Harvard B-School Dean Nohria Asked At A Town Hall On Race: ‘Why Are We Having The Same Conversation Again?’

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

After a virtual town hall on race at Harvard Business School at which several African-Americans said they were deeply disappointed in the school, Dean Nitin Nohria today (June 15) pledged to move urgently forward with what he called an “anti-racism action plan.”

In an email to members of the HBS community, Nohria said the responses of participants at the town hall last Thursday varied widely. ‘Many reached out to say that the panelists’ comments deepened their learning and galvanized them to act against racism,” he wrote. “At the other end of the spectrum, we heard from attendees who were deeply disappointed.  ‘Why are we having the same conversation again?’ they asked, and ‘Where is your action plan?’

“Near the end of Thursday’s Community Conversation, my colleague Jan Rivkin suggested that we do not yet do enough to prepare our students—in their ensuing careers—to ensure the organizations they work in elevate Black talent equally, to serve Black customers fairly, and to create opportunity justly.  To teach our students to do these things well, we need to do them well at Harvard Business School itself.”


Steven Rogers

The dean also openly referred to a Poets&Quants’ article in which a former HBS faculty member, Steven Rogers, was heavily critical of Nohria’s leadership on the issue of racial justice and equality at the school. “He is part of the problem,” Rogers told Poets&Quants. “His anti-black practices are reprehensible. He is the leader of anti-Black practices at the school and is complicit in them.”

Rogers, who left HBS last year after teaching there for seven years, called out Norhia to Harvard University President Larry Bacow and the university’s Board of Overseers. “There is something terribly wrong at HBS,” wrote Rogers in an Aug. 15th letter to Bacow 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.

Nohria directly commented on Rogers’ concerns in his email. “This past week has made clear how urgently we need to move this work forward,” added Norhia. ” The panelists in last Thursday’s Community Conversation on Race described experiences, including on our campus, that no one should have to endure.  And, in an article in Poets&Quants, former faculty member Steve Rogers outlined important concerns about the School.  Though it’s not appropriate for me to speak publicly on confidential personnel matters, please know that I and other leaders at the School have carefully reflected on Steve’s words.  We believe there are inaccuracies in the piece and are working to share data related to race more transparently.  But we cannot dispute Steve’s lived experience at HBS—it pains us deeply and we must learn from it.”

The school failed to notify Poets&Quants about any inaccuracies in the story, and when HBS was contacted before the publication of the story, a spokesperson chose not to comment on the accusations made by Rogers. Poets&Quants again sought a response on Nohria’s comments but the spokesperson did not respond by publication time.


Nonetheless, Norhia appeared to commit to substantial change, even before he is expected to depart the deanship by the end of this year. “We must indeed hasten to take action,” he wrote. “It is a time when all of us—champions, advocates, allies, critics, and bystanders—must come together:  for personal reflection; to review how our own practices, whether as individuals or as part of institutions, have resulted in the outcomes we see today; to chart a new path forward that might identify and eliminate the barriers that have limited progress in the past; and to enact real change on specified timelines.  We also need to do so thoughtfully, because the issues we have to tackle are systemic and severe.  We are committed to developing a plan by the fall that, simultaneously, begins to dismantle the structures that reproduce racially-biased outcomes and spurs the rise of anti-racism.  We will begin implemention this summer wherever we can.”

Nohria said the school’s response will include feedback from “outside experts,” something that Rogers has urged because he is highly doubtful the school can remedy its problems internally. “Based on the input we have received, aspects of our action plan are already becoming apparent.  We will want to stand up an enduring entity to anchor our anti-racism research, education, and outreach activities, much as other Projects and Initiatives at the School have ensured sustained focus.  The entity will need to be funded and supported for impact and reach.  It will need to include a roadmap for actionable work and desired outcomes for the coming year, three years, and five years and beyond.  It will require a leadership team that reflects the voices and perspectives of students, alumni, staff, and faculty, Black and non-Black alike.  It will need to tap outside experts, knowledgeable in the study of race.

“The action plan taking shape this summer will have external- and internal-facing aspects.  External efforts might focus on developing frameworks to guide management practice, writing cases to be taught not just at HBS but at business schools around the world, conducting research to share with other scholars, convening leaders to accelerate change, and leveraging the scale, creativity, and impact of our alumni.  Internal efforts will make sure that we are actively anti-racist in our classrooms, in our workplace, and in all our people-related practices.  We will also need a set of metrics and a system of accountability to ensure we are making progress.  We will prepare and share the first such report on race at the School before the end of the summer.”

The dean promised an update sometime in August. “I will resist the urge to ask HBS’s Black community for patience and trust,” added Nohria. “People who have waited for centuries to receive what others get at birth should not be asked for patience, and trust must be earned.  I will ask, instead, for the commitment of the entire HBS community to this work.”






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