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HBS and ‘Toxic Networking’

The Harvard Business School campus is located across the Charles River.
The Harvard Business School campus is located across the Charles River. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Manuel A. Yepes, Crimson Opinion Writer
Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column, ‘The Postgraduate Way of Life,’ runs on triweekly Thursdays.

Every year, around a thousand young people take a break from their professional lives, foregoing what can often be ludicrous salaries in consulting or finance to return to school.

What type of classes could reasonably convince an analyst at Goldman Sachs to put their promising career on pause? Honestly, probably none. Yet Harvard Business School still manages to attract over 8,000 applicants annually, some of whom (often on top of their foregone salary) shell out triple figures for a Master in Business Administration — and, of course, the social network that comes with the degree.

In my conversations with HBS students, I got the sense that the school operates more as an effective party host than as a teacher. You might read that with disdain. Yet I came away thinking that HBS has crucial lessons to offer on how we might deal with the networking culture present at our own college.

Isolated from the College and most other graduate schools by the Charles River, HBS exudes propriety and decorum. Walking through its 40-acre campus, amidst idyllic grass lawns and red brick buildings, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I was walking through a Sims city designed by a team of McKinsey consultants.

HBS’ most well-known degree, the two-year MBA, is based on a “case- and experience-based curriculum” where “students build deep general management and leadership skills.” Incoming students have an average of five years of work experience, with 32 percent of the Class of 2024 coming from a job in consulting, private equity, or venture capital.

To learn more about the school’s educational model, I talked to Carter W. Lewis, an MBA candidate at HBS. HBS classes use the case method, wherein students read documents detailing a problem faced by a real person leading a real organization. As a result, the classes are radically different than at the College.

“Folks will come to class with different arguments already kind of in mind, and then the teacher kind of guides discussion, and lets students interact with each other,” Lewis told me. “It’s very, very collaborative and interactive.”

Although the B-school lauds its academic curriculum as a way to enable its students to graduate with “grounding and practice in how to make difficult decisions and what it means to assume leadership in a global environment,” some students feel that much of the value of an HBS education lies in the networking opportunities it offers.

“I didn’t particularly gain a lot from finance and accounting classes,” Lewis told me. “For me, the benefit is definitely more so in the network of people, and taking advantage of opportunities to travel with new friends.”

This networking culture at HBS is undeniable. Referring to the MBA ecosystem, Celia A. Stafford, a PhD candidate at HBS, told me that “the entire point is networking, and so it can become very transactional a lot of the time.”

“It’s very common at HBS to get an email or a text or like, a message from somebody you don’t know asking to get coffee,” Lewis told me. “You don’t know if there’s an angle there, because they know you work in a certain field. You don’t know if it’s because you might have a mutual friend, and they just want to get to know you.”

As Cameron R. Armstrong, a 2020 MBA graduate, wrote in a Substack post about his experience socializing at HBS: “I felt the exact moments when people stopped paying attention to what I was saying because they decided this whatever military guy from Georgia couldn’t help them get their next private equity internship or job or something. I saw the instant the light of focus fade in their eyes as conversational autopilot took over and they subtly searched for another person to chat up.”

I found this description striking because it was so familiar to me – and it may be to you too. I'd be lying if I said my own conversational autopilot hasn't lit up at a reception or two. Students have long decried the College’s culture of “destructive social networking,” arguing that it “creates a culture of transactional relationships and absurd standards.”

2021 marked the 100-year anniversary of the case study teaching method being introduced at Harvard Business School.
2021 marked the 100-year anniversary of the case study teaching method being introduced at Harvard Business School. By Kareem M. Ansari

The HBS students I spoke to recognized the potential drawbacks of this networking culture. Stafford told me, “There are times where I’ll be meeting someone and it becomes clear very quickly that I am not somebody, my parents are not somebody, so there’s not all that much they can gain from me.”

But I was also surprised at how understanding and approving some students were of this culture.

“I don’t dislike it, because I think I understand it,” Stafford said. “It’s worth it for the networking opportunities, and the job, and the education, and it’s an incredible place to be. Really, truly, I feel so unbelievably blessed. But I do think there’s a little bit of a, ‘Okay, if it’s a necessary evil, this helps me achieve my goals.’ So I’m willing to be exhausted for two years.”

Should we at the College learn to embrace networking culture as some of those at HBS have? Maybe our complaints about transactional relationships are less of a valid criticism and more a failure to take advantage of the privileged position we’ve been put in. That could be true.

Yet I think there’s a more cutting criticism to be made of the networking culture that HBS fails to fully respond to. The networking efforts made on campus translate to membership in an elite social network after graduation. This process has gone on so long that even those who never made an effort to network will still be granted membership to this exclusive club by virtue of graduating with a degree from HBS.

“There is definitely an HBS bond that you will always be connected to whomever,” Stafford told me. “If I needed it, I would be able to call them and be like, ‘Hey, I graduated from HBS with you, remember when you came to my Whiskey, Bourbon, and Spirits Society event? I need a job.’”

When I asked Lewis how much of HBS’s contribution to its students was the brand, he answered, “ninety-seven percent.” Of course, he said, some students who come to HBS with little financial experience do learn a lot from accounting classes. Yet everyone benefits from the Harvard name.

There’s something unsettling about this exclusivity. My dad used to say, “What defines a club isn’t who’s in, but who’s not allowed in.” Does the education received at HBS and the College really merit the benefits it brings? In other words, is this hyper-elite club justly formed?

I’m not going to try to speculate about the ethics of exclusivity. I will say, though, that in dealing with this problem, we should remember the second part of John Rawls’ second principle of social justice: Any social and economic inequalities that exist should be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. If this club is going to exist, Harvard should make some effort to ensure its graduates contribute to the public good.

We’re already starting to see this in some sense. New HBS courses, like “Reimagining Capitalism” and “Capitalism and the State,” are forcing students to confront the inequities inherent in capitalism. At the College, too, we’ve begun to see efforts to promote equity and inclusivity. Administrative actions, like the creation of the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Forum, have placed these values closer to the center of the conversation. Similarly, even at the student level, we’ve seen historically elite social clubs begin to prioritize diversity and inclusion.

As others have pointed out, this reality still leaves a bad taste in our mouths. We might be more comfortable condemning the existence of institutions as exclusive as HBS and the College as a whole. In a way, that’s almost the simple and easy opinion to have.

We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. I think there’s a way to embrace this networking culture and the post-graduate benefits it brings while still grappling with important social justice issues. This means questioning our assumptions and critically examining vestiges of unjust exclusivity, so that everyone has the fair opportunity to access these social ecosystems. Only in doing so can we justify the existence of the Harvard club.

Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column, ‘The Postgraduate Way of Life,’ runs on triweekly Thursdays.

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