Up Close: The MBA Classroom
The people and details essential to the classroom experience.
13 Apr 2022   Shona Simkin

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It’s nearly midnight on Sunday, and the cleaning crew at Harvard Business School (HBS) is an hour into their workday, vacuuming, scrubbing, and tidying the 25 MBA classrooms. In about eight hours, students will start wandering in with their sectionmates to catch up and chat about the day’s upcoming case. At 8:30am sharp, the class comes to attention as the professor kicks off the case discussion—perhaps with a targeted cold call. The overnight cleaning crew is gone, the daytime crew is in place, and Edgar Ventura, manager of custodial services, is back in his office after completing one round of his many walking reviews of the classrooms—the chalkboards are spotless, the boxes of chalk are new, chairs are in their places, the carpet is clean, and desktops are sanitized. One part of the many that go into providing a distraction-free, focused classroom experience has been checked off for the day.

To deliver the HBS MBA experience, entire departments, like custodial services, are dedicated to ensuring that each class can have a singular focus on the very heart of an HBS education: the case method.

The MBA classrooms at HBS have a storied history and are among the most iconic images of the School—a professor standing in the pit of a sloping room with students assembled around them in a horseshoe shape. This classic design, replicated around the world, has remained constant since Aldrich Hall opened in 1953 as the first dedicated classroom building on campus. While there have been several renovations and technology upgrades, most recently in 2020 to enable hybrid participation, the core architecture has endured. Each element of the room—the chalkboards, the chairs, the ventilation, the technology, and more—are purposeful and in service of the pedagogy.

Beyond their utility to the learning experience, these classrooms are vital to the core community of the MBA Program. Incoming students are divided into 10 carefully-constructed groups, called “sections,” of approximately 90 students, each of which is assigned a specific classroom. For the entirety of their first year (known as the Required Curriculum (RC) year), students join their sectionmates for classes in that room—and the same carefully-assigned seat—sharing a team of faculty and facilities. Students and alumni often refer to their sectionmates as foundational to their experience and remain lifelong friends.

Audiovisual Technology

Audiovisual technician Amine Rhazlaoui manages a simulcast of an MBA class in Aldrich. Photo by: Hensley Carrasco

Tucked away in the basement of Hawes Hall is a team dedicated to supporting the technology needs of each classroom. Audiovisual (AV) Engineering and Productions features a warren of dark rooms with multiple screens and control consoles, each operating as mini production centers for all teaching spaces at HBS. As the cleaning crew completes their overnight shift, the AV team is ramping up their daily classroom support.

The monitors are turned on, consoles are warmed up, and support technicians head into the classrooms to do an equipment check and chat with faculty about their PowerPoint and technology needs for the day. Down in the control room and offices, technicians and engineers watch the live feed, check in with the virtual team supporting online participants, and perhaps assist with pulling up a slide presentation or initiating class recordings for later review. As Media Service’s interim director Ben Frey puts it, the team of 30 is there to make the entire experience as turnkey and seamless as possible. “Our team works tirelessly to identify and resolve technical issues before there is an impact to teaching and learning,” said Frey.

About 20 times a semester, the production team conducts simulcasts—as when a case protagonist visits for a discussion across multiple sections of a teaching unit. The production team streams the live conversation to the other classrooms, essentially producing a mini live television show. The team also supports events across campus and classes for Executive Education, rotating staff through weekends to provide service seven days a week.

Comfort, Safety, and Equity

HVAC upgrades in Aldrich

Additional unseen elements in the classrooms are the acoustics, ventilation, lighting, and security—all chosen specifically by the Operations team to bolster the learning experience and sense of community.

“The case experience is our brand, and the sections are how the students identify. That experience is critical,” said Steve Erwin, senior director of planning and design. “When we consider any change to the classroom, our first question is if it supports or enhances a rich experience and dialogue between the students and faculty. If it doesn’t, we need to think about doing something else or not doing it at all.”

The low-velocity high-flow air ventilation system is quiet and unobtrusive, delivering temperature-controlled air. Recent COVID-related upgrades include increased fresh air exchange and MERV-14 filtration levels that exceed CDC recommendations.

Classroom acoustics, essential to conversation, are also indicative of the importance of and attention to equity. When the classrooms were designed in the 50s, the student body was notably homogeneous, with the first women admitted in 1963. Ceiling-mounted microphones are now situated throughout each room, as are speakers that move voices around for increased audibility. Some wall panels are softer for sound absorption while others are firm so that sound waves bounce off the surface.

“At one point there might have been a lot of baritones and voices that really projected,” noted Angela Crispi, executive dean for administration. “As the demographics changed and women came into the classroom, the voices were a little softer. Then dialects changed as students came from all over the world. The basics of the classroom haven’t changed, but how well does it accommodate diversity? Now, it doesn’t matter where your seat is, where you’re from, or what your home language is, you can speak and be heard and understood. It’s really important.”

That same consideration for consistency and equity is given for details as seemingly minor as chairs. In 2006, when they were due for replacement, no detail was too small. Squared edges? Too distracting—the focus needs to be on the speaker, not on the chair extending beyond their shoulders. Adjustable back? Also distracting for those seated behind. And when the chair was pushed back, the noise of it hitting the desks was a nuisance. The final choice had rounded, padded backs with controls beneath the seat and smooth rollers. Those chairs were, in fact, so deftly mobile that several years ago Operations affixed thin rubber treads to the ends of each row of seating to ensure no one rolled off the edge.

Other elements around the room include the clocks, which are all interconnected and controlled by a single clock set once a year to Greenwich Mean Time via satellite. The nine sliding chalkboards are all manufactured by the same company—when the Shanghai classroom was being built, the contractor submitted a request for a substitution, which was immediately denied.

“It was non-negotiable,” said Erwin. “We shipped it over from the manufacturer in Connecticut. Those chalkboards are really important to the flow of teaching and learning.” The LED light bulbs in each room are checked every day to ensure that one doesn’t die in the middle of a class—and the switches are in the exact same place, even in that Shanghai classroom, so that there is never any fumbling about for lighting. The flags adorning the walls, which represent the UN-recognized nations of each student in the RC section, are purchased, placed, and maintained by the MBA Program and Operations.

Safety, too, is a top priority. Each classroom has electronic locks to ensure that students and faculty can enter in the morning. At the conclusion of the final scheduled event of the day, those doors close and lock automatically. In the event of an emergency, the doors can close and lock at the push of a button inside the room—if one of the red or white buttons near the doors is pressed, they close, latch, and security and HUPD are immediately notified. All classrooms can be locked and unlocked with a click of a mouse.

A final detail, one with perhaps the smallest footprint of all, is a favorite for Crispi. “We were discussing renovations, and someone mentioned the slot for name cards—the precise measurement to make sure the card didn’t flop,” said Crispi. “When your name is there, it needs to give you confidence—it distinguishes you, it’s consistent with everybody else in the room. If it’s floppy, it can have the effect of tattering the conversation. We’re talking about what is literally a fraction of an inch—it’s such extraordinary attention to detail. It was this epiphany for me that this is a high art.”


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