottom line is, if we want to make this a better place, it’s not going to happen as a result of a top-down effort from the administration. We’ve got to make it happen together.