Sexual Assault at HBS Spurs Dialogue on Student Culture

The HBS community began a sobering process of self-reflection on Thursday when all 10 RC sections convened for mandatory lunches in the wake of a sexual assault incident that raised questions about the broader culture at Harvard Business School.

Frances Frei

“We’re devoted to creating the conditions where people can thrive, so when we heard about this incident, it was very jarring,” said Francis Frei, Professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit and Chair of the MBA Required Curriculum. “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.”

SA co-president Kunal Modi agreed the lunch sessions were an important first step, but cautioned that there was much work still to do.

“While Thursday’s lunch session was a good start, it’s just that — a start,” Modi said. “Many of the issues that came out of the discussions have existed for decades and some will continue to persist even after we leave. The challenge for us as a class will be to ask ourselves what we can do to leave this campus an even more inclusive and respectful one than we entered.”

Details of the precipitating incident, which first came to the administration’s attention 4-5 weeks ago, are difficult to come by, owing to the premium that has been placed on protecting the identity and privacy of the victim.

What is known is that the assault involved unwanted groping of a female RC student’s breasts by one of her sectionmates at an off-campus venue. The victim has decided not to pursue criminal charges against her assailant; in accordance with her wishes, the administration has not undertaken an investigation to identify the perpetrator of the assault.

Administration officials concede that its dialogue with the female student 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. According to Frei, the report of sexual assault is the first she has received in 18 months as Chair of the RC.

“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 said. “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.’”

Nevertheless, the administration has worked closely with the victim in order to spur a dialogue about community values and inclusiveness at HBS. That dialogue began with students leaders, who urged the administration to engage the entire RC student body in the discussion, resulting in last Thursday’s lunch sessions which featured professor-led and student-led segments.

“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.”

In working with student leaders including Modi and fellow SA co-president Laura Merritt as well as section presidents, leadership and values representatives, and education representatives, the administration has seen a wide spectrum of responses to the incident of sexual assault.

“Our immediate reaction was we all felt like we were punched in the stomach with this,” Frei said. “And then quite honestly, when [Dean] Nitin [Nohria] 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.”

With its primary window into the lives of HBS students being the classroom environment, the administration concedes that there is much about the student culture that it does not fully understand. In working with students, the administration has gotten a fuller picture of a cultural issue that is not contained to one incident of sexual assault.

Citing the prevalence of in-section “games” like “Kill, F—, or Marry” or an incident earlier this year when a female RC student was informed that the men in her section had voted her to have “the second best rack” in section, the administration determined that there was a need for dialogue between students.

“I think most people would agree that the sexual assault and the voting incident are fairly black and white as far as being unacceptable,” Frei said. “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.”

Describing Thursday’s sessions as “the beginning of the journey,” Frei emphasized that the work of assessing the situation and discussing the culture would continue. The administration has resolved to discuss issues of sexual assault and harassment at the beginning of next year’s RC, rather than at the end.

When asked if she had any final messages for the HBS community, Frei leaned on her background in the TOM unit and the andon cord feature of the Toyota Production System. An andon cord is a rope strung along an assembly line that can be pulled at any time to stop production; when the cord is pulled, workers on the line and management in the plant immediately investigate and address the problem that gave rise to the cord being pulled.

“That andon cord is a metaphor for life,” Frei said. “Between all of us as individuals, let’s surface as many problems as possible, and then let’s collectively figure out how to solve them.”