HKS’s unspoken culture of free riding must end

By Tarun Cherukuri, MPA/ID ’13, Correspondent

I was taught a clear lesson growing up: Earn your stripes with conscientious hard work. Last week, I reached the breaking point in my continuing frustration with HKS’s culture of free riding. Free riding is a collective-action problem which societies have been trying to solve for years. Economists define it as a situation where some individuals reap the benefits of a collective effort with little or no contribution to that effort.

As I reflect on my two years at HKS, I am disappointed with the amount of free riding that happens here, especially at a school that trains future public leaders. We ask a lot of hard questions here – causal impact of X on Y, correlates of poverty and growth, interaction of institutions and culture, mechanisms for delivering social justice, and so on. All of those seem like third or fourth order questions if we can’t ask ourselves a simpler first order question: Have I done my fair share of work?

“As I reflect on my two years at HKS, I am disappointed with the amount of free riding that happens here, especially at a school that trains future public leaders.”

I have observed three types of free riding during my time at HKS. The first are the ‘happy go lucky ones. They are happy to admit that you must do the lion’s share of work while they provide moral and nutritional support in exchange. I am OK with this. Even if they are not able to contribute directly towards the work, they make no pretense of it. They are conscious of their motivations and they try to make up for them in ways they deem fit.

The second type of free riders is the ‘I don’t care what you think of me’ kind. They are willing to admit that this project doesn’t mean anything to them and let you struggle with the burden of responsibility. They see no social cost incurred in losing their reputation with you. You mean nothing to them. I am OK with them to a certain extent too. After all, what can you do if both the work and your relationship don’t mean anything to the other person? You simply strike them off your guest list forever.

The third type, for lack of a better word, is the ticks (the most dangerous). I have been unlucky enough to work with some. So much so that I actually now believe that third types are more culpable than plagiarists. They not only ride on your ideas but also your physical and emotional toil. They are also fully pretentious about doing their fair share of work. I am not OK with them and this needs to change.

It is quite natural to have your harp strings pulled if you are at the receiving end. But an angry response is only self-fulfilling and tends to erase the distinction between the person’s role in the system and the person’s traits. All of us assume roles in the system based on our perception of the system’s reward- punishment norms, along with the underlying personal, cultural and institutional values.

One reason for the existence of three types is the core course structure. Learning team work is central to being effective development professionals. But being coerced to learn it on courses you have not self-selected sets it up for perverse free-riding outcomes.

Letting students opt out of all core courses through an exit mechanism is a potential solution. It not only retains the default course structure in its existing form but gives the choice to a highly motivated student with clear personal goals to qualify or make a case for exemption. If not for third types, it is safe to predict a reduction of the first two types with this tweak. Self-selection of groups and peer review at the end of the project can be additional mechanisms to increase the level of motivation for course work.

Having screened for motivation, it is still likely that we will have free riders. While calling them out can be personally hard for some of us, it is the right thing to do. An institution built on promoting values of equity and fairness must reflect the same values within. And it is up to each one of us to uphold those values and impose sanctions on those who do not. Naming the elephant in the room is the toughest work of being a leader. I have failed so many times on that metric that I can’t take failure anymore.

My only humble and sincere submission to my peers at school is to be sensitive. Being a respected public leader can start with doing your fair share of team work at school. We can all change the world after that.

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