The Role Of Higher Education In Economic & Racial Inequality

If you were the dean of a business school or its admissions or career development director, what are the three most important policy changes you could take to diminish or even eliminate economic and racial inequality?

We pose that question and more to three guests on a virtual webinar on the role of higher education in economic and racial inequality and received some fascinating advice. The context of our conversation, of course, is the wave of protests in the wake of the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of the police. Many now sense a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact policy changes that could help to make the systemic racism in so many facets of American life a part of our past.

The panel, moderated by Poets&Quants Editor-In-Chief John A. Byrne, featured serial entrepreneur, consultant, teacher and author James Lowry. Often the first black in many rooms, at eighty years old, he continues the fight so he will not be the last. Lowry was the first African-American recruited to McKinsey & Co. in 1969. His firm’s strategic partnership with Ford led the automaker to source more than $3 billion of goods and services to more than 300 minority suppliers. A 1973 Harvard MBA, Lowry has also been a special advisor to the Boston Consulting Group and an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. He is the author of the recently published Change Agent: A Life Dedicated To Creating Wealth For Minorities.

Also joining the conversation were Paula Fontana, vice president for strategic programming initiatives at the National Black MBA Association, and Stella Ashaolu, the founder and CEO of WeSolv, a consulting firm that connects diverse candidates with companies. Prior to Fontana’s association role, she spent seven years at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School as the associate director of advising and two years in the MBA career management center of the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business where she graduated with an MBA. Ashaolu founded WeSolv in 2016 after a stint with Gallup’s Chicago office as a senior client management consultant following her graduation with an MBA from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

What follows is an edited transcript of part of the recorded webinar (above);

John A. Byrne: So Jim, let’s pretend that you are the dean of the Harvard Business School today. What three steps would you take to eliminate social injustice and economic inequality in America today?

James Lawry: If we go back in history, I’m also old, I can always talk about history, but I remember when there were no blacks on the campus. And when I was at McKinsey, I could walk and you wouldn’t see any blacks, I mean period. You wouldn’t see many women, and what happened, and I have to give Harvard credit, but they came out with a program thanks to a grant from the Sloan Foundation that gave a million dollars to ten top business schools. And with those million dollars, they brought in people. So it always comes back to money.

So Harvard had a million dollars to bring in students, they became the first scholars at Harvard who were black and brown. After the money ran out, I give Harvard credit, they did come back and say, ‘We’ll put up our own money.’ So first thing you’ve got to do is to put your own money on the table to get people in.

Secondly, it’s along the same lines in terms of bringing in more David Thomases. So right now Harvard Business School has two African-American tenured professors. So one of the issues we should be thinking about is making sure more faculty members of color get to the top and get tenure. In the case of business, how many become partners? So when I started work on diversity inclusion at BCG, there were only 11 black people at BCG, and one of them was singer John Legend. The last retreat we had over 360. How many are partners? That’s important because if they are partners, they have clout. They have control over money. They’re at the table, okay? They can bring in other people, and they’re the models for these young people coming in. So we need to make sure that not only you get more people of color on the faculty, but you also make sure that they’re guided to where they have tenure and they can be part of the leadership of the institution.

I think the third thing which is very important, and we’ve got to be very candid, is what’s going to be the role once you get there? How do you leverage that experience of Harvard, Wharton or Stanford? And I remember I used to recruit at HBS, and I would be with all the black students in their second year, and I’d ask a question. I’d say, ‘How many of you people have roommates whose father is the head a major corporation or head of state at Harvard? And how many people have professors who are singing your praises when you leave?’

‘Well,’ some would say, ‘I don’t have anybody.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve wasted two years at Harvard.’ The education is basic. Harvard is there to leverage those relationships going forward for the next 20 or 30 years. So I think we have to be honest in saying, you know, once you’re there, how do you leverage these two years so that you can be the asset not only for your family, for yourself, but for the black community for the next 10 and 20 years, because you’re going to have that degree. I think we all could do a much better job of telling the truth of what a two-year experience at Harvard is and what it can mean.

