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Harvard's alumni fail to dazzle in recession
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Ci hanno rovinato i laureati di Harvard (figurarsi quelli della Bocconi)

The famous university is hoping its next crop of students can do better

When Andy Hornby, the former chief executive of HBOS, was asked by the Treasury Select Committee to detail his banking qualifications he couldn't. Like his fellow bankers, Sir Fred Goodwin, Sir Tom McKillop and Lord Stevenson, being questioned by the panel, Mr Hornby, had to admit publicly that he held no formal banking qualifications. However unlike his fellow bankers, Mr Hornby's admission held one important qualification.

"I have an MBA from Harvard," he told the MPs, "where I specialised in all the finance courses including financial services."

With the question about qualifications almost certain to come up, Mr Hornby's answer was almost certainly prepared. By referring not just to his MBA, but also to where he got it from, Mr Hornby knew he was putting himself firmly at the front of the pedagogical pecking order. Harvard prides itself on consistently being the highest-ranked university; Mr Hornby no doubt prides himself on being the highest-achieving student out of his year, coming top out of 800 peers.

His achievement at Harvard Business School almost guaranteed he would make an impact in later life. "What difference will you make in the world?" is the question Harvard Business School proudly asks all of its students. The problem is that in the light of the economic downturn, the answer to that question is likely to become increasingly embarrassing.

Harvard alumni caught out by the credit crunch include John Thain and Stan O'Neal, both of whom earned their spurs at Harvard only later to trip over them at Merrill Lynch. Hank Paulson used Harvard to catapult himself to the heights of chief executive of Goldman Sachs and then US Treasury Secretary, only to prove how painful a fall from such heights can be. The list goes on, Rick Wagoner, the man who has overseen a 95pc fall in General Motors' share price, was at Harvard, as was perhaps its most infamous alumni Jeffrey Skilling, former chief executive of Enron, later convicted of fraud, conspiracy, misrepresentation and insider trading linked to the collapse of the energy company.

Does this worry Harvard? On the record the answer is no. "The business school has 70,000 graduates so the law of averages would suggest…", is the answer offered. But it doesn't take much probing to discover there is real concern. "George W. Bush came here," the university's press officer confided last week, adding "but that's off the record."

The fact that a link to the most prominent world leader of the past decade has to be off the record says rather a lot.

Also in the background the university will admit that it is concerned about the recent spate of "students going astray" and is looking to see if there is any way it can change its curriculum to reflect what has gone on in the world economy, although it would say these kinds of changes are things that are done on an ongoing basis anyway.

These concerns couldn't be more timely. Harvard Business School gets about 8,600 applications each year for 900 places and with so many bankers out of work demand for places at Harvard and other MBA programs is rising rapidly, despite the estimated total cost of Harvard's two-year course approaching $150,000.

This demand for places comes despite public criticism from successful financiers such as Andrew Lahde, a hedge fund manager who made a fortune betting on the downturn in the markets. When he closed his hedge fund last year he signed off with this broadside at the educational and financial establishment.

"The low-hanging fruit, ie idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking… All of this behaviour supporting the aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America."

No doubt Harvard would reject his comments, but in a recent interview to mark the 100th anniversary of the school, the dean of Harvard Business School, Jay Light, admitted the school could do better. He said: "The challenge now is to work out how to develop leaders who are better this time."

Harvard's bursar will no doubt be hoping the same. The Harvard endowment fund, one of the largest investment funds in the world, worth $37bn before the credit crunch hit, saw it's value slip 22pc in the third quarter last year and the college expects it to fall a further 30pc in 2009.

That 30pc fall is quite a difference to make in the world, and will be one that Harvard will hope its current crop of students do not go on to reproduce.

By Jonathan Russell

Source >
  Telegraph | Feb 16

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