To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Friday, September 20, 2013

Diversity Trouble In Luxury Class At Harvard Business School

Although progressives may spurn it, there’s a very good case to be made that the cultural left’s fixation on diversity and identity politics over the last twenty years has represented a significant distraction from more far-reaching issues of income inequality, class stratification, and the broader decline of the American middle class. 
I don’t think it’s fair to say that diversity has caused these things, but in the complicated calculus at play in American politics, diversity is definitely a factor. It has certainly undermined the wider sense of “community” necessary to address social inequality, as well as a sense of common purpose. People with an inadequate sense of connection to one another just aren’t inclined to care enough to support increased social spending, even for programs that might benefit their own self-interest: The What’s the Matter With Kansas syndrome. 

Yet among liberals over the last twenty or so year, the preoccupation with diversity has definitely trumped class, monopolizing valuable energies which should have been focused on more central things. This has put the country behind the curve of issues liberals should have been out in front of, both by inclination and by organizational emphasis.

The recession of 2008 has woken us all up to the fact that the American Dream of social mobility is in jeopardy, but all it essentially did was call attention to structural forces, like falling median income that have been evident since the 1970s. Liberals are now on the job, warning of the massive gap between the one percent and the rest of us, witness Paul Krugman writing about “the different social and material universe” the wealthy now inhabit. The right has weighed in too, with Charles Murray highlighting the problem of an elite raised in a privileged “social and cultural bubble,” closed off from realities of people from other rungs of the socio-economic ladder and unable to empathize with them.  

But the forces in work here have a lot of momentum behind them. We might have passed a tipping point already.  And lingering social anxiety surrounding this, especially in the professional class, impairs the ability to acknowledge and address the class issue as directly as it requires. There’s still a lot of denial and avoidance.

This dynamic is particularly sharp in academia, where diversity has been the number one institutional priority for more than two decades, leaving its stamp on almost every facet of higher education, from tenure decisions, admission criteria, the hiring of deans and reforming the curriculum.

The administrative bureaucracy behind diversity is huge, bolstered by an orthodoxy that is almost religious in nature. A friend of mine who teaches at a university on the West Coast describes faculty senate meetings where the trinity of “race, ethnicity and gender” is invoked so incessantly that he has started making the sign of the cross, inside his head of course.  Woe betide him were he to do so openly: the deep intolerance of anyone voicing criticism or raising questions about this orthodoxy, or pointing out its internal contradictions, makes even those with tenure hold their tongues.

Meanwhile despite academia’s preening, higher education has grown inexorably more unaffordable, threatening the whole machinery of American social mobility at just the time  when middle class success in globalized economy depends on getting a degree. Tuitions have surged at triple the inflation rate, saddling graduates and parents with crippling loads of debt. Student debt has topped a trillion dollars and threatens another financial meltdown.  Making loan payments to banks every month and with no ability to dissolve the loan obligations through bankruptcy, most graduates in the Millennial Generation have put off buying cars and houses, and have delayed forming families. This threatens the process of economic recovery in the near term and, long term, challenges one of the most important pillars of the consumer economy: consumer spending.  America now has less social mobility than Europe, where higher education is far less expensive. And it will get only worse in the future, as we come face-to-face with an deep structural issue with vast implications for he country we think we are, with shrinking access to high education eroding the defining American ideal of democratic equality. 

Even as academia was preening about the moral justice of its diversity crusade, higher education has devolved into a deeply illiberal institutional force, making for some interesting ideological contradictions.  Confiscatory tuition fees and the debt they create have surely damaged working class and middle class interests as much as the trickle down, supply side economics that favor the rich—and which academia largely regards as a pox. Higher Education has also shown its antagonism to middle class interests by reaching out to the “international student pool” who can pay full freight, in effect embracing a model of globalization where “off-shoring” is central. For a while, anyone in academia who had pangs of conscience about soaring tuition took refuge in the mantra of “needs blind admissions.” But you don’t hear so much about “needs blind admissions” anymore. Instead, it’s Higher Ed to Horatio Alger: Hock yourself to the eyeballs. With a credential as valuable as what we’re selling here, you can’t afford not to. And btw, have you thought about military service as a way to pay?

