Harvard Business School: So Touchy!

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on September 8, 2008

A few weeks ago, Penguin Press published a book about Harvard Business School—Philip Delves Broughton’s “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School.” (Full disclosure: I reviewed the book for BusinessWeek. Here’s the link.) The book was critical of that august institution, calling it, among many other things, “a factory for unhappy people.”

Just how unhappy those people are became abundantly clear today when Harbus, the business school’s independent student newspaper, published an “investigatory report” on the book, which has apparently caused something of an uproar among students, alumni, and administrators.

The report is remarkably even-handed given the gist of Broughton's book, but it gets a little defensive at times. Alex Godden, HBS '08, says his working title for his review of the book was "extremely dull and incredibly sad," adding that he's not buying Broughton's criticism of the school, and by extension U.S. business culture. "His mudslinging seems more like the disappointed temper tantrum of a child in Disneyland seeing Mickey take his head off than the wise observation that the emperor is not, in fact, wearing new clothes."

Adam Ireland, a current student at HBS, says that "probably the most valid of all criticisms leveled at the book" is that it is "the ranting of one disillusioned individual which is a completely unfair representation of life at HBS." He concedes, however, that a lot of HBS students feel the way Broughton does about their experiences.

It strikes me as odd that people who presumably benefited from the Harvard experience feel the need to defend it against a critique that was (in my humble opinion) fairly tame, and that came from someone like Broughton, who made no secret of the fact that he despised pretty much everything about the business world. If Warren Buffet entered the temple of capitalism and pronounced it unfit, that's one thing. But that's not what happened.

What's everybody think? Would anyone from Harvard who's read the book like to weigh in?

Reader Comments

D Johnston

September 9, 2008 10:37 AM

The reactions tell the world as much about HBS and its students - their self-confidence, sense of savvy, and their maturity - as does the book.

H Jagadeesh

September 10, 2008 7:44 PM

I think that if you had any pride in the institutions you work for, or studied at, you too would defend the ramblings of one uncontent student. There are lots of drawbacks about HBS and the students - but regardless of how negative one person makes it, it is still regarded as one of the best places to get an MBA, and 95% of the alumni would do it again in a heartbeat.


September 11, 2008 9:07 AM

That's a good point. I guess the reason Harvard's reaction struck me as odd was that Broughton's book didn't strike me as a complete hatchet job--he spends a large part of the book extolling HBS's virtues, and concedes that he learned a lot in class. If he found no redeeming qualities at all inside Harvard's ivy-covered walls, sure...have at him. But his critique of the schools was, in my opinion, fairly even-handed--not entirely positive, but not entirely negative either. Did either of you attend HBS? Or see Broughton when he gave a reading at Harvard recently? Curious to know how the man came off, in the flesh, as it were.


September 12, 2008 2:29 PM

Didn't attend HBS - went to Berkeley Law instead - but I bought the book, read it, and don't think he was really critical of HBS at all. It's really clear throughout most of the book that Broughton isn't very interested in a traditional HBS business career (Wall Street, consulting, etc), and that fuels a lot of his unease about the HBS experience. But that being said, much of the book describes his enthusiasm about the things he learned at HBS - he enjoyed learning about finance and capitalism, and thinks the school has lots of great professors. If I was thinking of business school, and read his book, I would not be deterred from the experience - I would be encouraged. I think the biggest takeaway from his book for me was that if you are planning to go to a place like HBS, try to sketch out a few post-HBS goals, so you won't feel miserable about not knowing what you want out of your experience there.


September 12, 2008 3:20 PM

Amen to that. Not only did he go into it with no idea of what he wanted to do, he didn't take advantage of the one thing HBS provided to help him decide: the summer internship. While all his classmates were off toiling in i-bank trenches, or summering on Mount McKinsey, he was working on his novel. It's too bad, too. Had he followed your advice and sketched out a few post-HBS goals in advance, things might have ended very differently...for him and his book.

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