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Survival of the Fittest MBA

December 16, 2005

The era of the second-year slump at Harvard Business School is over. Or maybe the days of student cooperation are over. Despite strong student opposition, the business school announced Wednesday that it was ending its ban on sharing grades with potential employers. Starting with new students who enroll in the fall, M.B.A. candidates can decide for themselves whether to share their transcripts.

The ban on grade-sharing has been enormously popular with students since it was adopted in 1998. Supporters say that it discouraged (or at least kept to a reasonable level) the kind of cut-throat competition for which business schools are known. With the ban, students said they were more comfortable helping one another or taking difficult courses.

But a memo sent to students by Jay O. Light, the acting dean, said that the policy was wrong. "Fundamentally, I believe it is inappropriate for HBS to dictate to students what they can and cannot say about their grades during the recruiting process. I believe you and your classmates earn your grades and should be accountable for them, as you will be accountable for your performance in the organizations you will lead in the future," he wrote.

Light added that banning the release of grades was "inconsistent" with the business school's commitment "to maintaining high academic standards."

Harvard officials have said that employers vary on how much they would like to know students' grades, with the financial services and consulting industries being most likely to want the data.

Even though current students are not affected, the possibility of a policy change has drawn widespread and vocal opposition among students at Harvard -- and considerable interest from business schools elsewhere. A poll by The Harbus, the business school's newspaper, found that only 5 percent of students favored the idea of reporting grades to employers.

Alex Michael, a second-year M.B.A. student and co-president of the Student Association, said that most students believe that revealing grades "will tamper with the collaborative nature of the classroom here and lead to even more competition."

Michael also scoffed at the idea -- which Harvard administrators have stressed -- that students will still have the option not to reveal their grades. "Once those who want to release their grades, others who don't want to will have to," he said.

At the same time, Michael said that there was some truth to the suggestion that the ban on releasing grades made it possible for some students to slack off. He said that he didn't see this in first-year students, but that there were "pockets" of second-year students who took advantage of the fact that they didn't have to worry about anyone seeing their transcripts.

Harvard's ban on releasing grades reflects a broader debate at business schools over figuring out the right level of competition for students.

Faculty members at the Wharton School are currently discussing whether the percentages of the classes that are designated for honors are too small. Currently, one set of honors is restricted to those graduating who were in the top 10 percent of their classes each semester, and another set of honors goes to those in the top 20 percent of their class over all. Some believe that expanding those percentages will reward more students, while others fear that the relatively low percentages make it possible for some students to avoid obsessing over grades, since an honors degree isn't expected.

The Wharton School as an institution does not have a ban or requirement on disclosing grades, but the student government adopted a policy in 1994 banning the release of grades.

Serhan Secmen, student body president at Wharton, said that students there are proud that the policy is not a "top down" rule like the one Harvard is ending, but is one that they have come up with themselves. He said that even though the student government has no way to enforce the rule, students abide by it.

He said that keeping grades from prospective employers encourages "teamwork and student collaboration."

 

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