Swimming with the Sharks

Taylor McKnight, Flickr

7:15 a.m., after a 30-minute route, the sight of the Bronfman building propelled me from an awkward walk-jog to an even more graceless gallop as I rushed to be the first in line to see an advisor. I was third. Yes, it was add-drop week and another overly enthusiastic early bird got the luxury of skipping the long impending line. In an hour’s time, the line of drowsy, anxious students traced all along the three building walls and by 9:00 a.m., all hopes for seeing an advisor had vanished.

One of the students near the end of the line bravely broke the link and came to ask lucky number one at what time he had arrived in order to be first. “Oh of course, I arrived at around 8:00 a.m.,” said number one, lying shamelessly to the concerned student. As the student left, number one turned to number two and snickered, “… as if I’d allow him to get here before me tomorrow.” Dear student number one, I applaud your impeccable lying skills; I’m sure it was worth it as you stared into the abyss of your meaningless achievement. But you are no exception: you are what I like to call a Desautels “shark”, and you help bolster the pitiless and unethical behaviour that permeates within Bronfman walls.

The Bronfman culture, under all the glitz and glam, is stealthily hostile. The mélange of the extraordinary pressure, the vigorous competition, the conspicuous grading curve and the overly individualistic, “I must be the greatest” mentality has molded a culture where people will resort to any length to be the best.

To illuminate, just a few weeks ago one of my closest friends told me that he had discovered that he was rather talented in finance and had decided to pursue it as a major. Almost all the students in his finance class would approach him to solve questions before the midterm. He smiled proudly – much more than proudly, as the next few sentences slipped from his lips, “…but I gave them all the wrong answers and they all believed me. And the question actually came up on the midterm! I’m a genius.” I was astonished to realize that even my dear friend, after a year of studying in Desautels, had morphed into a shark.

I had another friend tell me on the phone that she didn’t study at all for the midterm coming up in two days. “It’s going to be really easy anyways,” she reassured me. “You don’t need to study much.” Her carefree attitude reduced my urgency and enthusiasm to study as much as I might have. Indeed, she was an excellent shark, the kind that psychologically knew how to manipulate you. It was by sheer coincidence that I ran into her best friend on the very same day. I asked her if she knew what my “friend” had been up to lately, only to find out that she had been locked in her room studying for the same midterm for the past three days. I had swallowed my first bitter spoonful of Desautels manipulation, and every similar incident I witnessed thereafter became more and more normal.

It was only during my cross-cultural course that I realized just how apparent was this aspect of Desautels culture. We, a group of more than 40 students, were all asked to blurt out the first few words that came to our minds when we thought of the Desautels faculty culture. Among the descriptives were, “status”, “high competition”, “individualistic”, “every man for himself”, “unfriendly”, and “reputation”. Of course, there were much more amicable descriptives as well, but the majority of the class was well aware of the cutthroat corporate culture within Bronfman’s walls. Especially the students on exchange expressed their disbelief in the lack of sharing with, and compassion for, their peers.

For those of you who are skeptical, arching their eyebrows into an exponential curve, you must be living under a rock. For the past week I’ve been asking dozens upon dozens of students, both in and outside of the management faculty about how they felt about the Desautels faculty culture. I was dazed at just how passionately people actually felt about this issue, but had never spoken up about it or complained publicly until asked.

We deserve all the terrible stereotypes other faculties give us.

Students I interviewed from other faculties stated that when they entered the Desautels building, “they could feel the tension in the air.” While I cannot feel this tension anymore myself, I reminisce about my first few days in Desautels and can remember distinctly feeling insecure, yet always wondering why.

Students both inside and outside of Desautels were often dissatisfied by how harshly they felt judged on their clothes. “Coming to class in sweatpants and flip-flops lead to sickly stares that make you feel like you’re a dirty mop” was one of my favourite comments. The superficial importance on status artifacts such as designer clothing and being well dressed is a direct manifestation of the presumptuous culture among students, which is, in my opinion, incalculably ridiculous.

Why have we developed these norms among students? The mandated grading curve is not the sole culprit: other faculties do not harbour the same norms while also implementing curving grades. I believe it’s the outdated Darwinian notion that the real-life business environment is harsh jungle in which only the strong can survive. I also blame the glamorization of such norms from TV shows such as “Suits”.

Our key to thriving in organizations and the real world depends on influencing others by inspiring and resonating with them, not by manipulating them. Self-interest reduces productivity and the flow of knowledge sharing within organizations. It also promotes the scandals we hear about much too often in major companies such as Enron or AIG.

Implications for the student body are immense. Five people from within my social circle have dropped out of Desautels because they couldn’t handle the academic environment. All of them have developed some sort of depression or anxiety.

So, why do we accept this type of behaviour if so many are unhappy about it? I’m not sure of the answer. What I do know is that we need to change. By thinking more critically about our behaviour, we can create a more rewarding Desautels experience.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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