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Insead initiation is not hazing, says alumni

It is a worrying sign that the school is catching the American disease of terminal political correctness.

The Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, has been forced to suspend one of its key traditions, Welcome Week, after students complained that it constituted hazing.

THIS year, my alma mater, the Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, has been forced to suspend one of its key traditions, Welcome Week, after students complained that it constituted hazing. To me and at least a few other alumni, this is a worrying sign that the school, one of the best outside the US, could be catching an American disease known as terminal political correctness.

As incoming students, all of us went through Welcome Week but if you Google the term, you will not find out much about what happens. That is because alumni honour an unwritten obligation not to spoil the tradition for future students. I, too, will stick to descriptions that are already publicly available because I hope the suspension will not last.

During Welcome Week, master's degree candidates discover that exclusive student clubs exist at the school, to which, as one alumnus wrote to the FT, students apply "based on wits, coolness, athletics or pedigree, and are encouraged to show commitment to their group".

Some of the clubs are so snobbish that it is hard even to get an invitation to apply. Others set up high entry barriers; in an interview with the FT, one of my classmates, Reshma Sohoni, co-founder of the startup fund Seedcamp, recalled students going through a 24-hour exercise session to join an athletic club. The anonymous writer of a string of negative reviews about Insead on several MBA sites, who claimed to be an American alumnus of the school, recalled that "people were forced to fight each other, and others were abandoned in the middle of the forest at night".

To see why many students put up with such treatment, one needs to understand the psychology of people who apply. For the most part, these are driven, ambitious overachievers. They take it for granted that a high bar is set for them in anything they do. They also hear from alumni - from whom they need recommendations to get into Insead - that building a network while at the school is more important than the classes. They are also told that the programme will be hard. So when there is a club to join, especially a selective one, they do not want to miss out. Indeed, they are psyched.

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Then the week is over, and a certain secret is disclosed to the new students. I will not blurt it out here. But if you search diligently enough, you will run into references to "fake clubs" and deflated egos. The school reveals itself as egalitarian; everybody starts out with the same clean slate - an heir, an aristocrat, an experienced consultant, a startup wizard, a mid-level executive, a fresh college graduate. Then everyone is measured against each other in a study programme as strenuous as a boot camp.

French law defines hazing, punishable by a fine or six months in prison, as "the act of causing another person, against their will or not, to suffer or to commit humiliating or degrading acts or to consume alcohol excessively" in a school or sports-team context. The Insead Welcome Week does not fit this definition because the clubs' entry requirements were the opposite of humiliating: They were either flattering or demanding, just as a future business executive might relish. Only the anticlimactic disclosure at the end had the potential to humiliate.

Welcome Week definitely got us out of our comfort zone, and I know many of us felt unsettled and, yes, unsafe or at least uncertain about our future at the school and its demands. Being forced to look at oneself in a harsh mirror held up by one's peers could be even more traumatic than a 24-hour workout. And yet no one complained until this year. Two students alerted the French National Committee Against Hazing, which is not a government agency but a group that unites the most important education associations. An investigation is underway, and the matter has been reported to the education ministry. BLOOMBERG

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