Some of the smartest people in the world dream to get into the greatest institution for business education – Harvard Business School! While one may want to join HBS for different reasons – the learning, the network, the brand, or simply the experience, it would be fair to say that jobs are very high on the priority list of most students. We spend a lot of our productive time outside class to recruit for the job of our dreams, and most of us leave the school fairly satisfied, an aspect which is critical to keeping HBS’s flag flying high. Unfortunately, for something as important to students as jobs, there is a subtle form of discrimination which has always existed. While the victims may occasionally sulk about it, the issue misses the radar of the HBS community.
As we know, anyone without a US passport is not directly authorized to work in the US. I am mindful that the issue involves several complex factors around national security, protecting domestic workers, and balancing political equations. Surely students at premier schools such as HBS, however, should not be a security threat. In fact, they are far more likely to benefit this great nation by managing businesses which help grow the economy, create jobs, and increase tax revenues. If you have ever known someone’s experience while applying for work authorization, you would understand how difficult and uncertain the process is. One day you are employee of the month and the next day, you did not win the visa lottery, and off you go looking for a different job or country. As a result, many companies want to de-risk themselves of losing an employee in less than two years of onboarding them, and so do not want to hire anyone without permanent work authorization. When these companies recruit at HBS, they only open their applications to “eligible” students, where eligibility has nothing to do with relevant job experience or professional success, but rather the country issuing your passport. The scale of the issue is not insignificant either, given one-third of full-time jobs and one-fourth of internships through HBS MBA Career & Professional Development (CPD) require US work authorization. In addition, there are very few CPD jobs available outside the US. How can it not bother us that our international friends cannot get the ideal job only because of the cover page of their passport?
Some may think that I am overreacting – institutions have always had the choice of choosing whomever they want to. But where did that get us? Discrimination at Harvard has a history. During the period between the two World Wars, Harvard University had capped the number of Jews it would admit. For decades, African Americans were not fairly represented at HBS. HBS admitted its first female student in 1963, over half a century after it was established and three years after Kabul University did so. Neither women nor African Americans got the same jobs or the same pay for decades. While back then students may not have realized how discriminatory those actions were, our morality has evolved over time to make us realize how different groups have been unfairly discriminated against in the past.
The intention of this article is not to speak ill of the school. It is obvious that the school’s administration and community strive hard to create a welcoming culture and comfortable environment for anyone who gets admitted. Issues around work authorization are externalities, something which the school cannot directly control. But was the historical treatment of Jews, African Americans, or women not the result of societal and political factors too? Do we not regret that discrimination in hindsight?
While other organizations may continue accepting external norms, Harvard University should have a higher bar when it comes to fairness. The world looks up to the Harvard community as thought leaders and visionaries, and as fair and just human beings. Do we want Harvard students in the future to regret the actions which we took in 2018?
So what can be done? Raising awareness of this problem is the first step. International students should not hesitate to talk about this issue with their American friends, who I am confident would be highly receptive. CPD should use its position to persuade recruiters to compulsorily provide equal opportunities, irrespective of nationality. Hopefully, other schools will follow. Admissions staff should transparently flag the magnitude of this issue to prospective students, instead of suggesting that getting an “H-1B sponsorship is easy,” as the school’s website advertises today. At the highest levels, the University should lobby the federal legislature to enact laws which can provide equal opportunities to international students, such as increasing their temporary employment to three years. None of this can happen immediately and none of this is easy – but should that ever stop people from Harvard Business School?
Siddharth Jhawar (HBS ’18) used to work as a Director in the Government of India after spending a few years in banking. An engineer and CFA by training, he found his true passion while at HBS – stand-up comedy!