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Harvard Business School Dean Apologizes For Racial Failures

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria publicly apologized for failing to mount a more successful fight against racism and for not serving the school’s black community members better.

The rare apology was issued in a statement on Sunday (June 7) as protests swept through the U.S. and foreign capitals for the third week in a row since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. The statement, entitled Standing And ActingTogether For Racial Justice,’ specifically mentioned the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and quoted Martin Luther King Jr.

Nohria’s apology comes a year after a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, one of the few African-American professors at HBS, left in frustration over the school’s lack of African-Americans in its faculty, student body and leadership. The entrepreneurial finance professor, Steven Rogers, went public with his complaints in an interview with The Boston Globe, accusing the school of what he called an “anti-black bias” (see How Harvard Business School Is Failing In Diversity). “I love the place, but I’m disappointed,” Rogers told the Globe. “After complaining and making a statement about that, it’s time for me to go.”

NOHRIA’S SENIOR LEADERSHIP TEAM HAS FAILED TO INCLUDE A SINGLE BLACK MEMBER

Steven Rogers, a senior lecturer at HBS, resigned last year over frustrations with the school’s lack of progress

At the time, Rogers noted that only nine of the business school’s 270 faculty members were black, about 3%. Nohria’s academic leadership team failed to include a single black member. Less than 5% of the 500 active business case studies feature black business leaders, many of them written by Rogers who earned his MBA at Harvard in 1985. When he was an MBA student at Harvard, only one of 300 case studies assigned in his first year featured an African-American protagonist. The percentage of black students at the business school remained unchanged for a decade: It was and remains 5% out of roughly 1,880 students, the same as in 2008.  Rogers, who e-mailed his concerns to Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow, was denied a promotion in the year before he went public. 

Harvard’s failure to address the concerns, Rogers believed, had reverberations throughout the corporate world. “We are training people who are going to be leaders,” said Rogers. “And if they don’t have an appreciation for the inclusion of black people, then black America gets hurt. . . . All this stuff trickles down.”

Nohria declined to publicly comment on Rogers’ complaints, instead allowing an unnamed spokesperson for the school to respond. In his statement, the dean made no mention of Rogers’ earlier airing of the issue. Nohria said he had emotional conversations over the past week that led him to conclude that Harvard Business School had not done enough to advance the cause for reform and meaningful change, and he detailed the lack of progress by the school.

‘I APOLOGIZE THAT WE HAVE NOT FOUGHT RACISM AS EFFECTIVELY AS WE COULD HAVE’

“In our hundred-year-plus history, we have tenured only four Black professors,” he wrote. “The number of Black students in our MBA program has largely remained stuck in the fifties for three decades, and the number of Black students in our Doctoral program–a pipeline for developing future faculty members–is low to nonexistent in any given year. We have too few Black staff, and even fewer Black colleagues in leadership positions. Cases and research featuring Black protagonists and racial challenges are woefully underrepresented.

“Today, on behalf of the HBS community, I apologize that we have not fought racism as effectively as we could have and have not served our Black community members better.”

It was the second time in Nohria’s deanship that he has made a public apology. Six years ago, in 2014, at a ballroom in the Ritz Carlton Hotel before 600 alumni and guests, Nohria acknowledged that HBS had sometimes offensively treated its own female students and professors. He conceded there were times when women at Harvard felt “disrespected, left out, and unloved by the school. I’m sorry on behalf of the business school. The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.”

‘WE WILL BE PROACTIVELY ANTI-RACIST’

In his new statement of apology, Norhia said the school would follow up on its statement by placing a focus on three pillars: “conducting research and education that advances our understanding of racism, inequality, and discrimination; supporting the Black community within and beyond Harvard Business School; and engaging the broader business community on racial justice. We will seek not just to reduce racism, but to proactively be anti-racist.”

