Vernon Mason remembers the utter devastation he and other students felt when they learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Living in married student housing on the Bloomington campus of Indiana, absorbed in his second year as an MBA student and with a wife who was eight months pregnant, he recalls the crushing news as if it happened yesterday.
“For me it was very, very personal,” confides Mason, who in 1967 was a member of the inaugural class of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, an academic and business network to help African-American men acquire the skills they needed to find jobs in corporate America. “All of us were young, in our early 20s, and I was of the impression that after all of the other stuff that Dr. King had experienced — including bombings of his home and all of that — that we were beyond that, that nothing would happen to him. He had won a Nobel Prize, and for us, he was our hero, our personal hero.”
‘AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TIME IN AMERICAN HISTORY’
One word keeps popping up as Mason thinks back to the days, 50 years ago, when he and 20 other young African-American men became the first members of the Consortium: turbulent. Dr. King had marched on Washington in August 1963. President Kennedy was assassinated later that year. Amid the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, violence against African-American communities was rampant, and social division and rancor sometimes reached fever pitch, all amid the escalation of the Vietnam war.
In many ways the turbulence of the decade culminated in the tragic events of 1968. Robert Kennedy was assassinated just over two months after King was gunned down. Mason remembers taking comfort in Kennedy’s words about King; he remembers, too, that just when things seemed most unbearable, he was consoled and supported by his cohort, professors, and the university administration. “In terms of the school and the people and all of the people we were studying under, everyone — to the person — was just very, very supportive during that whole period. That at least made it bearable.”
Mason credits the Consortium for being one of the great positive developments to emerge from that difficult time. “As a student of American and African-American history, it was just incredible to me that during this extremely difficult time in American history, we see a graduate professor in business at Washington University who had the insight and foresight to figure out how to impact the nation in a positive way, by diversifying corporate management around the nation.”
A VISIONARY PROGRAM WITH UNEXPECTED LONGEVITY
The Consortium is the brain child of Sterling Schoen, an organizational behavior professor at Washington University’s business school in St. Louis whose research in 1963 found that not a single African American was employed in management at the Fortune 500 corporations. Three years after his groundbreaking study, the Consortium would open its doors with a $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 1966. While the organization would not be a tonic for the turmoil of the times, it would be in the vanguard of long-term change. And 50 years later, as it is celebrated as a major milestone in business education even as it continues to expand, the Consortium’s mission remains as relevant as ever.
The class that starts this fall at the Consortium’s 18 schools — expanded from the original three, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Washington University in St. Louis, and Indiana University-Bloomington — will be a record 490 students strong, up from those original 21, says Consortium Executive Director and CEO Peter Aranda. Thirteen members of that first class graduated with their MBA; the Class of 2016 was 411 strong.
In the past 50 years, the organization — which opened its doors in 1970 to women, Latinos, and Native Americans — has offered more than $325 million in fellowships to MBA students across the country, covering full tuition and fees for up to two years of full-time study. Last year, some 1,075 candidates applied to the program, with 628 admitted to at least one member school and 369 extended fellowship offers. The list of Consortium members now includes the business schools at Yale, Dartmouth, Cornell, UC-Berkeley, and Georgetown.
A single application with The Consortium allows a candidate to apply to up to six member schools. Consortium fellows also are invited to an annual Orientation Program & Career Forum where they meet with the group’s corporate partners and connect with incoming students from the 18 schools participating in The Consortium.
Aranda, himself a Consortium grad (Class of 1987), is astounded when he thinks of the social convulsions out of which the Consortium was born, and the bravery of its founder to launch such a program at a time when some colleges and universities — including Washington University — were still segregated.