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At Haas, ‘Dialogues On Race’ More Important Than Ever

Dialogues on Race facilitator Liz Koenig leads students in a reflection during a session in 2017. Photo by Caron Creighton

When Liz Koenig approached Om Chitale in 2016 about helping to facilitate a student-run course on race issues at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the India-born, Houston-raised Chitale thought it was an amazing idea.

But he declined.

Chitale, who had worked with an education nonprofit in Memphis, Tennessee, before starting his MBA, was practicing the art of saying “no” to good opportunities — a good mental health practice when embarking on an intense, elite two-year MBA journey. Bottom line: He didn’t want to burn himself out.

“Liz and I are friends, we share a lot of passion, we share a lot of good memories,” Chitale tells Poets&Quants. “She said, ‘I know that you’ve started having these kinds of conversations in Memphis, I know you’ve done some deep reflection on your own background and being raised in a city and in privilege, and how all these things kind of manifest in the way you approach the world and the way you approach other people. And so I’m thinking about this class, I’m thinking about something to do with race and understanding what role that plays in leadership, and framing it such that it’s a core competency. So would you like to help?’

“I was like, ‘You know what, it sounds amazing, but no.’ Because by then I was really leaning into the whole idea of saying no to good opportunities. But then I slept on it and then the next day I texted her and I said, ‘Hey, actually this is the opportunity that I’ve been saying no to everything else for. I think this is really important.'”

‘A TON OF SUPPORT FROM THE ADMINISTRATION’

Om Chitale. LinkedIn

Dialogues on Race emerged out of the 2016 Race Inclusion Initiative, an effort by students to address race and ethnicity issues and improve the Haas experience for underrepresented minorities. As part of the RII, students conducted a survey that found that even though 90% of students believe that understanding racial dynamics is a key component of effective leadership, fewer than half are comfortable talking about race. Spurred by this stark reality and inspired by a class called Diversity in the Workplace, Koenig, a co-chair of the RII, drafted a plan to promote classroom discussions on race, all within a “safe space” without judgment; it became, with the blessing of the school, the 10-week seminar Dialogues on Race, the first two-hour session of which happened in spring 2017.

After four seminars involving dozens of Haas MBA students, Koenig, Chitale, and others involved in the creation of Dialogues on Race graduated. But even as they scattered into the job market, they didn’t want to see the conversation end — and the school agreed.

“The two-year turnover cycles of business schools is really punishing, but we’ve figured out a way to keep it going,” says Koenig, currently a consultant with The Bridgespan Group, a social impact investment consultancy in Boston. “We’ve been really lucky. We’ve had a ton of support from the administration. Jay Stowsky, our dean of instruction, has been super supportive in helping us figure out a way to make this a more permanent thing at Haas. We ended up finding a way to keep it as a student-led class, but still making sure it’ll live on beyond us — making sure that we can give it the support that it needs.” In future, that may involve paying some of the student leaders involved, she says.

NOSEDIVE IN BLACK ENROLLMENT HURTS IN SEVERAL WAYS

Dialogues on Race is now successfully running its fifth and sixth cohorts, facilitated by Matt Hines, Laura Andersen, Jennifer Richard, and John Sheffield, with Amy Traver serving as the director of instruction. The class in on track to continue next semester, this time as an official class with funding from the administration.

The most important thing, Koenig says, is that the conversation continues — particularly now, as Haas grapples with controversy over plummeting enrollment by black students. Only six black students are enrolled in the 2018 fall intake of MBA students at the Haas School, down from 19 two years ago — the year Koenig, Chitale, Traver, and others involved in the RII and Dialogues on Race started their MBA journey. This, despite the growth of the program to its biggest population ever of 291 students — which means that Dialogues on Race has an even more important role than ever, Koenig says.

“I think it both accentuates the need for these kind of conversations and the need to know where we are coming from and going to,” she tells Poets&Quants. “It speaks to an interesting tension, that you have all these folks that want to be part of the conversation, that care about racial equity and that care about diversity and inclusion, and yet our actual numbers don’t reflect that in terms if the diversity of our class.

“It’s been an unbelievably tough admission season for us,” she continues. “It has not escaped the notice of anyone. I was at the Haas orientation helping the discussion on diversity and inclusion, and it came up: ‘Hey, we’re having this conversation and yet we’re super conscious of what this room look likes right now. It’s not a super diverse room.’

“The answer to the question is, ‘It’s a problem.’ Everyone is super concerned about it. Folks are really activated by it. The numbers aren’t anywhere near what we want.”

On a practical level, the lack of African-American voices is self-defeating when trying to organize and expand a course like Dialogues on Race, Koenig says. “We will open as many sections as we can have really diverse groups of people,” she says. “Every semester we have had demands that we can’t meet. We have folks that want to take this class. But we don’t think it’s responsible to have a section of Dialogues on Race that has one person of color and ten white people, because we don’t want to put folks in the position of being marginalized, or being the only voice in the room. It’s a limiting factor for us, because there’s all this demand.”