Across Top B-Schools, MBAs Open Up

MBA students at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business during a recent Black Out Day

Tiffany Smith (Kellogg 2017) knew the blackout photos were only a starting point. Last fall’s demonstrations, which followed the police killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott, saw thousands of students at top business schools don black to stand with victims of racial injustice. “It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life,” said Charity Wollensack (Wharton 2017) “to come together and to see how many people wanted to show solidarity.”

The challenge was to translate the momentum of the blackout into meaningful action. That meant pitching a big enough tent to welcome the diverse motivations of energized students while also pointing towards a common objective. Smith, who after graduation will move full-time to her venture which matches formerly incarcerated individuals’ skills to employers’ needs, rightly describes herself as “inherently a starter. It’s my job,” she explained, “to find a throughline — to point us in one direction.”

Smith seized on the energy of a hashtag that accompanied the blackout photos on social media: #MBAsOpenUp. She began brainstorming with a network of fellow MBAs across campuses. Together, they initiated MBAsOpenUp, a coalition that brings together, in Wollensack’s words, “a group of students who are passionate about diversity and inclusion, and more specifically racial equality on a systemic level – and who think that’s an important part of who we are as business leaders and people.”


Smith and Wollensack are far from alone. MBA students and faculty once sat on the sidelines of the political and social movements that swept their broader colleges and universities. That is changing rapidly and markedly.

At Dartmouth’s Tuck School, students organized a discussion of the film 13th, followed by a Q&A with professors on the Black Lives Matter movement. Following November’s election, strategy Professor Andy King created a petition for MBA faculty to express their concerns with the incoming administration’s stance on immigration. At first, King noticed that many faculty were “very afraid to speak out.” Ultimately, over 400 professors signed. When that stance took the form of an executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, students led by Erin Dunn-Franklin (Tuck 2017) organized a rally attended by hundreds of classmates, faculty, and staff members, a significant portion of the school’s small community.

An open letter by Lilian Ngobi-Pryor (Tepper 2017) sparked a wave of diversity and inclusion efforts at the Tepper School. In her view, MBA students have an obligation to get involved. “We have a great platform to be influential in what happens in our society,” she pointed out. “We are here not only to get this amazing management education and get these great jobs but we are also here because we are indebted to our society and indebted to ensure the sustainability and goodness in our future.” This winter, Tepper students are partaking in ten actions over the first 100 days of the new administration. They have written postcards en masse to their representatives in Congress and participated in a multi-campus Pittsburgh-wide rally against injustice.


A recent Monday began Wharton’s third annual Return on Equality Week. Organized by a student group co-chaired by Wollensack with the help of the MBA program office and student government, the event features twelve sessions over four days. The docket includes forums titled “Ask me Anything: I’m a Muslim” and “Breaking the Silence: Class and Meritocracy at Wharton and Beyond,” as well as a screening of Miss Representation and a discussion of cutting-edge research on how unconscious bias impacts organizations. The week exemplifies conversations happening on business school campuses that would have been hard to imagine even five years ago.

What’s next for MBAsOpenUp? The coalition now hosts monthly calls to connect student leaders across campuses. In Wollensack’s experience, “being a champion for diversity and inclusion on campus can be a lonely walk.” The cross-school connections provide a sense of community. More tactically, they help student activists leverage their “collective strength,” as Wollensack put it. That strength finds expression in initiatives like the group’s recently launched Black History Month fundraiser to benefit the ACLU.

MBAs are indeed opening up — in ways and to a degree that are unprecedented. “There is a renewed sense of engagement,” Smith observed of the Kellogg community, “something bubbling below the surface.”

For the inspired, there are a number of ways to get involved. Sign a second petition Professor King created, this one for students, alumni/ae, and prospective admits to show that they stand with their faculty in the belief that diversity makes MBA programs stronger. Give to the MBAsOpenUp Black History Month fundraiser to benefit the ACLU. Attend an event in Philadelphia during Return on Equality Week. Find change leaders on your campus and ask how you can support their efforts.

Nicole Burns and Matt Bubley are members of the Tuck Class of 2017. At Tuck, they help lead student efforts on diversity and inclusion. Both graduated Brown University in 2009 and are passionate about education and social justice. Nicole will join Google in San Francisco after graduation. Matt is a joint-degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and will join McKinsey & Company in Boston after graduation in 2018.

A photo collage of Black Out days on business school campuses