“Isenbro” culture is real, and it needs to go

UMass must act to rectify Isenberg’s toxic culture

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Nina Walat / Daily Collegian

By Julia Oktay, Assistant Op/Ed Editor

The Isenberg School of Management is painted as an exclusive club for the best-connected of the University of Massachusetts’ elite. It’s an alternate universe where classes are a piece of cake (that is, if you go in the first place), internships are handed out by daddy’s friends rather than earned, and you graduate with an impressive degree anyway.

I’m here to tell you that in my experience, it’s true.

My major, operations and information management is heavily male-dominated, much like many STEM majors, but that doesn’t make it any less painful when I talk and no one listens. My group project contributions are dismissed. I’m forced into a secretarial role, while having to force my teammates to do their part. I’ve been outcasted to the extent that I wouldn’t dream of befriending my male classmates.

Many UMass students are familiar with the Isenbro/Isenhoe trope. The nicknames themselves are a good place to start: Why do men get to be “bros” while women get stuck with a much less flattering nickname? Why can’t Isenbro be gender-neutral? The term is widely used by the UMass community, which to me indicates that the attack on women was no accident: sexism is weaved into the fabric of Isenberg’s culture. When a punchline is repeated time and time again, it doesn’t feel like a joke anymore.

It feels as though the University endorses this toxic culture by emphasizing the School of Management’s exclusivity. Students have to go through a competitive application process if they want to declare an Isenberg major, and transferring into Isenberg is no easy task either. What practical purpose does this gatekeeping serve? Gatekeeping Isenberg majors only serves to encourage Isenbros’ elitist attitudes, excluding people who genuinely want to learn business or who want to be a part of the community.

In my experience, Isenberg students are a mostly homogenous group of rich, white men. Women and people of color are chronically underrepresented in business schools across the country. Considering Isenberg’s hefty added costs, the school naturally weeds out poorer students. Common among large homogenous communities is “othering” people of the out-group.

In a 2018 study by David Eaglemen where participants were randomly assigned to groups, “fMRI imaging demonstrated that their brains still reacted with more empathy to the pain inflicted on members of their arbitrary in-group than members of the arbitrary out-group.” This suggests that Isenbros may not be “bros” when they walk in the door of the School of Management, but they learn to become them.

Students start feeling that sense of belonging as time goes on, and they start to yearn for social approval within that group. People start to identify with in-group behavior, and they don’t speak up when they notice bad behavior for fear of social disapproval. This reinforcement cycle breeds the negative behavior seen at Isenberg, including dismissing women. All this to say, culture is created through a positive reinforcement loop that all starts with Isenberg’s gatekeeping.

College typically coincides with emerging adulthood, when brain development may still be incomplete. According to NPR, “young adults become much more sensitive to peer pressure than they were earlier or will be as adults,” which is especially true for men, whose brains develop two years later than their female peers. At a time when peer pressure is at an all-time high, and we are more susceptible to it than ever, breeding a healthy culture can have a huge positive impact on students for the rest of their lives.

Isenbro culture is a problem because the behaviors college students are surrounded by shapes how they act in the real world after graduation.

Isenbros go on to become CEOs, marketing executives and investors. These men and women operate at the forefront of our society, designing powerful ad campaigns that can change the world, investing in companies whose values align with their own, and providing goods and services that have the potential to improve our lives. Isenberg culture impacts our community’s culture as a whole, and UMass wears that toxicity like a badge of honor.

Julia Oktay can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @juliadoktay.