Byrne: Paula, let’s have you assume a role as well now. Let’s say you’re the director of admissions. So how do you increase diversity of the student population at Harvard Business School?

Paula Fontana: So one thing I would say is to partner with diverse organizations to help us get there. So whether that be the National Black MBA Association, the Consortium or MLT (Management Leadership For Tomorrow) where there are diverse candidates that we can pull from within the pipeline. So that’s absolutely one, and then also a big networking resource of course is my alumni. We need to make sure that we are connecting with our alums, letting them know about the diverse initiatives, encouraging and even incentivizing them to encourage their diverse people within their networks to apply and to be successful.

Byrne: And Stella, we’re going to continue this role playing here. We’re going to make you the head of career management. How do you help to get get African-Americans into important roles in the companies that come to recruit on the campus?

Stella Ashaolu: I feel like that was a softball for me. Honestly, the career centers can’t do it alone, but they have a responsibility to not only prepare these candidates for what they really will be experiencing out there, and two, it’s to partner with the organizations or the companies that make a commitment to diversity. What I mean by that is telling organizations that want to come on campus, ‘If you want to recruit on campus at Harvard, then we want to make sure that you have a diverse slate of candidates that you’re recruiting and bringing into your organization.’ And I would be demanding that, because trust me, they’re going to want to make sure they can recruit at Harvard.

So it’s putting your money where your mouth is, and holding those other organizations responsible. Companies are looking for a way to feel comfortable about the candidates they bring into their organization, that those candidates will perform well, and that those candidates will lead and contribute in their organizations. Giving those candidates opportunities to showcase that to these companies, to ultimately reduce that barrier or that bias, and ultimately allow them to bring more candidates into their organizations, is something that I think is really critical and is exactly why WeSolv takes the approach that we do when it comes to connecting companies with diverse candidates.

Byrne: Those are all solid ideas to move the ball forward but let me step back and ask why haven’t we as a society made more progress? What are some of the hurdles that are holding us back?

Lawry: I think we have not made the advancements we should have, and I say it in my book and it might even be controversial, but too often in the past we focused on the socio and economic issues confronting the black community, and we did not focus on the economic issues. We did not deal with the reality of dealing in the world’s largest free-enterprise system in the world, and I think we were all at fault for that. I was part of it, and other people were part of it. All the statistics about COVID in terms of the disproportionate number of black people who were sickened and killed show it was an economic issue.

Over 40 years of the civil rights movement, we opened the doors for a lot of different protected groups. We did not take advantage of it economically. So when you think about the west side of Chicago, the south side of Chicago, there’s no economic activity. There are no major jobs. There are two roads to change, and education is obviously one, I think the other is economic investment and growing businesses of size that can employ, inspire, and serve as a model for young black people. We have not done that well, and we lost a great opportunity over a 50-year period.

So many of the problems that beset the black community, are symptomatic. We don’t control business, we do not control commerce, and so what you have is a frustration. It’s occurring because economic development’s never occurred. So I think we have to go forward, and once we have capital, we will have power, and once we have power, we can affect change. Without capital, without power, it’s going to be the same thing 20, 30, 40 years from now. I won’t be around, but that’s the truth.

Byrne: Paula, why hasn’t higher education delivered as well as it could have? Why hasn’t it been a more effective tool in social mobility for African-Americans?

Fontana: Great question, and I want to touch on, a big word that James just used, and that is mobility as well as having someone who looks like you. So if there is not someone who you can look to who looks like you who is teaching you, who is a professor in the system, who can help to be a mentor to you as you go throughout the program, letting you know the dos and don’ts, and oh by the way, pulling you into their network, because of course it is through networking that you’re able to get to a higher level. Without those types of things, the buddy system, if you will, then there will always be a failure in the system.

Higher education needs to first look in the mirror. So what do your professors look like? What do your higher-level administrators look like? Do they look like the community in which you are trying to serve? And if they don’t, then perhaps the change needs to start with you, because that is really the perfect system, and the environment where change in culture and differences and equality should be embraced. It is unfortunate that it has not quite yet started there.

