Grade Conflation

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Attending university in Britain, student politics meant snarling Marxists battling for all-vegan cafeterias and the right to collect unemployment benefits while studying. There would be a couple of wild-haired professors who tried to curry favor with the discontents, but on the whole rulings drifted down from on high carrying the strong odors of port, cigars and institutional disinterest.

At Harvard Business School, things are supposed to be different. People here talk of consultation, collaboration and best practice. Students are encouraged to express their views, to help improve the HBS process. Focus groups, feedback sessions and opinion polls drive any change. But recent events have shown that the rule of philosopher kings is as entrenched on the banks of the Charles as it was in Plato’s vision of the ideal city-state. In this cradle of liberal, capitalist thought, democracy is not even at the green-shoots phase. Wise men rule and the mob must accede to their selfless judgment.

At issue has been grade disclosure, whether or not MBA students should be permitted to share their grades with outsiders. Until 1998, students could discuss their grades and potential employers could ask for them. Students were graded, as they are now, on a forced curve with the top 15% to 20% getting a “1,” the middle 70% a “2,” the bottom 10% a “3.” In 1998, however, each MBA class was divided in two and the grading system was felt to confer advantage on one over the other depending where you stood (or something like that).

On a student vote, it was decided that grades could no longer be disclosed and companies who recruited at HBS could not ask for them. Only the Baker Scholars, the top 5% of the class, and the next 15% who received honors were permitted to advertise their achievement.

The prohibition of grade disclosure struck some as a crazy inconsistency in an institution designed to breed ultra-competitors. Battle-hardened alumni harrumphed about the alma mater going soft. Were the letters “HBS” all the gilding an MBA now needed, with no reference to classroom performance? Could you imagine running a horse in the Kentucky Derby simply on the basis of its bloodline, regardless of its record?

Internally, there was a suspicion that students took the prohibition as a license to slack off and “build their network” in Cambridge bars rather than sweat their way out of the anonymous middle 70%. Professors also now seemed to consider grading a meaningless chore and said as much.
So a few months ago, the faculty decided grade disclosure was owed another chance. Give the students something to work for again, they said. The handling of the issue prompted memories of William F. Buckley’s old quip, that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.

The campus promptly exploded, with the debate blowing hot even as the rest of Cambridge froze. Opponents said grade disclosure would create a poisonous atmosphere on campus, discourage students from taking academic risks and put the burden on students rather than professors to improve their wilting classroom performance.

In a final vote, 87% of students opposed grade disclosure, 6% were for it and 7% declared themselves indifferent. But when was leadership ever about listening to a bunch of 27-year-old grad students? The grassroots were ignored and the new rule was imposed by executive order, leaving the campus simmering with indignation both righteous and profane. Even the Marxists were rarely this angry.

As a student, I am still undecided. Was what I just witnessed a great example of modern organizational decision-making, with the velvet of collaboration concealing the fist of executive resolve? Or was it what my compatriots would call a monumental cock-up?

Mr. Delves Broughton, a British student, is in the Harvard MBA class of 2006. This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2005;ÿPageÿA18