A Supportively Critical View of Community as Stern

Jonathan J. Baluzy, CPA, MBA Class of 2014

When I arrived at LAUNCH my attitude toward the school was that of unflinching apathy.

I had a very transactional view of the MBA: I give the school lots of money, the school makes me pedigree, we part ways, done deal. This initial impression permeated my view of Stern, its administration and the rhetoric presented at LAUNCH. I never bought into the line that Stern was a Community, nor did I think the building was good for much more than minting future investment bankers. I interpreted the “tone from the top” as a public relations message catering to our future employers, wealthy alumni, and prospective students. It was a message that clashed with what I perceived to be actually going on at the school: a push for social enterprise vs. a strong student and faculty interest in finance; a collaborative community vs. a student body siloed by career choices.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve become supportively critical of Stern, though I initially approached this mindset with trepidation. Becoming supportively critical was a hard fought path for me. Demonstrating anything besides fervent support of the institution has sometimes felt like taking the express route to social leprosy. While I still don’t (and probably will never) see the value in most of the individual programs or classes at Stern, I believe the school has made me more questioning of the status quo, more comfortable with ambiguity, and definitely humble (this is the first place I’ve ever, truly, felt stupid). I believe this transition has actually made me believe that there is value to this degree aside from return on investment.

With this belief in value came caring, and a personal desire to protect and enhance the value of this institution for myself and those around me. I believe that to create value in any situation, an objective and skeptical view is sometimes required. Rarely is any valuable insight revealed on first blush. These beliefs have fostered my supportively critical mindset. I may not be the person who most would expect to speak to the incident in Professional Responsibility (and specifically what the handling of this event by the administration might say about the school), but after the urging of a few close friends and one very brilliant professor I want to explain to you – the student, the administrator, the faculty member – why I believe Stern is in danger of losing its value.

From my understanding, the students who felt offended escalated the problem in an appropriate manner. From my vantage point, their actions were professional, thoughtful and devoid of hostility. After speaking with them, the administration (to my knowledge) reassured them that something would be done to remedy this situation.

I want to call the reader’s attention to NYU Faculty Handbook and the excerpt on academic freedom:

Teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but this special position in the community imposes special obligations. As men and women of learning and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they at all times should be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others and for the established policy of their institution…

In short, academic freedom does not come at the expense of respect for the opinions of others. Those that were offended had a valid complaint as spelled out by the rules governing the university they belong to. One would expect, given the clear guidance on the subject, the response from the school would be pointed and decisive – a response which would support the students and uphold the rules governing the university.

Instead, we received Challenge and Acceptance, a message that neither referenced the incident directly nor explained the university policies that applied to it. It instead espoused empathy as a source of sustainable competitive advantage. It was, in my opinion, spin.

After taking this all in, I’m beginning to believe that the especially cynical views of Stern I held as an incoming student are regrettably confirmed. If Stern were a true community it would not tolerate the marginalization of one of its members. Communities exist because the people within them care about the well-being of one another. Essentially, this incident and its handling by the administration, proves that Stern is either a poorly functioning community, or not one at all.

Before I go further I want to say that the nature of an MBA program might be at fault for this as well. Communities are much easier to develop with like-minded people, rather than individuals with diverse views. Further, one can argue that business professions might attract individuals that are inherently more self-interested than the general population and that the MBA, being a generalist degree, leaves little commonality among students. Even if one agrees to the mere plausibility of these phenomena, the evidence we have from professional responsibility shows that the development of true community and a collaborative culture could be a much more difficult task than Stern really bargained for.

I firmly believe the problems I highlighted above exist, but while they’re extremely difficult to solve, they can be with considerable effort. Moreover, I believe my previously cynical views, in some iterative way, contribute to the lack of community at Stern in the first place. If too many people discount the value of the community or don’t desire to participate in it, there will not be one in the first place. This point may be the largest hurdle the development of a community at Stern has to jump. Even with all of these intrinsic elements inhibiting the formation of a community, there is one party that I believe can do it.

As the institutional memory of the student body lasts only two years, this task rests solely with the school’s longer-standing participants: the faculty and administration. There are a few ways that I believe they can begin to create a community:

1. The school needs to stand behind its student body. We are the products of this institution and represent all of its positive and negative qualities. We are the living, breathing embodiment of the community and should be listened to fully when we find fault with it.

2. There needs to be an administrator managing the community’s norms. This person’s reach should touch all facets of the institution – the curriculum, the faculty, and most importantly, admissions. Inherent to this recommendation is that this individual does currently exist.

3. A motivating factor needs to be established that drives students of different interests and academic disciplines to form a community. NYU Stern does not currently have a rallying cry and one should be created.

To illustrate this need for community further, I defer to the values Stern presents on its website: Academic Excellence, IQ + EQ, Collaborative Community, and The Energy of a Global Hub. Collaborative community is further defined by the following statement:

“The culture of our education is shaped by the fundamental belief that collective initiative far exceeds the sum of individual efforts. Inside and outside the classroom though peers, faculty and the greater Stern network, collaboration is deeply woven into every part of Stern life.”

The word Community is not even mentioned. Collaboration and community are two very different concepts. One is describes people working together, the other describes genuine caring. If Stern really wants to be a community, and to make that a part of what gives this institution value, it has to invest more in creating it. The school is currently doing a poor job of aligning the messages of the institution with the feelings of those that participate in it. In this instance, Stern is even neglecting the rules that govern it. I believe turning this institution into a community will provide us with value that no other business school could begin to create. The brilliant professor who encouraged me to write this believes that this incident created an inflection point where the institution is presented with an opportunity to cement the foundations of community. I agree and believe the administration should rethink its message and consider the value a decisive response could create.

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