NEW YORK — Is class a more divisive issue at the Harvard Business School (HBS) than gender?
As soon as new students arrive, they are expected to write cheques of about US$300 (S$380) to their “sections”— groups with whom they take first-year classes — if they want to participate in social events.
In recent years, second-year students have organised a mid-winter ski trip that costs more than US$1,000; while others, including members of “Section X” (a secret society of extremely wealthy students), spend far more on weekend party trips to places like Iceland and Moscow.
When Ms Christina Wallace, now Director of the Startup Institute, attended HBS on a scholarship, she was told by her classmates that she needed to spend more money to fully participate, and that “the difference between a good experience and a great experience is only US$20,000”.
“Class was a bigger divide than gender when I was at HBS,” she said after graduating in 2010.
In reaction to a New York Times article on Sunday about the school’s attempt to improve its atmosphere for women, many students, alumni and readers echoed her comments.
“A pervasive problem,” a member of this year’s class wrote on http://www.nytimes.com. Another said she had borrowed tens of thousands a year to keep up socially, and that she never invited classmates to her parents’ home nearby as she did not feel it was lavish enough.
But many alumni from decades ago, including Ms Suzy Welch, former Editor of the Harvard Business Review, said they were startled by the culture of spending that was depicted in the article.
When Ms Welch graduated in 1988, money mattered, she said in a post on Twitter, “but conspicuous consumption events were rare”.
A reader named Ken H said the tone at the school in the 1970s was egalitarian, and that anyone who “flashed money around” would have earned jeers. “Maybe what has changed isn’t so much HBS, but America,” he added.
The student body is somewhat economically diverse, with 65 per cent of students on financial aid, receiving an average grant of US$60,000 over the two-year programme, according to a spokesman. (Tuition costs more than US$50,000 a year.)
The Class of 2013 includes former members of the military, children of struggling single mothers and a former butcher, among others.
But just as the school has made efforts in recent years to draw students from a wide array of economic backgrounds, the global elite has been accumulating far more wealth and the American income divide has been widening. The result is a school that mixes students of relatively modest means with extremely wealthy ones.
Many Harvard business students and readers were troubled by “Section X” and the idea that, even within the extremely elite confines of one of the nation’s premier business schools, the ultra-rich are segregating themselves.
According to students, the members are mostly male and international students from South America, the Middle East and Asia.
After hearing complaints from students, the co-presidents of the Class of 2013, Mr Kunal Modi and Ms Laura Merritt, worked to introduce less expensive activities, including trivia nights and coffee hours. They persuaded administrators to install lawn furniture on campus so students would have another setting where they could relax without spending money.
To help bring the school’s culture back down to earth, Mr Thomas J Peters, co-author of In Search of Excellence who has been a frequent critic of business education, suggested that HBS apply a simple admissions rule: Anyone from a privileged background needs to have done something of significant social value to be admitted.
But it is hard to say if HBS could ever mount a true effort to resolve class issues on campus along the lines of the one on gender. Many of the school’s top donors and alumni include members of the same ultra-moneyed culture that some students criticise.
And as many attend business school in the hope of building a network of influential contacts, they tend to fear offending anyone, especially rich classmates who might one day provide connections and financing.
Harvard’s efforts towards egalitarianism come as Singapore recently announced measures to prevent its top schools from becoming “closed circles”, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech last month. Agencies