MBA Program Launches New Tutorial on Sexual Violence and Harassment

Gabriel Ellsworth, Contributor

Every year, incoming RCs are required to complete a number of tasks on their “Prematriculation Checklist” before they arrive at HBS. This summer, the Class of 2020 had to complete an item not seen in previous years’ checklists: an online tutorial entitled “Sexual Violence and Harassment at HBS.”

The purpose of this exercise, according to the note with which it began, was to help students “identify sexual and gender-based harassment, to recognize inappropriate behavior, and intervene when [they] see that others are at risk.”

In previous years, new MBA students had to complete an exercise compiled by Harvard University, but the new tutorial was developed at and exclusively for HBS. Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee, who chaired the MBA program from 2014 until July of this year, led the effort during his tenure.

The presentation previously in use focused on the law. It “did what it set out to do, which was to articulate the policy,” according to Jana P. Kierstead, executive director of the MBA and doctoral programs, but it lacked sufficient relevance to the HBS context. “We wanted to really get people thinking about how to get to our community goal, which is zero sexual violence,” she said.

The administration surveyed the market for products that train university students about sexual misconduct, but Oberholzer-Gee found nothing that was the right match for the challenges facing the HBS campus. When he chaired the MBA program, Oberholzer-Gee most often handled sexual harassment cases where the primary issue was not a legal one.

“The typical case that I saw at HBS was two people who actually like each other and don’t mean to hurt one another, but then at some point things go horribly wrong,” said Oberholzer-Gee. “Somehow we have different expectations, and as a result of different expectations, one person ends up hurting the other in a horrible way. Nowhere on the market did we see a product that reflected this reality at HBS.” Oberholzer-Gee and his team set out to create an exercise for the Class of 2020 that would emphasize situations without legal “bright lines,” as well as highlight discrepancies in students’ expectations.

The new tutorial comprised five scenarios, “realistic scenarios that take place at HBS every year,” which were described through animated videos. Each video profiled interactions between pairs of fictional HBS students. The topics covered in these scenarios included harassment, stalking, unwelcome sexual conduct, bystander interventions, and sexual assault.

Lori Harrington (MBA ‘20, Section J) said, “I was really skeptical when I went to take the tutorial, because generally these trainings focus on the black and white. But when it comes to sexual harassment, a lot of students encounter gray areas when they are on campus.”

After reviewing each scenario, students were asked to answer questions about it. Some questions were multiple-choice; others were free-response. Upon submitting their responses, RCs were shown those of students who participated in a pilot run of the tutorial this spring.

“My first reaction to the tutorial was that it felt like another box to check, another HR exercise; we had such a long checklist,” said Trevor Hill (MBA ‘20, Section C). “But when I actually got into it, I was impressed with the quality of the content. I have had to do these trainings several times for companies, and this is the best one that I’ve done. And the method they used was quite interesting: asking for your reactions to situations, some of which are very difficult and not black and white, and then showing the reactions of your classmates.”

Another male member of the Class of 2020 reflected, “The tutorial was powerful because a lot of people find themselves in ambiguous situations. As a man, it’s easier to hold myself accountable as a potential perpetrator if some of the scenarios are in a gray area.”

The data from the pilot revealed a range of opinions among HBS students regarding the scenarios. There was one question on which previous respondents were unanimous: 100% believed that it was not okay for a student to transmit a sexually suggestive image that he had created of his sectionmate to a friend in their section. No other question elicited a unanimous response, however, and on some questions, students were very far from consensus. For example, in the scenario related to stalking, 46% of respondents believed that it was not okay for a student to call a classmate who had not reciprocated multiple prior expressions of romantic interest, but 31% were not sure, and 23% believed that it was okay.

The open-ended questions also led to divergent responses. In one scenario, an intoxicated student asked a sectionmate to walk her home after a party and then invited him inside. Survey respondents were asked regarding this sectionmate, “How can he make sure he does not engage in unwelcome sexual conduct?” One respondent suggested that he “outright ask her” whether they could have intercourse. However, another wrote, “In my opinion, she was too drunk to give consent, so that evening there was no way.”