Byrne: Stella, what’s your sense of the role of higher education? What’s your sense of the pipeline and why it’s not larger?

Ashaolu: When we think about the pipeline and that being kind of part of the issue as far as contributing to diversity in the workforce, that’s just one small element of the story. There’s a finite number of Black, Latino, or just under-represented candidates at these MBA programs, but we all know that those under-represented candidates have a harder time finding roles than a lot of their white peers. They have a harder time getting recruited by a lot of these companies that are claiming and saying that they want more diversity in their organization, and there’re a number of reasons for that, beyond just education.

This is something that’s systematic and that starts so early, so it’s not something that is just rooted in higher education or higher learning, it’s something that has been following these candidates throughout their entire education experience, and so when they get to, you know, these MBA roles, or MBA positions, and are later looking to find roles with these companies, they have those same systematic barriers or obstacles, whether it be inherent bias, or lack of access, or the inability to have certain experiences that companies are looking for.

There are patterns of what top students look like: what your GPA was for undergrad, what type of undergrad you went to, what type of work experience you had. What scores you get on certain tests, and those are not actually real predictive indicators of a candidate’s ability to be successful, and so that just continues to be perpetuated, and that ultimately is what is limiting the numbers of under-represented candidates in these higher education institutions.

Fontana: Stella made a great point. We actually commissioned a study with Goizueta’s Business School to look into blacks and test scores. We asked why they had been historically so much lower than other ethnicities. We found that those lower test scores follow you throughout your lifetime trajectory. So that results in not getting into the higher top-ranked business schools, as well as reduced scholarship opportunities and career advancements. So you’re absolutely right that those types of things which aren’t necessarily indicative of how well you will do in the program follow you throughout your entire life cycle.

Lawry: I think those are two great points, and I’m going to piggyback on using personal experiences. You’re absolutely right in terms of the scores, because I will confess that I got into Grinnell College not because of my SAT scores. I was a B student, and I was an athlete, but my scores were not high enough to get in, but it was not indicative of the size of my heart or my real intelligence to perform at a high level, which I did do, A little footnote in history there is a friend who went to Grinnell College with me, who got a PhD from Harvard, and later became the head of the College Board. He did not have high enough board scores to get into Grinnell College, he was a provisional admit.

Byrne: So are assessment tests like the GMAT and the GRE for business school barriers to diversity and inequality in higher education?

Ashaolu: I think that’s exactly it. At the top of this problem, it goes back to economics, and it goes back to the dollars. These schools are all working towards getting their enrollments up, getting higher test scores, getting more donations and commitments form alumni, being perceived as a better institution all for the purpose of more dollars, and scores are directly tied to that through rankings. These universities would like to see more diversity, but not at the cost of scores. Not at the cost of rankings, and so it’s the same problem when you think about white corporations who are not bringing in more diversity, why universities are not bringing in more diversity, they all want more, but they want something else more.

Fontana: And I would say that if we were to look at how to get the test scores up, then I would encourage us to begin earlier in the pipeline than perhaps we would have. I would encourage those who are interested in getting those diverse candidates to start as early as high school. We need to educate them on the types of roles, the types of opportunities that could exist further down the road, as well as assisting them with the appropriate test taking techniques in order to increase their scores. Because it’s not necessarily how smart you are, it’s how well you take the test, how fast you take the test, how many accurate answers you get.

Ashaolu: I’d like to just challenge us to take it a step further. I think similar to why we haven’t seen any change in the United States for the past 60 years, is because we try to address symptoms rather than the root problem or the root cause. So while we can get the test scores of African-American and other under-represented groups up, if fundamentally those tests and those scores are not indicative of intelligence, if they are biased, are we not just putting a bandaid on a problem? And while I know this is such a magnificent problem that I don’t think there’s any one approach that is going to completely solve it, unless we literally scrap it and start all over. It’s going to take a number of different approaches, but I just want to challenge us to think a little bit more radically in how we shift acceptance and access to higher education.

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