The student newspaper at Harvard Business School reported on April 30 that an off campus sexual assault on an unidentified MBA student is prompting deeper questions about the broader culture of the famous business school.
According to the report in The Harbus, written by The Harbus’ recently elected co-editor Bart Clareman, the assault “involved unwanted groping” of a female first year student’s breasts by one of her section mates at an off-campus venue. “The victim has decided not to pursued criminal charges against her assailant,” wrote The Harbus. “In accordance with her wishes, the administration has not undertaken an investigation to identify the perpetrator of the assault.”
Male MBAs at Harvard voted one female student as having ‘the second best rack’ in their section
The incident, however, appears to be part of a broader pattern of Mad Men-like behavior at Harvard by some male students directed toward women. According to the story, another incident earlier this year involved a female first-year student who was informed that the men in her section had voted her to have “the second best rack” in section.
The Harbus also reported on the “prevalence” of section games, specifically citing one such game as “Kill, Fuck, or Marry” in which male students name the women in their classes that they would most like to murder, have intercourse with, or wed. The game gained popularity by radio shock jock Howard Stern and was later given wider exposure on the television show “30 Rock.”
At least one student told Poets&Quants the game playing is not an unusual occurrence. “My sense is that the game is played with some frequency, and that many students were surprised that it was cited as part of the ‘problem’ that might exist within the culture here,” said one Harvard MBA student to Poets&Quants who wanted to remain anonymous. “The game is played very casually by some, and to many it seems unreasonable to draw a line between that game being played and an incident of sexual assault. But I think you’d find student opinion unanimous around the idea that it’s wrong for a sexual assault to occur or for students to rank the breasts of their female classmates, my sense is that students are far less unanimous on the idea that this game is unambiguously wrong.”
In an interview with The Harbus, Francis Frei, an HBS professor and chair of the school’s required first year curriculum, said “I think most people would agree that the sexual assault and the voting incident are fairly black and white as far as being unacceptable. In some of these other situations, however, there is likely a broad spectrum of views on what’s harmful and what’s all in good fun. By talking about these issues, we hope to raise awareness of them and enable students to draw the bright lines between black and gray.
Conversation with sexual assault victim ‘got off to a rocky start’
The Harbus reported that administration officials conceded that discussion with the female student who was the victim of the sexual assault “got off to a rocky start when it responded with ‘surprise’ to the allegations. Citing an article published in Inc. magazine in April 1998 that described male HBS students who “among other infractions… were found to have passed women lewd and sexually explicit notes,” the student was taken aback when the administration reacted with surprise to her report.”
The Inc. story, however, was more than 12 years old and administrators believed that such fraternity house behavior had been a thing of the past. At the time, Harvard disciplined six male MBA students, requiring them to apologize to the HBS community as a condition of graduating. Some of those students also were asked to perform community service and to undergo counseling on sexual harassment, and at least one student was not allowed to walk on graduation day, although he did receive his MBA degree.
So when Frei interviewed the victim of the more recent groping incident, she expressed surprise at the unseemly behavior. “When the student met with us and told us this information, I was very, very surprised, and I believe she found my surprise to be disingenuous,” Frei told The Harbus. “We know things of this nature have happened historically, but we didn’t think it was happening with the students now. Her view was like, ‘Really? This is going on all the time.’”
“Our immediate reaction was we all felt like we were punched in the stomach with this,” Frei added. “And then quite honestly, when [Dean] Nitin brought the section leadership together and broke the news to them, some of them looked like they were punched in the stomach too, while others said, ‘I can’t say I’m surprised.’ I think you saw a very similar reaction among faculty members as well.”
‘I think we have good people behaving badly’
“We’re devoted to creating the conditions where people can thrive, so when we heard about this incident, it was very jarring,” said Frei in her interview with The Harbus. “That said, I don’t think there is anything going on this year that wasn’t going on last year or going on the year before that, and I don’t think there are bad people here either; I think we have good people behaving badly. We want to learn if there’s something in the culture here that’s making those good people behave badly.”
“The issue is larger than any one incident,” said Frei. “Now that it’s been surfaced, our belief is that talking about these issues is going to greatly reduce the likelihood of anything like this happening again.”
The Harbus reported that Frei described Thursday’s sessions as “the beginning of the journey.” Harvard plans to openly discuss issues of sexual assault and harassment at the beginning of next year’s required curriculum, rather than at the end.”