Thursday, December 01, 2005

More on grade disclosure 
The following is the actual e-mail I just sent to the head of the MBA program, Rick Ruback, regarding grade disclosure.  It appears the administration is on the verge of ramming this through, despite nearly unanimous opposition by the Student Association and the student body as a whole.  If you are an alumnus or future applicant, I encourage you to make your voice heard on this issue.

Dear Dr. Ruback,
I am writing this letter to express my extreme dismay at the proposal underway to move to an “optional” grade disclosure model from the current non-disclosure system.  While I agree with you that disclosure will lead to some of the benefits you have put forth in defense of the change, I believe that the benefits will be small and the costs large, thus making the change a monumental mistake.  In order to demonstrate my reasoning I will address your argument issue by issue, raise the significant risks I see to the MBA experience, and conclude with an alternative suggestion.
Before I do that, though, I would like to say that I don’t believe there is any such thing as optional disclosure.  If disclosure is allowed and a company requests grades then you must disclose because to do otherwise is to allow them to assume the worst.  This view has been affirmed in discussions with at least three recruiters at the top consulting firms that recruit from HBS.

The current system of Grade Non-disclosure is inconsistent with the mission of HBS and signals that we do not believe performance matters.
I believe you undermine this issue even as you raise it, stating in your letter that you believe that students are committed to the educational experience, the transformational experience, and upholding the high standards of this great school.  My challenge to you is to really define what value we create for this institution by signaling not that we are an enclave of cooperation and learning, but instead that this is a competitive arena of professional development.  
It seems to me that over the last decade this institution has worked very hard to shed an image of uncooperativeness, cutthroat behavior, and an unhealthy atmosphere.  By removing non-disclosure you would erase all that effort in exchange for a questionable benefit arising from sending a different signal.
Students have little motivation to excel under the current system and must be given incentives to work harder.
First of all, let’s be clear that disclosing grades will provide very little motivation for the significant number of students who are returning to a previous career or employer.  Students who are sponsored or have an established track record in an industry will be judged on that experience and not their grades, so this incentive will mean little to them.  
Beyond that, I question the relative value of providing external motivation to a group of students who by their very nature are internally motivated and highly competitive, regardless of the environment.  Accentuating an external scorecard will only serve to take that healthy competitive behavior and focus it to make the entire HBS experience less enjoyable for everyone.
You state in your letter that grade disclosure will motivate students to make the most of their time at HBS.  I seriously question whether more time studying will really lead to getting more from our time here.  Based on my discussions with alumni from several different eras of HBS grads it seems that a significant portion of the value of business school came from the friends made, networks built, and the variety of experiences that take place outside the classroom.  More time studying and more focus on grades will mean less time for clubs, less time for networking, and less time for reflection and transformation.  The richness of the HBS experience will be diminished in direct proportion to the increase in time spent studying.
Finally, I question the benefit in terms of motivation that will be attained above and beyond what is already accomplished by the mandatory attendance policy.  The classic example cited in support of disclosure is the study from Wharton showing that undergraduates outperform MBA students in the same classes.  However, Wharton does not require classroom attendance and thus I don’t believe that data can be applied to HBS.  This is a different school with different professors teaching different students in a different method of instruction, and what is best for Wharton is certainly not best for HBS.
Students should be able to use their grades in their job search.
     I believe that grade disclosure would actually be most harmful to the very students that you purport it will help the most.  Students who are changing careers are generally more dependant on their classmates for assistance in the very classes they are trying to excel in to change careers, and they are less likely to receive that help under a disclosure policy.  Furthermore, students seeking internships will generally only be able to show one or two grades directly relevant to their desired career, not nearly enough information to form a meaningful sample.  Rather, spending time learning about the desired industry, the companies within it, and then networking with those firms is at least an order of magnitude more important than the grades in one or two classes.  At best this is a very marginal benefit to career changing students, at worst it is extremely detrimental.
Providing recruiters with grades would be better than the current system of GMAT scores, undergraduate GPA, and the like.
     To begin with, your argument is based at its core on the idea that grading at HBS is not arbitrary and is an accurate representation of a student’s knowledge in a given subject.  I find this a questionable assumption given the teaching and grading format at this school.  The case method, by its very nature, means that there are usually no problem sets or written homework assignments.  Without periodic tests of student knowledge on specific areas within the course I question whether professors can really provide adequate grades.  Furthermore, in most classes grading is based equally on participation and the final exam.  Participation is notoriously hard to judge and it is unlikely that two professors would view any one comment or even the sum of a student’s comments through the semester in the exact same way.  Similarly, the final exam is case based and therefore offers significant advantages to students who are fortunate enough to have prior familiarity with the industry, company, or country portrayed therein.  I recognize that almost all professors exert significant effort to reduce the level of uncertainty in grading, but I believe that by the very nature of education at HBS grades will always be somewhat arbitrary.
     Another facet of your support of grade disclosure relates to the increased relevance of HBS grades compared to other measures that firms currently consider.  I find it hard to believe that one semester (at the internship recruiting point) of graduate level coursework gives a recruiter a better idea of a candidate’s work ethic or knowledge than four years of undergraduate coursework.  In addition, the work experience outlined through a resume provides ample opportunity for a student to provide recent and real-world information regarding their abilities and attributes.  I believe the information contained in one semester of grades at HBS pales in comparison to those two sources.
     Finally, I disagree with the notion that disclosing grades at HBS will in any way lead to better matching between students and employers.  The mere idea contradicts everything I have learned from MBA Career Services over the last 15 months.  A good match between employer and student comes only when passion, desire, personality, environment, and opportunity all come into alignment.  Grades have no place or relevance when considering the fit for employee and employer.  Furthermore, I find the argument that recruiters are requesting grades and thus we should provide them to be completely irrelevant.  Through my position as Career Representative, my extensive interaction with Career Services, and my conversations with numerous recruiters, I am confident that grade disclosure is well down on the list of things that recruiters would like to see changed at HBS.

