Forum

Changing university culture not impossible

The New York Times published an article last week about Harvard Business School’s (HBS’s) recent attempts to change its campus culture — specifically pertaining to sexism — for both students and members of the faculty. Female students were falling behind their male counterparts in both grades and class participation, and the male faculty far outnumbered the female faculty. Over one-third of HBS students were women in 2008, yet less than 20 percent were Baker scholars, or in the top 5 percent of the class, according to The New York Times.

Students and faculty alike reported a culture that was hostile to women, including hazing of female students and professors, and a lack of respect for female faculty. The New York Times reports that from 2006 to 2007, “a third of the female junior faculty left.” In 2010, the dean of HBS instituted a new program to increase awareness of gender issues. Students were required to attend discussions on gender relations at the school, and female faculty members received more extensive and comprehensive support from the administration.

Carnegie Mellon University has also had a history of being a male-dominated institution — and some would argue that it still is. This trend stemmed from a historically higher male enrollment, but manifested itself particularly in the sciences. However, the university’s female-to-male ratio has improved noticeably in recent years, and is now 2:3, according to Carnegie Mellon’s enrollment data. While this division is not perfect, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Changing a campus’s culture can seem like an impossible task. Seminars can prove ineffective in the face of inequality, because a culture of inequality is engendered by deeply ingrained behaviors — one that people learn long before they ever get to the university setting.

But Harvard’s initiative in this matter paid off.

Although some of the students expressed dissatisfaction with the program — particularly with the campus-wide gender discussions — grades of female students shot up as they were encouraged more to participate in the classroom, and performance reviews of female faculty members increased rapidly as the teachers received more support from the administration, according to The New York Times.

HBS observed something in their culture that they disagreed with, and took steps to remedy that issue. Carnegie Mellon’s new female-to-male ratio shows that the university is also able to overcome habits and cultural stereotypes. With HBS’s initiative to fight gender issues as an example, Carnegie Mellon can also make progress on ingrained issues.

Although Carnegie Mellon has tried something similar with its ingrained stress culture, there has been limited success. Part of the difference between HBS’s and Carnegie Mellon’s situations lies in the way that those cultures manifested; at HBS, sexism was so pervasive that male students would harass even female faculty members, and female performance across the board was lower than that of males, because female students were not receiving the same support, according to The New York Times.

Explaining to students that sexism is wrong and should be avoided is a more concrete concept to make apparent to students than explaining to students that they don’t need to push themselves past the limits of their own endurance to get the best grades, because stress culture is fundamentally tied to the natural desire to succeed in life. However, HBS’s recent successes with a deeply entrenched culture could lead Carnegie Mellon in a more positive direction with its own attempts to change from within.