Harvard business school prides itself on being a place where students use case studies to tackle real-life business problems. But this April, the play-acting became real when six male students were disciplined for offensive behavior toward women in the classroom.
What's striking is not only the behavior--which, as first detailed in Inc. Online, included the exchange of sexually offensive and explicit notes and comments--but how HBS handled it. Several students complained to fellow students and faculty during the 1996-97 year, but a formal probe was not launched until 1998, owing in part to lack of clarity in disciplinary procedures. "We could have taken action more quickly," admits Kim B. Clark, dean of the business school. "We clearly did not articulate the standards we expect."
Some students say the behavior is no surprise. Harvard has long taken heat on women's issues. At HBS, women make up just 24% of the class of 1998 and 28% of the class of 1999, vs. 38% at Columbia Business School and 32% at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. And some say that sexist traditions are passed on to incoming students at HBS. A male student in the 80-student section where the incidents occurred says the pattern of behavior was set when HBS students from the previous year taught them about traditions such as "top 10" lists and suggestive cheers and notes. Says one full professor: "The problem has been festering for years." Other students say the environment is healthy and students should police themselves.
With sexual harassment such a critical issue in Corporate America, what's most surprising is how little attention the situation got at a school that sees itself as being in the vanguard of management issues. "You're planting a bad seed if harassment is being tolerated," says Laura Hartman, head of DePaul University's Institute for Business & Professional Ethics. "MBAs aren't far from stepping out of the classroom into the boardroom."
Some good may come from airing Harvard's dirty laundry. Incoming students now must attend a class to discuss sexual harassment. HBS has also reworked its disciplinary process. And both student officers and faculty will get training in gender-related issues. "Those things will not happen in the HBS of the future," says Andrew N. Nunemaker, president of HBS's student association. What is sad is that it happened at all.