No, My Alma Mater’s Initiation Rite Isn’t Hazing

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This year, my alma mater, the Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, has been forced to suspend one of its key traditions, Welcome Week, after students complained that it constituted hazing. To me and at least a few other alumni, this is a worrying sign that the school, one of the best outside the U.S., could be catching an American disease known as terminal political correctness.

Insead is a 51-year-old school whose MBA program was ranked first in the world by the Financial Times in 2016 and 2017. This year, the London paper ranks it second after Stanford’s. Bloomberg Businessweek ranked it the No. 1 international business school in December 2017. With an 80,000 euro ($93,944) price tag, the one-year MBA program is fast-paced and stringent, and it usually pays off career-wise, so the fact that I graduated from it in 2003 shouldn’t discourage anyone. The long list of prominent alumni includes business leaders such as Credit Suisse Chief Executive Tidjane Thiam and Royal Dutch Shell Chief Financial Officer Jessica Uhl. 

As incoming students, all of us went through Welcome Week, but if you Google the term you won’t find out much about what happens. That’s because alumni honor an unwritten obligation not to spoil the tradition for future students. I, too, will stick to descriptions that are already publicly available because I hope the suspension won’t last.

During Welcome Week, master’s degree candidates discover that exclusive student clubs exist at the school, to which, as one alumnus wrote to the FT, students apply “based on wits, coolness, athletics or pedigree and are encouraged to show commitment to their group.” Some of the clubs are so snobbish that it’s hard even to get an invitation to apply. Others set up high entry barriers; in an interview with the FT, one of my classmates, Reshma Sohoni, co-founder of the startup fund Seedcamp, recalled students going through a 24-hour exercise session to join an athletic club. The anonymous writer of a string of negative reviews about Insead on several MBA sites, who claimed to be an American alumnus of the school, recalled that “people were forced to fight each other and others were abandoned in the middle of the forest at night.”

To see why many students put up with such treatment, one needs to understand the psychology of people who apply. For the most part, these are driven, ambitious overachievers. They take it for granted that a high bar is set for them in anything they do. They also hear from alumni — from whom they need recommendations to get into Insead — that building a network while at the school is more important than the classes. They’re also told that the program will be hard. So when there’s a club to join, especially a selective one, they don’t want to miss out. Indeed, they’re psyched.

Then the week is over and a certain secret is disclosed to the new students. I won’t blurt it out here. But if you search diligently enough, you’ll run into references to “fake clubs” and deflated egos. The school reveals itself as egalitarian; everybody starts out with the same clean slate — an heir, an aristocrat, an experienced consultant, a startup wizard, a mid-level executive, a fresh college graduate. Then everyone is measured against each other in a study program as strenuous as a boot camp. I still remember trying to fit the course materials for the first two-month period into a car trunk. Sleeping for two or three hours a day is also hard to forget.

French law defines hazing, punishable by a fine or six months in prison, as “the act of causing another person, against their will or not, to suffer or to commit humiliating or degrading acts or to consume alcohol excessively” in a school or sports-team context. The Insead Welcome Week doesn’t fit this definition because the clubs’ entry requirements were the opposite of humiliating: They were either flattering or demanding, just as a future business executive might relish. Only the anticlimactic disclosure at the end had the potential to humiliate.

I’m not a natural networker, and, like Groucho Marx, I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member. So as I listened to my fellow students gossip about the clubs, being invited, getting in, being passed over, I resigned myself to being an outsider and pored over my French textbook instead. That allowed me a brief period of self-congratulation when Welcome Week was over. I often think, however, that not being duped then was a sign I would never make a vertical career or get rich — even though Insead paid off for me, delivering three excellent job offers.

Most of my classmates did better than I in the traditional MBA sense; I attribute that, at least in part, to the lessons Welcome Week taught them about high-powered networking and ambition. Not necessarily about their futility; some formed their best school relationships while trying out for the clubs.

Welcome Week definitely got us out of our comfort zone, and I know many of us felt unsettled and, yes, unsafe or at least uncertain about our future at the school and its demands. Being forced to look at oneself in a harsh mirror held up by one’s peers could be even more traumatic than a 24-hour workout. And yet no one complained until this year. Two students alerted the French National Committee Against Hazing, which isn’t a government agency but a group that unites the most important education associations. An investigation is underway and the matter has been reported to the education ministry.

Judging by what I read about U.S. universities these days, the complaints would have been normal in the U.S. context. This, however, is Europe. There’s still a chance to resist the U.S. trend toward protecting students from the life that awaits them outside school walls. At the average age of 29, Insead students should be capable of handling more than Welcome Week throws at them. Otherwise I fear for the businesses they will end up running.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.