Among the many revelations in Jodi Kantor’s in-depth article on Harvard Business School’s gender and class divide was that there’s a group called “Section X” at the school, described as “on-again-off-again secret society of ultra-wealthy, mostly male, mostly international students known for decadent parties and travel.”
It points to a class divide, where a significant subset of wealthy finance types live a rather more lavish life than you’d expect from a graduate student, and there’s pressure for everybody to participate lest they miss out on networking.
It’s a serious issue that’s gotten worse in recent years, and it’s not unique to Harvard, according to Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who criticised the trend in a piece for Bloomberg Businessweek.
Pfeffer is a long-serving and prominent professor of organizational theory at the school.
According to him, the move towards party culture began with the Stanford equivalent of Harvard’s Section X called “FOAM,” standing for “Friends Of Arjay Miller.” They originally referred to themselves as “eleven percenters.” The academically highest performing 10% of each graduating class at the business school are designated Arjay Miller Scholars.
The name is self-mocking. The more socially focused students might be friends with those aiming for the top 10%, but spend much of their time on things other than the intense studying required to get there:
“(It) began with a Tuesday-night bar scene — since there are no classes on Wednesday. Some students thought it would be cool to go to Las Vegas on a Wednesday during the winter quarter — hence, Vegas FOAM — with a Tuesday-night departure, and some people dressed in costumes. … And, of course, there are the ski houses and ski weekends, the rental houses in tony Atherton and Woodside that some second-years live in, the various charity fundraising balls, and the numerous other events and trips that I can’t even keep track of.”
It is, Pfeffer argues, all part of a trend where business school isn’t really about the classes at all, but about networking and relationship building. The students who have the wealth required to attend or throw parties have a fundamental advantage.
Any top school is going to have a class divide. But in no other academic area is it as much of a disadvantage, and the social scene is usually a sidebar rather than the main event.
He wants to see the MBA experience become about learning again:
“If and when business schools become more like many of their professional school brethren — where status comes primarily from academic/professional accomplishment, not from who can hold the most liquor or put on the best show — not only will less wealthy students no longer be disadvantaged, but the culture will change for the better — from booze, cars, and houses to ideas.”
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