Is Maria Sharapova Right? Or Has Harvard Business School Lost Its Mind?

A couple of months after she failed a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open, disgraced tennis player Maria Sharapova announced on Twitter that she had been admitted at Harvard Business School (HBS) for a short term course. The tweet, which also contained an image of her smiling in front of a Harvard Business School signboard read, “Not sure how this happened but Hey Harvard! Can’t wait to start the program!”

Harvard is one of the most prestigious universities in the globe. It educates some of the world’s smartest and influential individuals. It is therefore no surprise that the demand for a place in Harvard far outstrips the supply of seats available. In 2015, the admission rate for a place in the school’s MBA and Doctoral program was 11% and 4% respectively. Why then would a university with such a pedigree enrol someone recently banned for doping? Is Sharapova right to have taken Meldonium or has HBS lost its mind in enrolling her in for its Executive Education program?

Sharapova committed what can be regarded as the biggest crime in the illustrious history of tennis. According to the independent tribunal appointed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to investigate Sharapova’s illegal drug use, “Mildronate (brand name for Meldonium) is promoted as having a positive effect on energy metabolism and stamina.” She regularly used the banned substance prior to key matches. The Tribunal noted, “At Wimbledon 2015 she had used Mildronate 6 times in the past 7 days, and, at the Australian Open 2016, 5 times in the past 7 days.” Having been found guilty, she was suspended from competing for 2 years. By her own admission, she had been using Meldonium for ten years. This calls into question the 4 Grand Slams, 1 Olympic Silver medal, 13 WTA Tier I single titles and 6 WTA Tier II single titles she amassed in the last ten years.

The reaction to her admission to Harvard was mixed. Her fans were delighted while others were surprised that she was admitted to such a prestigious institution. Jillian Berman of MarketWatch wrote, “For most people a professional fall from grace typically doesn’t lead to a stint at one of the most prestigious schools in the country. But most people are not Maria Sharapova.”

Some may argue that she has what it takes to be admitted to Harvard’s Executive Education program. Those belonging to this school of thought might cite HBS mission statement, which is to, “Educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” To what extent is Sharapova’s enrolment consistent with HBS mission statement? In its mission statement, HBS notes, “When we talk about leaders, we mean people who embody a certain type of competence.” Sharapova’s involvement with the Sugapova venture clearly demonstrates her general management competence. The Sugarpova business, which she started in 2012 with an investment of $500,000, is projected to generate $20m in revenues by 2018. The mission statement also notes, “Making a difference means people who create real value for society, and who create value before claiming value.” The Sugapova business has obviously created value. Furthermore, prior to her suspension, Sharapova was the most valuable brand in women’s tennis having earned an estimated $285 million during her playing career and she was the highest paid female athlete for 11 consecutive years.

But despite the above, HBS has not abided by the spirit of its mission statement. Sharapova failed to meet a key criterion for leadership as defined by HBS. According to Harvard, “When we talk about leaders, we mean people who embody a certain type of competence and character ….. and the character to understand the difference between being self-interested and self-centered. It goes far beyond knowing that it’s not right to lie, cheat, or steal. It involves recognizing that you are a true leader only when you have earned the trust of others, and when others, whether in your organizations or your communities, recognize you as such.” Let’s unpack this statement.

Sharapova has failed to make the distinction between self-interest and self-centred. It might have been in her self-interest to take Meldonium for whatever reason, but it is self-centred not to consider the impact it would have on the game and on her professional colleagues. HBS says a true leader has to earn the trust of those in his/her community. Rather than earning the trust of her colleagues and the tennis community, she has earned their distrust. Andy Murray, the current Wimbledon champion said, “If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug was meant for, then you don’t need it, so you’re just using it for the performance-enhancing benefits that drug is giving you. And I don’t think that that’s right.” Kristina Mladenovic a fellow player on the WTA tour said, “All the players are saying she’s a cheater. You sure doubt and think that she didn’t deserve all she won until now. That’s dreadful, but it’s good that it’s finally out.” While Jennifer Capriati, a three-time Grand Slam winner said, “I just think it takes away from the sport and the hard work if true. What’s the point of someone taking a heart medicine that helps your heart recover faster unless you have a heart condition? Is that accurate? I’m extremely angry and disappointed.”

By accepting Sharapova to its Executive Education program probably due to her success with the Sugarpova business, HBS appears to have laundered the tainted Sharapova brand into the financially successful Sugapova brand. Within a two-week period, Sharapova has morphed from a suspected drug cheat to a Harvard alumnus. Sharapova and Sugapova are both sides of the same coin. Her off-court success with the Sugapova brand has a lot to do with her on-court success.

Some might argue that since Sharapova has the funds to pay the tuition fee and HBS needs to increase its revenue stream, she should be given a seat in the classroom i.e. the willing buyer, willing seller argument. The Executive Education program is a key income generator for HBS. Of the $707m revenue collected by HBS during the 2015 fiscal year, $168m (24%) was attributable to executive education tuition fee. To put this into perspective, this income stream was larger than the MBA tuition income stream. If HBS is justified in admitting Sharapova because she has the funds and HBS has to increase its revenue, perhaps HBS can look at the following case studies and determine if it would have reacted in t

Scenario 1: Shortly after Marion Jones was exposed as a drug cheat, would HBS have accepted her tuition fee in exchange for a place in its prestigious Executive Education program?

Scenario 2: If a disgraced Congolese Minister recently released from prison after serving a three-year term for siphoning $200m applied for a place in HBS. Would HBS welcome him with open arms?

In enrolling Sharapova, HBS is showing traces of ethical Schizophrenia. In 2005, the business school rejected 119 applicants who logged onto a hacked website because they wanted to find out whether their application to the school was successful. In describing the behaviour, the then Dean of the school Kim Clark said, “This behavior is unethical at best — a serious breach of trust that can not be countered by rationalization … any applicant found to have done so will not be admitted to this school.” Both Sharapova and the 119 applicants acted in an unethical manner, but on one hand, the red carpet was rolled out for the more financially successful culprit, while on the other hand, the door was slammed in the face of the other set of culprit. Could this be a strange formula where: $€¥£ > Integrity?

There is also a signalling issue resulting from Sharapova’s enrolment. What does this signal send to business executives, current HBS students and young children who dream of one day entering the sacred classrooms of Harvard? To the business executives, doesn’t it signal that the end justifies an immoral means; that you can cut corners and still be rewarded? To the current HBS students, doesn’t it signal that integrity is a waste of time; that dishonesty will get you far in your career? To the young children, doesn’t it signal that life rewards the devious; that the price for cheating is a seat on the high table?

HBS might be the most prominent educational institution in the world, but it is not too prominent to learn a thing or two from the Goa Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education (GBSHSE), an organisation based in Goa, India’s smallest state with a population of 1.4 million people. In 2006, in order to inspire the children of Goa to aim high, GBSHSE introduced a chapter in its schoolbook detailing how Sharapova overcame the odds to reach the pinnacle of women’s tennis. Shortly after the ITF suspension, parents from the region urged GBSHSE to remove the chapter on Sharapova from the book. On 21 July 2016, the education authority sent a circular to all schools in the area instructing them to remove the chapter. Teachers in the state were advised to emphasis moral values, the consequences of choosing a wrong path and the need to imbibe good values to create an ideal nation when discussing Sharapova with their students.

Harvard Business School needs to send a strong message that cheating is a vice and integrity is a virtue. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, if HBS doesn’t make itself a no-fly zone to unethical characters, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the respect of many and be dismissed as a Gordon Gekko breeding ground with no meaning for the 21st century.


August 2016




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