Commando training for business students raises alarms from outsiders, defended from inside

Sleep deprivation and impossible-to-succeed challenges faced by MBA students in remote eastern Ontario location

MBA students engaged in the MBA Reticle “resiliency challenge.“
Credit: 
Photo supplied by Smith School communications

The CBC called them “soldiers of fortune.” The Smith School of Business called it a “resiliency challenge.” Observers from the Queen’s student and faculty community have called it hazing. 

So what happened at a remote airfield in eastern Ontario, where 40 MBA students were dropped off in a snowstorm at 12:15 a.m. and left awake for nearly 36 hours straight? That was left up to former members of Joint Task Force 2, the Canadian counter-terrorism special operations team. 

Over the weekend of March 10, the 36-hour excursion — run by Reticle Ventures, a newly-established security consulting and training company — featured students being denied more than a few hours’ sleep, asked to rappel from a multi-story building in complete darkness, and to find objects that didn’t actually exist. 

The challenge is designed to teach the resiliency that corporate jobs are increasingly demanding, but business schools aren’t quite sure how to teach. Similar military-style programs aren’t unusual for business schools in the United States, but they’re sparse in Canada. 

And it wasn’t easy on anyone. 

A Kingston Whig-Standard article wrote that “Some students didn’t make it through to the end — with others dropping out for a brief time before returning — and another was dismissed for becoming hostile, agitated and disruptive to the group.” 

MBA Vice-President and participant, Mike Deeks, in response, noted that the individuals who dropped out were plants from Reticle — designed to become agitated and lash out, in order to push the team further “in terms of conflict management and interpersonal communication.”

“A few classmates had to take brief moments to deal with some minor bumps/bruises/cold toes. Mostly just check-ins with doctors to make sure they were still ok to continue participating. All students crossed the finish line of the final spiral at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning,” he wrote.

In the wake of a CBC article on the activity, Queen’s students and faculty took to Twitter to express disappointment and concerns, with issues being raised around hazing and mental health.

The business programs at Queen’s have been under a close watch in recent years over their undergraduate Orientation Week, which was formally put on probation in 2014 for hazing. 

The probation required an elimination of any spoken material that could “intimidate students psychologically or physically” and any “relentless pressure to run”, leading to “physical exhaustion or psychological stress.” 

The University’s recently-revised Student Code of Conduct specifies intolerance against hazing, as it’s defined in Section V, Part G, Subsection H of the Code: 

“Hazing activities include, but are not limited to, pranks, jokes, public ridicule, and any activity that does not respect an individual’s rights, integrity, dignity, safety or well-being,” it reads. 

“Hazing includes conduct that is, or ought to be reasonably known to be: abusive (physically or psychologically); demeaning; dangerous; humiliating; ridiculing; or, contrary to this Code, to a University policy, rule or procedure, or to Municipal, Provincial or Federal law; that is used as a means of coercing, compelling, forcing, or otherwise socially pressuring, a person to gain or maintain: membership in; the acceptance of; or, association with; any group or organization.”

The Code also outlines that “express or implied consent from, or the acquiescence of, the affected person(s) shall not be an excuse or defense for such behaviour.” 

Matt Reesor, director of the Queen’s MBA program, responded to the concerns via email. The challenge was “an optional activity,” he wrote,  intended to work on team building and resiliency skills. “Student evaluations have been overwhelmingly positive.”

He pointed to the 40-plus staff brought on site, re-iterating his first point again. “This was an optional activity with medical directors and team coaches on site monitoring the students through each challenge.” 

Queen’s brought along a “high performance coaching team” for on-site coaching to students, and expressed enthusiasm for the challenge as part of a new series of initiatives out of the business school to enhance “team-based learning and coaching”. 

Deeks — the student spokesperson provided to The Journal by the Smith School’s communications team after inquiring with Reesor — said that the claims regarding mental health and hazing was an “interesting question,” adding that “our class has heard nothing of this.” 

“We did not know what to expect in terms of physical activities, mental activities, sleep, food portions, meal times, teammates, challenges. Hour to hour, we did not know what was coming next…only that it would be even more challenging,” he wrote. 

“In your career, you may be given a task with no detail and no instruction on how to create the finished product ...  this weekend provided me insight into the traits that arise within me when faced with absolute ambiguity.” 

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