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HBS Dean Highlights School’s Role in Preserving Social Mobility in America

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Responding to an acclaimed book about socio-economic class structure in America, the dean of Harvard Business School (HBS) highlighted efforts one of the most highly regarded MBA programs in the world is making to ensure that its students understand and empathize with those who may not be afforded the privileges that come with their degree. In part, those efforts include extending the privilege of obtaining an HBS MBA to an ever widening group.

Writing in the Atlantic, HBS Dean Nitin Nohria referenced UC-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. A National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller slated for paperback release next month, it uses the image of people advancing at unequal rates in slow-moving lines as a metaphor for modern-day American society.

Growing Rage Toward Line-Cutters, First-Class Fast Lanes
“What’s your emotional reaction when you see someone cutting ahead of you, or shifting into a faster-moving line that you are not allowed to join? What if you are pulled aside for extra questioning, for no apparent reason?” Nohria wrote, laying out the premise of Hochschild’s argument. Essentially, Hochschild posits, economic and social class structure in America for decades has been like an orderly line, promising anyone in the queue the opportunity to advance toward the “American Dream” in exchange for hard, honest work. But today, access to that line is limited and unfairly granted.

“Worse yet, white working-class citizens perceive others—mainly minorities and immigrants—to be unfairly cutting ahead of them in line,” wrote Nohria. “And members of the white working class believe the government, rather than enforcing the fair process they had come to expect, is increasingly aiding and abetting these line-cutters,” he continued—whether through welfare programs or policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

As apt a metaphor as Hochschild’s slow-moving line may be in capturing the distress of white working-class Americans who view others as cutting ahead of them, reading the book brought to Nohria’s mind another perspective of white working-class resentment. “Even as it stews over people cutting into its ever slower-moving line, it also envies another faster-moving queue: the special one reserved for people with means—the ones who travel business or first class,” he wrote. Meanwhile, those zipping ahead in the fast lane believe they have rightfully earned their spot there through ambition and enterprise. “This group becomes accustomed to its special privileges and comes to expect them everywhere, from legacy admissions to college for their children to special seating at sports events to VIP treatment at theme parks. It begins to believe that there should be a special line for innovators and pioneers who have sacrificed time with friends and family to achieve their personal best—those who want to reach for the top, to be number one.”

Hyper-Awareness of Class Divisions—Absent Mutual Understanding—Is Tearing America Apart
Division between classes in America is not new, of course, wrote the Indian-born Nohria. What’s changed is that people from different classes have greater visibility of one another and at the same time less occasion to truly interact. “Not long ago, even though people grew up on different sides of the tracks and in different parts of town, they met at the grocery store, the bank, and the post office. This gave them an opportunity to develop at least a modicum of mutual understanding,” he wrote. Today, though they rarely physically encounter each other, people in different classes are more aware of one another than perhaps ever before thanks to social media and television. “You can gawk at the lives of the privileged on Instagram, tap into the resentment of the white working class on Brietbart, and see the plight of the disenfranchised on Vice,” Nohria wrote. “This ready visibility has unleashed a range of emotions, including resentment, entitlement, envy, and despair—and it’s tearing America apart.”

“These emotions have a pernicious and corrosive effect on American ideals,” Nohria continued. “What makes America’s culture special is that it celebrates positive emotions—ambition, hope, doggedness—that have been sustained by a shared belief in the promise of social mobility, the opportunities people have for moving ahead in line or from one line to another.” But increasingly, research has pointed to the reduction of social mobility in America. More akin to a caste system, Americans seem increasingly relegated to the line they are born into.

HBS dean
HBS Dean Nitin Nohria in conversation outside Baker Library

What Role Can HBS Play?
“The key to reducing the divisiveness in America lies in restoring shared confidence that everyone who is willing to work toward upward mobility can still credibly aspire to it,” wrote Nohria. And restoring that confidence requires understanding and empathizing with people in lines other than your own.

“For me, that responsibility starts close to home,” he continued. “Many regard Harvard Business School, where I serve as dean, as offering its students an all-but-guaranteed path into the lines for the privileged. That places a particular burden on us to ensure our students understand their responsibility to create value before they claim value, and their need to foster economic opportunities and a better life not just for themselves, but for others.”

HBS has also taken steps to expand access to the lines for the privileged, Nohria noted. “Last year, for example, we matriculated almost a hundred students who were first in their family to go to college, and we actively recruit students from a range of employers, including social enterprises and the military.” Of course, this serves not only to expand access to those who might not otherwise have had it, but also to open the eyes of more privileged students to the real-life experiences and perspectives of the less fortunate—as represented by their own classmates.

Beyond giving HBS students the opportunity to learn from a more diverse set of fellow classmates, the school has also worked to include cases that focus on the challenges of the working class and poor and to offer field immersion courses designed precisely to expose students to people with experiences different than their own so that they might develop empathy. “In our narcissistic age, this virtue doesn’t always come naturally, but we use various means to encourage them to understand that true leaders are not those who claim that title for themselves, but who are looked to for leadership by others,” Nohria wrote.

Acknowledging that HBS’s efforts are imperfect, Nohria underscored that they are nonetheless critical. “Americans must search for ways to restore a sense of fairness, reduce the time we spend gawking at those more fortunate than us or resenting those who are less fortunate—and prevent the divisions between these lines from hardening any further.”

Read Nohria’s full essay, “The Lines That Divide America,” in the Atlantic. Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the America Right will be available here in paperback in January 2018.