Sunday, September 08, 2013

Egalitarianism Among the Elites

The Times story about Harvard Business School, and its attempts to engineer gender equality among its students, struck several chords, although perhaps not the ones it intended to.

The world of elite schools is pretty self-contained.  I learned that truth hard when I graduated from a large, public high school and enrolled at Williams College.  The culture shock was severe.

The academic side of Williams presented a real challenge at first; it took me a semester to raise my game.  That was humbling, but not shocking.  The shock was in encountering up close the culture of the incredibly wealthy.  In the first week of freshman year, my section of the dorm I lived in -- the “entry,” in Williams parlance -- did a show of hands.  How many people would never have to work a day in their lives if they didn’t want to?  8 out of 23 answered in the affirmative, and nobody was kidding.  I wasn’t prepared for the casual brutality, the drinking, or the degree to which frat boy behavior was valorized.  (I was particularly surprised because the college had banned frats decades earlier.  But you don’t need frats to have frat boys.)

Among other things, that was where I learned the paradox of conservatism that Corey Robin has recently noted: for all their talk of discipline and virtue, they party hard, and they love to fight.

Those of us who opted out of frat boy culture didn’t have many alternatives.  There was an active evangelical Christian subculture, which either resonated with you or didn’t.  Beyond that, it was catch-as-catch-can.

Harvard Business School is cut from the same cloth, right down to the preponderance of family money.  The overclass sets the tone for the entire culture.

At Williams, the rest of us mostly acquiesced.  In part, we were stunned.  But in part, it was what we had signed up for.  We wanted to play with the big kids, and we assumed that this culture was the price of admission.  If we were to become movers and shakers, we’d have to learn to hold our own when conflicts got real; a certain amount of “toughening up” was part of the unspoken curriculum.  If we expected to compete in the realms of top medical programs, finance capital, law, and academia, we would have to be ready for combat.  I’ve long thought that the outsize focus on intercollegiate sports -- when I was there, about half of the students were on at least one intercollegiate team -- was based on the idea of fostering toughness and competitiveness.

HBS seems to have a similar culture.  Its frat boy culture is based on toughening up students for the world of venture capital, which isn’t exactly known for its warm and fuzzy streak.  You prepare students for the world that actually exists; if that world is hard-charging, brutal, hierarchical, and mostly male, then that’s what you prepare them for.  

Apparently, HBS had a change of heart recently, and its most recent graduating class went through an experiment in top-down culture change.  The goal was to help women students be as successful as their male counterparts.  And it’s crashing headfirst into the dilemmas of egalitarianism among elites.  The leadership of the school quickly discovered that students bring their backgrounds and expectations with them, and that the informal, out-of-class culture is much harder to control than classroom discussions.  Some areas of equality, such as gender, are within the bounds of possible (if awkward) discussion; others, such as class, would strike at the heart of the entire enterprise.  As one student put it, I’m paying a half million dollars to be here; I have certain expectations.  Exactly so.

The composition of elites is in flux at any given time, so the tasks of preparing future elites has to shift, too.  That’s awkward and difficult, since moving too quickly risks preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist, and moving too slowly risks irrelevance.  Harvard has discovered, correctly, that women have become much more important in the business world, and it wants to stay relevant as the change unfolds.  That makes sense, and I imagine that with a few adjustments, it will continue doing what it does unimpeded.  Whether that means simply inculcating women into frat boy culture, or trying to reform it from the ground up, is still up for grabs.  I don’t often say this, but I actually wish Harvard well on this one.