To the MBA Classes of 2009 and 2010:
I am grateful to Joey Castillo and the other Harbus editors for allowing me to share my thoughts about Ahead of the Curve, a new book by HBS alumnus Philip Delves Broughton (MBA 2006), which I have read carefully. The book – written as a memoir, and thus based on personal experiences, perceptions, and reflections – is garnering attention because of its “insider” tone. You might recently have seen it reviewed in publications such as the Financial Times and the New York Times.
Overall, Mr. Delves Broughton, a former journalist, characterizes his experience at Harvard Business School as “terrific” and “personally challenging.” He also says it was “tougher than I thought it would be, but equally rewarding.” He further states he would do it again if given the opportunity. We couldn’t ask for a better endorsement from a former student.
At the same time, however, the book contains numerous factual errors and mischaracterizations that range in nature from minor to egregious. Much of his story is based on hearsay, without the benefit of even minimal fact checking. For example, he writes that 65 members of the MBA class of 1985 were “prosecuted for securities violations” – a preposterous number that is both unsubstantiated and untrue. Similarly, he states that “three Ms. characterize the HBS class: Mormons, Military, and McKinsey,” and that the head of admissions was also a Mormon. The latter statement is both gratuitous and false – a fact he could have easily checked but never did – and our student body is remarkably diverse: fewer than 10% of our MBA student body comes from those three backgrounds, collectively.
Mr. Delves Broughton also describes a dialogue with a classmate that suggests that many HBS students scam our financial aid system by depleting their assets (typically by buying an expensive car) before filling out their financial aid applications so as to qualify for more aid. With this one bit of hearsay, he paints our entire student population as greedy and unethical. Had Mr. Delves Broughton simply checked his facts, he would have learned that we determine aid based on a complex formula that takes into account both savings and earnings over the span of three years, and that we add assets back in cases where it appears such activity has taken place.
These and other errors serve to reinforce negative stereotypes of HBS and, thus, are of concern to me. Of even greater concern is the impact of a book like this on our students’ willingness to express themselves in class. It is widely recognized among our students, faculty, and alumni that the HBS classroom is, as Mr. Delves Broughton writes, “a safe learning environment, a place to experiment and make mistakes.” Nonetheless, he has chosen to “report” verbatim on these classroom interactions, betraying the sense of mutual trust and confidentiality that is so important to our educational process.
Finally, I have been surprised and disappointed to see that in interviews conducted as part of a promotional tour, Mr. Delves Broughton has elected to focus almost exclusively on the negative aspects of his time at HBS with remarks that seem carefully crafted to shock and provoke, and which further propagate his errors and mischaracterizations. Although I can understand his and his publisher’s desire to sell books, it seems as though the author taking part in these interviews is not the same one who wrote that he found the School “terrific” and “rewarding.”
The vast majority of HBS’s 70,000 alumni have gone on to lead fulfilling and influential careers in all parts of the world, becoming leaders in a wide variety of areas, including manufacturing, financial services, consulting, high technology, government, social enterprises, and science-based businesses. For them, the HBS experience has been transformational. Indeed, the author includes himself in that group: “For me and for everyone I knew, Harvard changed the view of our future and the possibilities available to us through business,” he writes.
Unfortunately, for many individuals, that message is likely to be lost amidst the plethora of inaccuracies and a marketing campaign aimed at sensationalizing the book.
Mizuho Financial Group Professor of Finance
Deputy Dean for Academic Affairs