Harvard Business School: Ain't No Party Like an HBS Party

By Brigid Sweeney | Boston Magazine |

The sound system at the Fort Point Channel warehouse is blasting power ballads on a Friday night in October, and the future titans of industry are wasted. This is understandable, because the future titans of industry are wearing pink feather boas, fishnets, and amateurishly stuffed bras. It’s the night of Harvard Business School’s Priscilla Ball, an annual rite that calls for the men to dress up like women, and the women to dress up like whores. There are some variations among the sea of cross-dressers: French maids and cheerleaders, uniformed schoolgirls and Hooters waitresses. But there are more constants: botched mascara applications, abbreviated swatches of skirt over hairy legs. And frantic attempts to slam as many Jack-and-Cokes as necessary to make the outfits bearable.

Throughout the night, the students—many of whom have never set foot inside a public school of any kind—behave in a manner that would no doubt win respect from their counterparts at some of this country’s harder-partying institutions of higher learning. Former Marines, men who not long ago might have led platoons into war, are clad in tiny orange shorts. They mingle with international students who first set foot in the United States three months ago but have quickly realized the need to acquire cheap Marilyn wigs and 5-inch heels for "networking" purposes. The ball passes in a blur of Journey scream-alongs, public vomiting, and at least one brush with the law, when police officers confront a student and his wife who, after losing their keys, attempt to break into their second-floor apartment back in Cambridge.

And so it goes on this, just another night out at Harvard Business School. (Mission: "We educate leaders who make a difference in the world.")

Six months later, the same students are once again celebrating. This time, however, the Miller Lites have been replaced by nonalcoholic drinks, the pleather and feathers by lightweight merino. It’s 4 p.m. on April 8, 2008, exactly 100 years after Harvard Business School was founded, and the students, faculty, and staff are raising their glasses to a century of accomplishment. Like most HBS initiatives, the centennial celebration is sweeping in scope. "Anniversary party," in fact, doesn’t cover it: Call it, instead, a grand fete of capitalism. Today’s reception—complete with a mammoth cake in the neoclassical likeness of the school’s Baker Library—is just the beginning of a yearlong extravaganza featuring alumni galas from New York to Tokyo and academic conversations about topics ranging from venture capital to healthcare. (The festivities will culminate next month in a summit concerning "seminal topics facing the global community," with a speaker roster that reads like the Forbes 400 list and includes the finance minister of India.)

At a time when few business interests in this country have reason to revel, HBS has plenty. Those rumblings from a few years ago—when the colossal paychecks pocketed by 26-year-old hedge fund hotshots, sans advanced degrees, stirred talk that an M.B.A. was becoming irrelevant—have quieted. Last year about 91,000 students earned M.B.A.s from American business schools. For the record, that’s about 30,000 more than the number of medical and law school graduates combined, and demand is only growing: Registration for the GMAT, the business school entrance exam, is up 12 percent over last year. Despite the occasional poll indicating recruiters’ preference for b-school grads from places like the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon, HBS continues to reign supreme in this rarified universe, orbiting on a separate plane with no real direct competitors. (Well, except for Stanford. Maybe.)

The students the school draws are the brightest of the bright young things, many of them already clutching at least one Ivy diploma. They come from investment banks and management consultancies, from political campaigns and Teach for America classrooms, and especially from the military. (HBS loves ex-Marines.) And they come in ever increasing droves, seeking refuge from the rocky markets, flooding the admissions office with 8,600 applications for 900 slots in the class of 2010—a record total that reflects a 16 percent spike in applications over last year.

They also come because, despite the hefty price tag and the two years of forfeited salary, a Harvard M.B.A. is as close to a golden ticket as an ambitious twentysomething can find. The HBS alumni register includes the president of the United States, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, General Electric, and Procter & Gamble. Those alums, joined by scores of other grads who are nearly as powerful and just as rich, have helped drive the HBS endowment to almost $3 billion, making it the nation’s wealthiest business school.

Until the early 20th century, most leading thinkers found it laughable that the rough-and-tumble world of business might be worthy of academic pursuit on par with respectable fields of study like medicine or law or agriculture. Rooted in Progressive-era social goals, this new discipline of corporate management sought to establish a body of knowledge beyond merely the technical skills needed to make it as a businessman. It was a daring experiment. And a hundred years later, the philosophical underpinnings of this founding debate remain. HBS students and faculty still contemplate the soul of the place, and they still struggle to identify the responsibilities and goals of the business community in a changing world economy. They trot out timely, well-funded initiatives in response to various challenges of the day: With an eye toward the pressures of globalization, the school has unveiled executive education programs in China and India to train those countries’ fast-growing corporate ranks.

Yet while some HBS-ers (like Philip Delves Broughton, who chronicled his two years in the recent book Ahead of the Curve) ponder the school’s fundamental beliefs, a good many students would just as soon have another drink. Or a dozen. Because as overachievers to the very core, they’re going to enjoy their years at the school with the same single-minded zeal that landed them there in the first place.

Reared on Wall Street in that recently bygone age of gargantuan corporate profits, many current HBS enrollees cultivated a taste for good living, toasting each other over extravagant dinners when deals closed and making their way home from the office each night in chauffeured Town Cars. Despite that golden age’s swan dive into a post–Bear Stearns era of reckoning, the belt tightening taking place across corporate America hasn’t yet trickled down to HBS’s Allston campus. The only thing that has come down, in fact, is the average age of the students. Until a few years ago, top schools typically required an applicant to have more than four years of experience at a blue-chip company. Now, schools like HBS are encouraging applicants with far less experience. The face of the Harvard M.B.A. student, you could say, is changing. It’s a bit less furrowed, a bit more wide-eyed—with those eyes probably puffy and bloodshot to boot. While the Dow slumps, it’s a fine time for a two-year vacation.