A Backlash Over An HBS Diversity Initiative

HBS is trying to attract undergrad students from women's-only colleges

HBS is trying to attract undergrad students from women’s-only colleges

It was all done innocently enough. In an effort to recruit more women to apply to its MBA program, Harvard Business School this week announced that it is launching an initiative to target undergraduate students at women-only colleges.

The idea is for HBS to host about 70 to 80 rising juniors, seniors and new graduates on the campus for a weekend immersion into what life is like at Harvard Business School. Over a June weekend, there would be case studies, presentations and networking opportunities to give would-be prospective applicants a taste of Harvard’s elite graduate business program.

To offset the cost of the program, called PEEK, HBS would charge participants $500 for the peek at its MBA experience. HBS admission officials were planning to visit Wellesley College and Barnard College this week to talk up the plan. What Harvard couldn’t anticipate is an immediate backlash on a program that would at best generate just $40,000 in revenue to help defray the initiative’s cost.

‘IT’S A PAID WORKSHOP DISGUISED AS A DIVERSITY INITIATIVE’

But ever since news of the initiative broke in The Wall Street Journal yesterday (April 6), critics have emerged to question the school’s motivations and intentions. So the attempt to sow good will and interest more women in a business education appears to have backfired.

“It’s a paid workshop disguised as a diversity initiative (maybe to gander good press),” argued one WSJ reader who posted a comment under the story. “If HBS was serious about recruiting more graduates of women’s colleges, they would build that into their recruiting budget, not ask the prospective students themselves to pick up the tab. The admissions staff routinely visits major banks and private equity firms on HBS’s dime, so why should this be any different?”

Adds another critic: “This sounds more like a money-making grab than a real effort at recruiting bright young women. In addition, ‘take a peek’ makes it seem like these are little girls hiding and spying on grown-ups, then giggling and running away. You want more female leaders from women’s colleges? Go to the colleges, share your program, and ask them to apply. This is Harvard we’re talking about, not some unknown, fourth-rate B-school.”

Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, could not have anticipated such a negative reaction to the program. Leopold calls the MBA “a misunderstood degree.” Students think “that must mean you want to go work in a bank forever and sit in a cubicle and wear a suit,” she told the Journal.

‘WE ARE NOT MORONS’

The Harvard effort is just one of many at several top business schools to attract more female MBA candidates. Some 41% of the class 936 students that HBS enrolled last fall are women—same as last year. But that number is up considerably from earlier years. As recently as the Class of 2005, only 35% of the students were female and in the Class of 1985 just 25% were composed of women.

Women who take advantage of the program will not be given an edge in Harvard’s admissions decisions. “The advantage will be to the candidate in terms of understanding what B-school is about,” Leopold added. “We will notice that [attendees] have done their due diligence, but by no means do we want to anoint this as a credential.”

But some people aren’t buying any of it. One women who described herself as a Wellesley College grad interested in business said she found the initiative insulting. Yet another critic thought the school appears to be treating women as “morons.” “The article makes it sound like we don’t have a clue as to what business school entails,” complained the reader. “We are not morons. And making students pay to ‘get a peek’….really??? Total money grab!! Are they making other under represented students cough up $500 bucks to attend this “workshop”?? I would bet not! Lame HBS Really lame!!!”

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About The Author

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.