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.”

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