People walk down a set of stairs at the INSEAD Business School in Singapore, on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. INSEAD had a perennial problem with its MBAs. The grades of female students consistently lagged those of men. So a professor did an experiment: She had all students, male and female, take a test to affirm their core values -- and managed to improve the grades of the women by 89 percent. Photographer: Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg
Insead students complained about humiliating initiation rituals, prompting the dean to suspend the tradition indefinitely © Bloomberg

In 1983, François Mitterrand was French president, Peugeot launched the 205 hatchback, and French citizens were just getting used to going online via the Minitel network.

The same year, outgoing MBA students at French business school Insead instituted “welcome week”, an elaborate hoax on the incoming cohort that had outlasted all three other French institutions. Last month, however, Insead’s dean suspended the tradition indefinitely, following four students’ complaints about humiliating initiation rituals.

A French committee against “hazing” is investigating. Insead expressed concern that, if it had not acted, the Ministry of Education could have put its accreditation in jeopardy. That looks like an overreaction. While the nature and seriousness of the complaints have not been made public, it seems highly unlikely France would strip its best-known business school of the right to award qualifications.

Even so, the institutionalised practice of embarrassing new students for others’ amusement has about as much place on a modern higher education campus as a 1983 supermini or a beige Minitel terminal.

Insead’s welcome week sounds mild by comparison with some instances of hazing, bullying and harassment that blight universities around the world. Fraternity initiations at US universities, often based on heavy alcohol consumption, have led to deaths, injuries and a backlash against the culture. Initiation ceremonies at some UK university sports clubs — rugby players being forced to eat dog food, for example — have deterred freshers from participating in elite sports at which they excel.

The Insead welcome week’s rites of passage were at the more benign “pranking” end of the same spectrum. New students who signed up to a fake “outdoor yoga club” were ordered to run around the campus at dawn. Others were invited to join a society promising exclusive networking opportunities, before the hoax was revealed.

Alumni and students have defended the practice, describing it as part of a bonding process and a way of puncturing the egos of the new class. Unlike inexperienced undergraduates, who are often living away from home for the first time, most MBAs are in their late 20s or early 30s. Many have already served some years at consultancies, banks and big companies. The business world offers far more challenges and humiliations than Insead’s pranks, so it is reasonable to assume that would-be chief executives, entrepreneurs, and senior partners should be able to survive a shortlived practical joke.

Times change, though. Long-lived student traditions surrounded by a code of secrecy, as Insead’s welcome week was, reinforce rather than dissolve students’ perception that they are part of an in-the-know global elite. Those who want to pursue a different path — or who blow the whistle on what they perceive as psychological bullying — should not have to risk ostracism.

Complaints against Insead’s welcome week must be dealt with proportionately. Meanwhile, the MBA students — who, like their peers elsewhere, have a tendency to take themselves too seriously — should find new and better ways to lighten up. They can think of it as an elective innovation module.

It is too late to save welcome week, anyway. Such is the publicity that the Financial Times’s original report unleashed that it will be impossible to perpetrate the hoax on future Insead classes. Instead, “Are you looking forward to welcome week?” should become a standard interview question. It will be a quick way to filter out ill-prepared candidates.

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