The discussions of the role of social class at Harvard Business School apply to all the leading business schools where, like the rest of the world, inequality in wealth has grown tremendously. But these discussions mostly miss the underlying cause of the problem: Students from all social backgrounds who gain admission to top schools all have the intellectual horsepower to effectively compete with their classmates in academics. Not all students have equal ability to compete when it comes to participating in and throwing lavish parties. Unfortunately, as the New York Times makes clear with its revelations about the ultra-wealthy members of the mysterious “Section X” at HBS, business school has become way more about the parties than about the course work, which has left poorer students at a social—and professional—disadvantage.
At Stanford, I think it began with FOAM (Friends of Arjay Miller, a former Ford Motor senior executive and dean of the school). Students in the top 10 percent of the class are called Arjay Miller Scholars. As sort of a joke, a group that originally called itself the 11 Percenters and then became known as FOAM began with a Tuesday-night bar scene—since there are no classes on Wednesday. Some students thought it would be cool to go to Las Vegas on a Wednesday during the winter quarter—hence, Vegas FOAM—with a Tuesday-night departure, and some people dressed in costumes. Then people began going to the Sundance Film Festival—a majority of the student body now make that trek. And, of course, there are the ski houses and ski weekends, the rental houses in tony Atherton and Woodside that some second-years live in, the various charity fundraising balls, and the numerous other events and trips that I can’t even keep track of.
Some years ago we had Scott McNealy, a Stanford B-school grad and co-founder and former chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, telling the students at a View From The Top speaker event that business school was all about the networks you should and would build while in school. McNealy was just more explicit about what many students (and visitors to the school) have come to believe: Business school is about relationship-building and networking, which makes sociability and the financial wherewithal to throw—or at least attend—the omnipresent parties and trips critical.
Missing from the current discussion of the “class divide” at B-schools is: Why haven’t the problems of social class beset law schools, medical schools, and schools of engineering—professional schools that also have students from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds who arrive at leading universities with unequal financial resources—particularly for extracurricular activities? As one former student told me when I suggested doing a study in which one would take head shots of students from various professional schools and see if random outsiders could do better than chance in picking out the B-school students: “Of course, you could sort them. The business school students are better looking, taller, and leverage their social skills more in their careers.”
Whether students should pay $50,000-plus annually in tuition for networking opportunities is, of course, an interesting economic calculation. Part of the reason the investments get made is the understanding that there are important, wealthy, and well-connected people in the leading schools. I believe the phrase is: “It’s a target-rich environment.”
To me, the more fundamental issue confronting business schools, which deans privately talk about, but—ever since Businessweek (and other publications) began ranking B-schools, making students “customers” with their ratings affecting business school prestige—few will actually do anything about, is what happened to the classes, to academic performance, to learning something?
If and when business schools become more like many of their professional school brethren—where status comes primarily from academic/professional accomplishment, not from who can hold the most liquor or put on the best show—not only will less wealthy students no longer be disadvantaged, but the culture will change for the better—from booze, cars, and houses to ideas.
That would be good for everyone involved in the business school enterprise.