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Former Harvard B-School Prof Slams Dean For School’s ‘Systematic Anti-Black Practices’

Steven Rogers left Harvard Business School as a senior lecturer last year, frustrated at the school’s failure to address what he calls it’s “anti-Black practices”

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria has publicly apologized for his school’s numerous failures to the African-American community. But to Steven Rogers, who had taught at HBS as a senior lecturer for seven years, it is an apology that rings awfully hollow.

Rogers, an alumnus of Harvard Business School, equates the dean’s mea culpa on Sunday to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s recent statement on racism and player protests. Goodell never once mentioned Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality in 2016.  And Nohria never gave a nod Rogers in his who brought to his attention what he believes are Harvard Business School’s “systematic anti-black practices: until finally going public a year ago and resigning his position at the school.

“Colin was blackballed,” says Rogers. “I chose to retire and move on with my life.”

‘HE IS PART OF THE PROBLEM. HE IS THE LEADER OF ANTI-BLACK PRACTICES AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL’

Image of Dean Nitin Nohria at a public event.

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

When he saw Nohria’s 793-word statement on Sunday, he was dumbfounded. Nohria has been dean of the Harvard Business School for ten full years, since July of 2010. Most of the admissions by Nohria of Harvard’s failures to make progress are strikingly familiar to Rogers’ own complaints–first made privately at the school and then publicly to The Boston Globe–when Rogers left HBS.

“I said to myself that SOB didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge what I had been saying for years. No one from the school has reached out to me to say, ‘Steve this is what you were talking about and for the most part this is why you retired.’ I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t be in that environment. It was so anti-black.”

Rogers believes Nohria’s statement of apology for not opposing “racism as effectively as we could have” and for failing to serve “our Black community members better” is disingenuous. “He is part of the problem,” he says matter-of-factly. “His anti-black practices are reprehensible. He is the leader of anti-Black practices at the school and is complicit in them.”

‘WHATEVER YOU DO, PLEASE DO NOT PROMOTE NITIN NOHRIA AS PRESIDENT’

Poets&Quants reached out to Harvard Business School but there was no comment to Rogers’ charges. A tracking table of black alumni over the years at HBS (see below) shows some improvement over the decades from an average of 36 graduates in the 1970s to 58 in the 2010s, but the improvement is scant and spotty. In fact, in the Class of 2017 at HBS, there were only 47 African-Americans, fewer than in 1971 when there were 58. There are plenty of other business schools whose records on faculty and student recruitment are no better.

Only last year, Linda A. Hill, one of two black tenured professors at HBS, told The Boston Globe that while the university should improve its diversity, she doesn’t believe it’s for a lack of trying that problems persist. She said she has been given leadership opportunities throughout her career. She expressed worry, however, that some HBS alums had been concerned that diversity efforts at the school have only focused on gender.

After regularly meeting with Nohria to discuss a Black agenda for the school, Rogers saw little change or progress. Over time, Rogers concedes, he and Nohria became estranged. When Harvard University was searching for a new university president in 2017 to succeed Drew Faust and Nohria was in the running as a candidate, Rogers says he wrote the entire Board of Overseers to say “whatever you do, please do not promote Nitin Nohria as president.”

Once the university passed over Nohria to appoint Lawrence Bacow, the former president of Tufts University, Rogers wasted little time in bringing his concerns directly to Bacow. With Bacow in his new job for little more than a month, Rogers penned a letter asking the president to investigate the school. “There is something terribly wrong at HBS,” wrote Rogers in a letter obtained by Poets&Quants. “It desperately needs to change. It has a leadership and intellectual apartheid mindset that promotes black exclusion and teaches our students through its lack of racial inclusiveness, that qualified, brilliant, talented and accomplished black people are not important, nor are we worthy of fair and equal opportunities.”

Bacow’s response made clear that Rogers was not alone in his criticism of the school. “Nitin is well aware of the need to improve the environment at HBS, where diversity, inclusion, and belonging are concerned,” wrote Bacow in a Sept. 7, 2018, email. “He and his team have been in touch with various groups at HBS who share viewpoints similar to yours.” Bacow thanked Rogers for his “candor and willingness to share your concerns” and expressed optimism that progress was in the works. “Nitin and his team will do a better job of communicating these efforts and their results, and perhaps involving you and others who care so much about improving HBS, as evidenced by your note to me.”

Nearly two years later, however, there has been little change. Only one of the 28 members of the school’s senior leadership team is black, a CIO recruited less than two years ago from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. None of the 13 faculty senior leaders are African-American. The percentage of African-American MBA students enrolled at the school is roughly the same, as are the number of tenured African-American professors.

