Black Student Numbers Nosedive At Haas

Morgan Bernstein, Berkeley Haas executive director of full-time MBA admissions: “Ultimately, we’re committed to getting this right, so we are trying to follow through on having an inclusive environment.” File photo


UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business is a member of The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, a half-century-old alliance of top U.S. business schools and corporations aimed at fostering diversity among graduate business students and corporate leaders. There are 20 member schools, including Cornell Johnson, Yale SOM, Michigan Ross, and Dartmouth Tuck. Haas’ membership in The Consortium, however, has been different from the rest: It is the only school to leave the alliance and return, having been a member from 1993 to 2003, then leaving, only to return seven years later.

The reason for the interregnum was Proposition 209, the California law that prohibits public institutions from participating in programs that give preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. Haas was able to rejoin The Consortium only after the alliance expanded its mission beyond efforts to help African-American students and future leaders to include fellowships for any U.S. citizen who demonstrates a commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion in academia and the boardroom.

Effectively, what may have seemed like making a bigger tent actually watered down The Consortium’s efficacy in promoting true diversity in B-schools, says Victoria Williams-Ononye, a current Haas student who will finish her MBA in 2019. She says Haas’ appeal for African Americans has been dimmed by its fealty to Prop. 209 — and she adds that the administration can’t claim to have been unaware of the growing problem, and has only itself to blame for getting caught so flat-footed on the shockingly low 2018 enrollment numbers.

“In the fall of 2017, the administration failed to act on the concerns raised by URM students that numbers had decreased, leaving us on an island,” Williams-Ononye tells P&Q. “The administration puts so much emphasis on Prop. 209 and ensuring that URM applicants aren’t given any preferential treatment, that they have failed to realize the barriers that they are presenting to URM applicants, more specifically, Consortium applicants.”


Sydney Thomas: It’s past time for a strictly campus conversation. Courtesy photo

Sydney Thomas, a former liaison to The Consortium, finished her MBA in 2016. She was one of the founders of the Haas Gender Equity Initiative, upon which the Race Inclusion Initiative was partly modeled. She also served as co-chair of the Haas Women in Leadership Conference.

Currently an investor and builder at San Francisco Bay Area-based private equity and venture capital firm Precursor Ventures, Thomas says all those initiatives and efforts from 2015 and 2016 were in service to the same overarching goal: to have a campus-wide conversation that created a welcoming place for women and under-represented minorities. And they had a practical goal, too.

“It was about doing the most that we can to really get folks here, to understand the importance of a funnel of applicants, how essentially the funnel is from when somebody’s told about Berkeley to getting them actually on campus,” Thomas tells P&Q. When she heard from a friend that the number of African-American students in the 2018 intake had fallen to six, she was heartbroken. “I was just like, ‘This is crazy.’ And she was like, ‘It’s so sad, because we’ve done so much work and I’m just exhausted and I just don’t really know what else to do.'”

Thomas got in touch with the school. She says she was urged to meet with the director of inclusion and diversity and the admissions team, but declined. “We’re already too far past that,” she says, “where that conversation is going to be sufficient. I think that if you can’t figure out how to get the numbers up by the time the students actually come to campus, we’re going to have to do a talk about this. Not just on campus, but this needs to be a broader conversation.”


Victoria Williams-Ononye, current Haas MBA student: Students are “horrified by this crisis.” Courtesy photo

Students sounded the alarm, Williams-Ononye says.

“It wasn’t until our student and alumni community more strongly voiced our collective worry that the administration started taking even basic steps in the right direction — updating the website, engaging in implicit bias training, evaluating the application questions, etc.,” she says.

“However, this is not a one-time blip, but rather a downward trend that will require more structural changes to be made. More so, I believe the administration is placing too much of an emphasis on pipeline. While a pipeline problem does exist in education more generally, a class of less than 10 black students is more reflective of the flawed admissions process and the way the school presents itself to applicants of color than a pipeline problem. The administration, particularly the leadership in admissions, must take responsibility for its results and be willing to reflect on the meaning of a process that matriculates such low numbers of Black, Latinx, and Native-American students. We have given the administration concrete recommendations on how to move forward, most notably including the hiring of a director of diversity in admissions and a multi-stakeholder group of alumni, students, and faculty that support and hold the admissions team accountable.

“Those of us closely involved with this work are incredibly frustrated by the situation, but we find hope in our classmates who are also horrified by this crisis and have amplified URM student concerns. While the numbers are low, the Haas student community is very inclusive, and it is my hope that we are able to show URM prospective students that they can find a home at Haas.”

That’s not what prospective students see now, Steele says.

“I was at a Management Leadership for Tomorrow event in Philadelphia and sharing my experience at Haas — I had a wonderful experience at Haas — but the questions I was getting really showed me what a crisis we are in in regards to recruiting and retaining under-represented minorities, and especially black students,” Steele says. “Black students were asking me, ‘Is Haas a safe place? We know there are no black students at the school. What is admissions doing? Am I going to be OK?’ They were getting at the inclusion part. The reality that we have right now is, there are six black students. So what is the reality for a black student? It’s going to be isolating, alienating, and prospective students are seeing that.

“This is a crisis, and we need to act. And we need to speak out.”