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INSEAD MBAs Go To War Over Welcome Week Scandal

INSEAD has cancelled its MBA welcome week amid complaints and an investigation by French authorities, prompting some ferocious debate online

Thu Aug 2 2018

INSEAD has suspended its MBA welcome week after two students complained about being tricked into participating into humiliating initiation ceremonies.

Following the complaints, French authorities have launched an investigation into the so-called ‘hazing’ by INSEAD MBA students—a business school initiation tradition which has prompted concerns around bullying and harassment.

The Financial Times article which broke the welcome week scandal suggested that INSEAD’s academic accreditation, which is up for renewal, could be under threat.

The scandal has prompted a response from Ilian Mihov, INSEAD’s dean, who—according to the FT—wrote a letter to the school’s 25,000 MBA alumni, accepting the strong ‘welcome week tradition in the alumni community’, but warning that, with the school in active dialogue with the French authorities and following a formal complaint, the welcome week could not continue.

The French National Committee Against Hazing (Comité National Contre le Bizutage, or CNBC) is investigating student-led activities on INSEAD’s welcome week. A statement, sent to BusinessBecause from INSEAD’s senior management, reads:

Right now, INSEAD has taken action to comply with the ongoing CNCB inquiry into welcome week. We understand there are many different views on these student-led activities in the INSEAD community, and a wider public debate on this issue. 

We are following all recommendations by the Committee (CNCB) to protect our students, avoid legal liability and ensure that all INSEAD activities—including student-organized activities—reflect our values of inclusion and integrity.  

We are currently working with the CNCB and our Student Council regarding how to welcome new students to our INSEAD campuses. We also look forward to engaging our global INSEAD community to design a new tradition that connects current and incoming classes and reinforces our principles and values. 

Innocent tradition or bullying?

At INSEAD, a favored welcome week prank is to encourage new students to take on an extreme challenge to join a student club, which is later revealed to be fake. The idea, the FT reports, is to puncture the ‘inflated egos’ of new arrivals at a business school consistently ranked among the world’s best.

Reshma Sohoni, spoke to the FT about a 24-hour exercise session he took part in to join an adventure club that turned out not to exist. But he said he was not against INSEAD’s welcome week. In fact, many of INSEAD’s alumni signed a petition last year against its cancellation.

The FT’s most read letter of the day on July 31st was penned by Jakub Parusinski, an INSEAD alum based in London. He outlined his support for welcome week:

[It’s about] protecting students from groupthink and broadening their perspective,’ he wrote. ‘It inoculates students against the frats and exclusionary groups often seen at US schools. Its loss furthers the ongoing bowdlerization of society—a trend that, rather than tackling abuse and discrimination, covers them with polite smiles and manicured HR statements.

Comments on an article on Poets & Quants are much more explosive. There’s 40 of them. Commenting has now been suspended. Whether the existing comments come from real INSEAD MBA alumni cannot be confirmed, but many reflect the polarization of the debate on welcome weeks.

One user bemoaned the ‘pussification of INSEAD’. Another claimed: ‘There is no humiliation involved in INSEAD’s welcome week. It’s the most amazing piece of mass coordination and fun I’ve ever experienced.’

INSEAD 18J said: ‘Those who complained probably should have never been accepted in the first place. Nobody forces you to participate. If you don’t like what’s going on, stay aside and don’t poop in the party dammit.’

While Zeki Junior mock-celebrated his own experience and encouraged others to share their own: ‘I loved being shoved into a car in front of Japathai at midnight and taken for a ride all the way to Courances. Thank you for taking away my cellphone. Great times.

Not all the comments are so supportive. One user called INSEAD’s hazing tradition ‘a well-preserved beast perpetuated by alumni and faculty as well as the MBA students.’

Predictably, for a free-to-post comments board, there was some heavy criticism of INSEAD as an institution. One user, who claimed to have studied on an exchange at INSEAD’s campus in Fontainebleau, said that the news came as no surprise:

That INSEAD is such a top-ranking school beggars belief. Most of the students there would never have made it to Wharton or Kellogg. INSEAD students go above and beyond being obnoxious in their disdain for US schools and truly believe that their lack of political correctness is an asset. During the Holi party last year, I saw things that would have elicited a hashtag movement at home.’

More worryingly, some users made suggestions of allegations of criminal activities taking place at welcome week. These remain unverified.

Indeed, these comments, from unknown sources, should be taken with a pinch of salt. They do however raise a question as to the necessity of welcome weeks on MBA programs.

A welcome change

Seasoned admissions expert, Barbara Coward, says using hazing to ‘puncture inflated egos’ is a waste of time. That, she says, is why applicants go through the admissions process in the first place.

Business schools today have upped their game to assess, not only academic ability, but essential character traits like integrity, humility, and self-awareness in their MBA applicants. INSEAD’s admissions process is among the most advanced.

“The bottom line is that it's becoming more difficult for applicants with big egos to get accepted,” Barbara explains.

“I just don't see how these apparent hazing techniques have anything remotely to do with modern leadership skills. Character building happens during an outward bound or orientation exercise, [where you] build strong bonds with your peers and strengthen your sensitivity to the needs of people who are less powerful—that’s the value of welcome week.”

Society, Barbara notes, has changed since INSEAD’s first welcome week in 1983. Back then, pre-financial crisis, terms like ‘social responsibility’ and ‘business ethics’ were less ingrained in MBA student lexicon.

Barbara is happy that INSEAD are taking a stand. “This could actually have a positive outcome by raising awareness about the insidious nature of school (and workplace) bullying and promoting a powerful, zero-tolerance message.”