In this instance, the tutorial creators expressed a clear normative judgment regarding the student in the scenario: he “must not have sex with her” because she was incapacitated. In others, though, the School did not make a definitive assessment of the specific behavior portrayed, instead saying that one character “may have engaged in unwelcome sexual conduct” or that another’s conduct “could have tipped over into harassment, even stalking.”

RCs’ reactions to the open-endedness in the tutorial were mixed. Tanvika Gupta (MBA ‘20, Section H) was “surprised that HBS didn’t take a stance on some of these scenarios.” For example, in the scenario pertaining to stalking, she agreed with the 46% of survey respondents who believed that a call would not be okay, commenting, “This is a clear example of unwelcome contact.” Gupta suggested that the administration show its response alongside the pie chart displaying survey data. “What is HBS’ interpretation of this scenario?” she asked.

On the other hand, Harrington responded positively to the administration’s presentation of the content. “The tutorial did a really good job of showcasing the gray areas and making us aware of how other students perceived the questions,” she said. “The administration shouldn’t only give us cases that are black and white. People get in trouble when they aren’t aware that everyone perceives some of these situations differently. They think, ‘Oh, such-and-such is fine,’ and then it’s not fine.”

Kierstead explained that one of the School’s goals was to help new students understand that others think differently from them, just as professors do in the classroom using the case method. Oberholzer-Gee elaborated, “All of these scenarios were developed to get us exactly to the point where we disagree. That’s just how we write cases: in the hope that the class will be split on what the protagonist should do. Only if we have scenarios where reasonable people disagree are we showing what really matters in the community.”

One of the videos featured three, rather than two, characters; it focused on a student who saw her intoxicated roommate leaving a party with a classmate whom the student believed to be a “womanizer.” The student wondered whether she should intervene. Hill identified with this student: “It’s not always easy to act or clear that you should act—or even clear what you should do if you do act,” he said.

The tutorial told students, “You will often be in situations where it is less than obvious whether you should intervene.” It encouraged them to consider intervening when they feel that someone is at risk of harm and outlined strategies for intervention. Hill remarked, “I hope that this training makes bystanders more likely to intervene in situations where we might have felt awkward or unsure before—or at least more comfortable asking classmates whether we should be intervening, given that we’ve all gone through this training.”

John Bracaglia (MBA ‘20, Section J) confirmed that on him, the tutorial has already had this effect. “After a recent club party, I saw a person I know. He was trying to convince a woman to go home with him, and she was saying ‘no.’ I wasn’t sure what to make of it; it was hard to know whether they had a strong pre-existing relationship. People had been drinking.” Bracaglia chose to intervene by separating the woman from the man and talking one-on-one with her. “In the moment, I really did think about the training – that scenario where people are leaving a party,” he said.

However, other students expressed concern that the tutorial had left RCs with a sense of unresolved tension: Gupta commented that “After seeing that a lot of people in the student body viewed some of the scenarios differently from them, several of my sectionmates felt confused and uncomfortable. I think the administration should give students a clear understanding of what it thinks for each of these scenarios, as well as organize a follow-up conversation for RCs so that the tutorial isn’t the only time when we have to interact with this material.”

Kierstead said that she and her team were ready and willing to support RCs in these conversations. She commented, “I hope that the sections will decide how they want to move forward with the material. I would love for each section to say to us, ‘Hey, we need you to come back and talk to us.’ We can facilitate a follow-on conversation, but I would want to let the section drive the agenda.”

Although Gupta thought that the tutorial could be improved, she was glad to see this new item in her checklist. Gupta remarked, “It was great that HBS made a commitment to doing this kind of training before we arrived on campus.”

Professor Jan W. Rivkin, Senior Associate Dean and current MBA Chair, confirmed that the School plans to collect feedback on the tutorial with help from students. “Our aim is to learn from this first year and make the training even more effective in future years,” he said. “Students will have an opportunity to help us move forward toward our goal of zero sexual violence at HBS.”

Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) came to HBS from … HBS, where he worked most recently as a casewriter with a faculty member in the Strategy Unit. He read English literature as an undergraduate at Yale. Though he loves HBS, he insists on referring to next month’s athletic event as “the Yale-Harvard Game.”