     Having addressed all of the supposed benefits of grade disclosure I will now reiterate the numerous costs involved.  I have already raised many of these points, but it is worth addressing them in one place to reinforce the fact that while the benefits of disclosure are elusive, the costs are very real and very serious.
Grade disclosure will reduce the richness of the experience at HBS.
     It is hard to argue that even half of the transformation that occurs at HBS occurs within the classroom, though perhaps this is the reason for the move to disclosure in the first place.  Whether it is consistent with an academic institution or not, the great features of HBS are not confined to the classroom, instead they are in the numerous club activities, intramural athletics, networking with peers, networking with companies, participating in Career Teams, attending Section social events, etc.  Each and every one of those activities is diminished if only because grade disclosure=more time studying=less time for everything else.  Perhaps you look at that same equation and say yes, that is what we want.  Even so, I think the benefits from increased effort on studying will not nearly make up for the loss of diversity in activities outside the classroom.
The classroom experience will be harmed by disclosure.
     One of the key memories of HBS students from previous eras, perhaps best exemplified in Year One by Robert Reid, is the misery of the first month as everyone adjusts to the case method and there are 90 hands in the air for every comment.  My experience was entirely different; it was far more relaxed, enjoyable, and conducive to learning.  Adding to the natural level of competitiveness at HBS is a dangerous game and many aspects of the Section and classroom experience will be harmed.  There is currently a tremendous amount of support for students within the section, including review sessions, informal tutoring, and the like that simply won’t take place the same way if there is disclosure.  Just as disclosure creates an incentive to work harder, in a forced curve environment it also creates an incentive to not help your fellow student.  This is a powerful effect, and it would naïve to think that you can have the former without the latter.
Grade disclosure will limit risk-taking for all students in their EC year, but primarily for the very students it is designed to help.
     By their very nature career changing students are taking classes that are outside their comfort level during their EC year.  Students like me, who are from an operations background, find themselves in schedules stacked with finance, for example, and filled with students who spent 3-5 years in finance before business school.  Under a forced curve system with grade disclosure I would be less likely to take those classes and more likely to take classes where I have some prior expertise.  This mechanism feeds upon itself and the competitive nature of HBS students will reduce the breadth and variety of classes that students take their second year.
Like Learning Teams, implementing Grade Disclosure without the complete buy-in and support of the Faculty will lead to significant problems.
     As the Administration should have learned from the first Learning Teams assignment this year, implementing a new program without an overwhelming level of faculty support is bound for trouble.  The day-to-day operation of the MBA program is largely undertaken by the faculty, and if they do not accept grade disclosure and raise the rigor, detail, and reasoning in their grading it will cause friction between students and faculty.  In addition, several faculty have expressed to me personally that they feel grade disclosure is a bad idea and runs counter to the current goals of this institution.  Ramming through a new procedure while ignoring the voices of your two primary constituents seems like a very, very poor exercise of power.
Removing Grade Disclosure and ignoring student input on the second consecutive major change to the MBA program will negatively impact applicants’ opinion of HBS.
     Sooner or later the Administration should consider the long-term ramifications for operating in a way that disenfranchises its current customers and by extension potential future customers.  Forcing through grade disclosure would mark the second time in the last year that major changes have been made to the program over the objections of current students.  HBS was willing to spend 8 years and thousands of dollars perfecting a new classroom design for the renovation of Aldrich, why can’t you spend 12-24 months carefully considering the impact of grade disclosure?

I will be the first to agree that the program at HBS could be more rigorous at times.  However, grade disclosure is a very blunt and ineffective tool to make the program more difficult.  Rather than setting students against each other to increase the rigor of the program, why not take the novel step of setting higher standards and making classes more demanding?  The first term of the program is already extremely stressful and demanding, why make that period even more difficult with disclosure?  Instead, in Terms 2-4, change the way cases are delivered and taught in the classroom.  Professors could use more cold calls, stop spending the first 15-30 minutes of class re-hashing case materials, and grade comments more critically.  Of course, those things are far more difficult for the administration to accomplish, so I can see why grade disclosure is more attractive from your perspective.  But this is Harvard Business School, one of the great institutions of education in the world, don’t take the easy way out.

I appreciate the opportunity to share my feelings on this issue, please seriously consider the input of me and my fellow students, we have no skin in this game, but we love this school and feel so strongly about it that we are determined to fight grade disclosure for those that follow us.  Don’t think that you can push through this decision over our objections and end the discussion, unilateral action resolves nothing.



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