He announced the following steps:

– Create a permanent page on the School’s website dedicated to resources that advance racial understanding, including a core set of teaching and research materials that are free and widely available.
– Train our community, including our faculty, on how to better engage with race-related discussions inside and outside the classroom.
– Develop an annual report that transparently outlines the school’s objectives and progress related to racial equity. ​
– Use design thinking and other creative approaches to identify new ways of recruiting and retaining Black students, faculty, and staff.
– Create a framework for businesses to report on key diversity metrics ​and encourage them to share it while recruiting at HBS.

WILL SHARE AN ACTION PLAN BEFORE THE START OF THE FALL SEMESTER

“In everything we do, we will strive to lead by example, recognizing the School’s influence in business education and the broader business community. We will act quickly, while dedicating ourselves also to developing a more comprehensive and longer-term plan to root out racism in our community and beyond. We will create and share an action plan for 2020-2021 prior to start of the fall semester.”

The full text of Nohria’s statement follows:

Dear members of the HBS community,

Over the past week, I’ve had opportunities to speak with and get input from many members of our community about what the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, the ensuing protests, and the calls for racial justice mean. I hear in these conversations a range of emotions. Impatience, that despite 150 years since the abolishment of slavery in the US and the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, the fundamental economic, social, and judicial rights promised to all citizens remain unattainable to so many of our Black citizens. Anger, that promises for reform too often yield no tangible results. Dismay, that institutions best positioned to effect meaningful change, have failed to use their voices and resources toward that end.

They count Harvard Business School among those institutions, and they are right. Generations of faculty, students, staff, and alumni at the School have worked to recruit and support Black students in our programs, to develop and teach materials featuring Black business leaders, and to conduct and disseminate research on how racial injustice and inequality can be reduced in organizations and society. Yet, absent efforts at the same time to address the underlying discrimination and racial injustice in our country, our progress has been painfully insufficient. In our hundred-year-plus history, we have tenured only four Black professors. The number of Black students in our MBA Program has largely remained stuck in the fifties for three decades, and the number of Black students in our Doctoral Programs—a pipeline for developing future faculty members—is low to nonexistent in any given year. We have too few Black staff, and even fewer Black colleagues in leadership positions. Cases and research featuring Black protagonists and racial challenges are woefully underrepresented. Two years ago, when we marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the African American Student Union, we acknowledged these difficult truths.

Today, on behalf of the HBS community, I apologize that we have not fought racism as effectively as we could have and have not served our Black community members better.

I resolve to make more urgent progress and know that many at the School are eager to join in this work, including the students in the African American Student Union (AASU) who have been such vital partners in recent days. In that spirit, we will take immediate action and make these solemn commitments.

Our actions and plans will focus on three pillars: conducting research and education that advances our understanding of racism, inequality, and discrimination; supporting the Black community within and beyond Harvard Business School; and engaging the broader business community on racial justice. We will seek not just to reduce racism, but to proactively be anti-racist.

We will begin by taking the following initial steps:

– Create a permanent page on the School’s website dedicated to resources that advance racial understanding, including a core set of teaching and research materials that are free and widely available.
– Train our community, including our faculty, on how to better engage with race-related discussions inside and outside the classroom.
– Develop an annual report that transparently outlines the School’s objectives and progress related to racial equity. ​
– Use design thinking and other creative approaches to identify new ways of recruiting and retaining Black students, faculty, and staff.
– Create a framework for businesses to report on key diversity metrics ​and encourage them to share it while recruiting at HBS.

In everything we do, we will strive to lead by example, recognizing the School’s influence in business education and the broader business community. We will act quickly, while dedicating ourselves also to developing a more comprehensive and longer-term plan to root out racism in our community and beyond. We will create and share an action plan for 2020-2021 prior to start of the fall semester.

In the days to come, we will convene people from throughout our community in thoughtful conversations to determine how this moment in history can be a turning point for real change, rather than just another distressing episode in a long history of racial injustice. We hope you will join us in this conversation. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” We must all be in this together—to redress this wrong, and to ensure we can apply the lessons we learn to other groups that are marginalized and face discrimination. I urge each of you to do your part.

Through these steps, we hope to demonstrate tangibly that Harvard Business School stands in solidarity with its Black community.

With faith in our commitment to one another, to action, and to justice,

Nitin

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