Recent New York Times reporting on the Harvard Business School is an unlikely place to find evidence of how Diversity has overshadowed more important underlying issues of class. But after a largely laudatory report on the school’s ambitious “gender makeover” effort, aggressive feedback from HBS students and recent graduates prompted the Times to follow up with a second piece on toxic class dynamics at the school. Such skewed class dynamics were said to be more formidable than anything tied to a climate hostile to women; they emanated the culture of conspicuous spending among the school’s substantial community of ultra-wealthy foreign students. 

HBS was never a bastion of social equality of course. But if the kind of class stratification depicted in the article is true, it would be wise to see an allegory where there is one. As one more egalitarian-minded HBS alum from the 1970’s told Times reporter Jodi Kantor,  “Maybe what’s changed isn’t so much HBS but America.”

Kantor's first piece, Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity described HBS’s ambitious effort to “remake gender relations” at the business school through “changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success.” The initiative was aimed at “ a seemingly intractable problem,” Kantor explained.  “Year after year, women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle; from 2006 to 2007, a third of the female junior faculty left.” HBS's corrective effort ranged from setting up new courses to coaching female students how to raise their hands assertively in class.

Kantor described the initiative as a response to a misogynistic campus climate where “men commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members, and openly ruminated on whom they would “kill, sleep with or marry” (in cruder terms).  

Like much done in the name of diversity, especially when done at Harvard, there was no shortage of grandiosity and sanctimony. Frances Frei, the dean of faculty recruiting, exclaimed “We have to lead the way, and then lead the world in doing it.”  School administrators, Kantor explained, thought the initiative could “have an untold impact at other business schools, at companies populated by Harvard alumni and in the Fortune 500, where only 21 chief executives are women.”

Kantor’s disquisition ran at nearly 5000 words. But even though the piece described how students felt overwhelmed by the wealth that coursed through the school, the way it seemed to shape every aspect of social life,” it prompted dissatisfaction from readers who made their dissatisfaction known on the Times’ website. Many felt that Kantor had ignored the class inequities that had become so entrenched at the school, much of them generated by children of the ultra wealthy, as well as the large pool of rich international students. The feedback led to a second piece two day after the first: Class Is Seen Dividing Harvard Business School. As one high tech entrepreneur and class of 2010 alum who attended the school on scholarship and now runs a high tech start up told Kantor: “Class was a bigger divide than gender when I was at HBS.”

This article put the onus on an informal group of wealthy international students known as “Section X. ” According to students, Section X was the focus of “enormous resentment” on the campus.

Section X members were “mostly male and mostly international students from South America, the Middle East and Asia,” Kantor reported. They organized that one student said were “the real parties, the parties where it’s a really limited list.” Section X was also said to be responsible for weekend trips to places like Iceland and Moscow, among other lavishness.

Kantor explained that the school had been putting a lot of effort “to draw students from a wide array of economic backgrounds, but these effort shave been blunted by the rise of a global elite that has been accumulating far more wealth and the American income divide has been growing." She did not detail the size of the international student body, however---one third of every 900-student class (HBS is a two year program)--- which is a significant percentage that has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades.  Nor did she characterize it as a diversity-related phenomenon. Although the outreach to foreign students helps enhance the school's global influence, it also boosts the school’s racial and ethnic profile and the all-important diversity statistics that accompany it.

But Kantor definitely made it clear that Section Xers had an adverse impact on the school’s sense of community:

Many Harvard business students and readers were especially troubled by Section X and the idea that even within the extremely elite confines of one of the nation’s premier business schools, the ultrawealthy are segregating themselves.

More than once I heard that ‘the only middle-class students here are the Americans,'” another recent graduate said.

The piece closed with illuminating insight into the careerist imperatives that blocked students from speaking out on the issue more forcefully, making it “hard to say if Harvard Business could ever mount a true effort to resolve class issues on campus along the lines of the one on gender,” as Kantor put it. 

Many of the school’s top donors and alumni are members of the same ultramoneyed culture that some students criticize. And because many students attend business school in the specific hope of building a network of influential contacts, they tend to fear offending anyone, especially wealthy classmates who might one day provide connections and financing.

The No. 1 thing you should take away from the comments section on this post is that no one is putting their real name,” one member of the class of 2013 wrote on, citing fear that strong opinions “could limit future options.”

There are plenty of people, most in fact, who don't give a rat's tail about Harvard Business School and the class complaints among its rarified .01 percent. But as the alum from the seventies said: Maybe what’s changed isn’t so much HBS but America.  


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