INSEAD Welcome Week: Healthy Humbling Or Traumatic Hazing?

An INSEAD Welcome Week party in 2014 sponsored by Booz & Co. Photo from a YouTube video

No one could have predicted the storm that has followed INSEAD’s decision to cancel Welcome Week for its incoming students. Alumni who either loved or hated the experience came out in force to defend or decry the event.

Poets&Quants‘ story on the controversy set off a volcano of heated comments and damning allegations, and for the first time in our history we had to delete dozens of comments, redact names, and eventually shut down the comments entirely on a story. We’ve also received dozens of emails both for and against Welcome Week. One alum recently published an essay on Bloomberg in defense of Welcome Week.

The brouhaha started shortly after The Financial Times reported last week that two incoming INSEAD students had formally filed complaints about hazing to the Comité National Contre le Bizutage, or French National Committee Against Hazing. The INSEAD newcomers charged that the student-run, one-and-a-half day event put incoming students through uncomfortable initiation activities.

From a YouTube video of an INSEAD Welcome Week party for incoming students in January of 2017


While some consider the pranks — including coaxing new students to sign up for non-existent clubs offensive — many alums defend the event as a fun way to instantly bond with each other and blow off steam. YouTube videos posted over the years show INSEAD newbies dancing away the night, with many men bare chested and women in bikinis (see below). They’re drinking, laughing, tossing each other in swimming pools and fountains, and having what appears to be a great time. But what can be fun for some, apparently isn’t for everyone.

INSEAD — ranked first in the world by the FT in 2016 and 2017 — has gotten its first real taste of scandal. In this controversy, As clear lines have been drawn, and camps have emerged both for and against the school’s Welcome Week. Among the more prominent voices calling for the event to be restored is Leonid Bershidsky, an INSEAD alum and Bloomberg columnist who wrote an opinion piece in support of the 35-year-old orientation tradition.

“Welcome Week definitely got us out of our comfort zone, and I know many of us felt unsettled and, yes, unsafe or at least uncertain about our future at the school and its demands,” Bershidsky wrote in an essay. “Being forced to look at oneself in a harsh mirror held up by one’s peers could be even more traumatic than a 24-hour workout.”

A Welcome Week party at INSEAD from a YouTube video


“To see why many students put up with such treatment,” he added, “one needs to understand the psychology of people who apply. For the most part, these are driven, ambitious overachievers. They take it for granted that a high bar is set for them in anything they do. They also hear from alumni — from whom they need recommendations to get into Insead — that building a network while at the school is more important than the classes. They’re also told that the program will be hard. So when there’s a club to join, especially a selective one, they don’t want to miss out. Indeed, they’re psyched.”

Bershidsky also contends that French law defines hazing, punishable by a fine or six months in prison, as “the act of causing another person, against their will or not, to suffer or to commit humiliating or degrading acts or to consume alcohol excessively” in a school or sports-team context. “The Insead Welcome Week doesn’t fit this definition because the clubs’ entry requirements were the opposite of humiliating: They were either flattering or demanding, just as a future business executive might relis,” he maintains.

Bershidsky argues that INSEAD’s Welcome Week rituals may have no place in the U.S., but added, “this is Europe.” “There’s still a chance to resist the U.S. trend toward protecting students from the life that awaits them outside school walls,” he wrote. “At the average age of 29, INSEAD students should be capable of handling more than Welcome Week throws at them. Otherwise I fear for the businesses they will end up running.”

A Welcome Week party at INSEAD in 2014 sponsored by Booz & Co. from a YouTube video


Of those writing in support of Welcome Week, a general theme is clear: Toughen up.

“We must recognize that sadistic elitists would have contributed to the formal complaints,” one 2012 INSEAD alum wrote to Poets&Quants. “And those societal outliers are beyond reform.

“The power and relevance of WW for the majority became clear to me when one such outlier from the incoming promotion suggested a real club after the reveal and wasn’t taken seriously. Without a vivid demo upfront, the majority wouldn’t have known how to respond in a new environment.”

Another former student wrote that he and many of his classmates wouldn’t have had the same experience at INSEAD without Welcome Week and the initiation that goes with it. “Our culture is about being conscious of others and the impact our actions have on them,” he wrote. “The WW is an effective way to get students to think more about others instead of their own narrow ambitions. Also it is fun and a great way to bond.”

One student who reached out to Poets&Quants, however, described the entire week as “pure hell.”

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