WHEN ROGERS RETURNED TO HBS TO TEACH, HE FOUND LITTLE HAD CHANGED IN THE 27 YEARS SINCE HE GOT HIS MBA FROM THE SCHOOL 

Rogers himself is a self-made man, brought up on the Southside of Chicago. He had delivered newspapers and milk in his neighborhood, bused tables at a downtown hotel, restocked groceries at the corner store, and helped his mother, a single parent of four, sell furniture at weekend flea markets. His family was periodically on welfare and food stamps. When he was 11 years old, Rogers recalls hearing his mother’s sobs at the news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rogers gives a lot of credit to A Better Chance, a program designed to help smart, minorities reach their full potential. He gained admission to Williams College, majored in history and played football. After graduation, he accepted a job with Cummins Engine Co. He was moved to rural North Carolina to become a purchasing agent in 1981 for a joint venture between Cummins and J.I. Case. Soon enough, the director of a local golf club would call Rogers’ plant manager to complain that Rogers had lunch at the club. But the club forbade Black people from eating there and if Rogers wanted to dine at the golf club in the future, he would have to eat in the kitchen where the black workers ate their meals.

Two years later, Rogers was accepted to and enrolled in Harvard’s MBA program. It was an eye-opening experience, almost as transformational to his life as his time in the A Better Chance program. To this day, he frequently expresses his love for the school. Hisex- wife, Michele, is also a Harvard MBA, having graduated a year after he did in 1986, and for a time drew a paycheck from the Harvard Development Office. With his degree in hand, he went to work in consulting for Bain & Co. until he and his wife purchased in 1989 a maker of lampshades in Chicago. They acquired a second company and then a retail store, ultimately becoming protagonists themselves in an HBS case about the purchase written by HBS professor William Sahlman, one of Rogers’ mentors.  After moonlighting as a guest speaker and adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, he sold the businesses in 1995 and accepted a full-time teaching position where he received numerous awards for teaching and making his course in Entrepreneurial Finance one of the most popular  at Kellogg.

Rogers would return to Harvard Business School to teach the same course in 2012 as a senior lecturer.  From his start at HBS, however, he soon discovered that not much had changed at the school from the time he was a student 27 years earlier. He found that the school’s MBA curriculum continued to virtually leave out African-Americans. He learned that only 60, less than 1%, of the roughly 10,000 case studies published by Harvard and used in business school and corporate classrooms around the world featured a black protagonist. Even worse, only two of the roughly 300 case studies taught to first-year MBA students in the required curriculum had an African-American protagonist. When he went to HBS some 35 years earlier, there was only a single case study with a black businessperson.

‘THERE IS AN INSTITUTIONALIZED RACISM AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL THAT KEEPS BLACKS OUT OF ALMOST EVERY ASPECT OF THE SCHOOL’

The school’s failure to make more significant progress deeply troubled him. Frances X. Frei, a long-time HBS professor, he recalls, once described him as “a race man.” It was taken by Rogers as a compliment, meaning his advocacy was evidence of a man who is a proud and loyal member of the Black race, dedicated to the betterment of Black people. He does not shy from confrontations with the ideas or institutions that threaten the well-being of the Black race. “I come from a welfare mother,” he explains. “Nobody ever went to college. My parents didn’t graduate from high school. There is a reason why God said, ‘I am going to do something with you.’ I am a race man. I look at things through the lens of how they will affect Black people. All I wanted from the Harvard Business School was to help poor black communities through business.”

With little institutional support, he would write 20 new case studies himself and create a new popular elective on Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship. But Rogers came to believe that his alma mater was failing to teach what he called “the full spectrum of business leaders. “Our students were not being exposed to the business and leadership brilliance, as well as challenges, of black men and women, many of whom had matriculated at HBS,” he would later write University President Bacow.

To lobby for change, Rogers says he met with each of the ten department course heads at HBS, shared his findings and asked each to include at least one case study with a black protagonist in their courses. He also offered to help them identify three black protagonists candidates and they could select one whom they could include in a case study.

“In response, virtually nothing was done,” wrote Rogers to Bacow. “Therefore, I created my course and wrote 20 new case studies with Black protagonists to address this omission of black businessmen and women in our curriculum. This was the first course of it’s kind—one that specifically highlighted black business leaders—at Harvard or any other business school in the country.

“This exclusion of blacks in our curriculum, as well as blacks in almost every area of the business school, is reminiscent of the bias against blacks that I experienced in North Carolina. While there are no explicit anti-Black policies, the results are practically the same. There is an institutionalized racism at Harvard Business School that keeps blacks out of almost every aspect of the school. It is virtually the same today as it was more than 30 years ago when I was a student. Progress in this regard at HBS has been glacial.

Graph of black alumni by class year, illustrating institutionalized racism at HBS.

African-American graduates in each Harvard Business School class since 1969 when there were only five blacks

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.