After serving as a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School for seven years, Steven Rogers left the school frustrated by what he calls its “systematic anti-black practices” and his rejection for requested promotion. He then wrote this Aug. 15, 2018, letter to Lawrence Bacow, who had just become president of Harvard University six weeks earlier in July. Rogers received a reply from Bacow on Sept. 9, 2018.
From: Rogers, Steven
Sent: Wednesday, August 15, 2018 12:59 PM
To: Bacow, Lawrence S.
Cc: Office of the Dean; Healy, Paul M.; Badaracco, Joseph L. ; Kester, W. Carl
Dear President Bacow,
My name is Steven Rogers and I teach at the business school, where I am a Senior Lecturer. I have a pressing concern but I’d like to begin with a short story:
On April 2, 1981, I was working as a purchasing agent at the North Carolina based Consolidated Diesel Company (a $500 million joint venture between J.I. Case and Cummins Engine Company) when the Plant Manager told me he’d received a call from the director of the North Green Golf Club. The director informed him that I had lunch at the club, using the company’s corporate membership, but in the future I would not be allowed to eat in the dining room because the club had a policy that forbade Black people from eating there. He said that if I wanted to dine at the Golf club in the future, I, unlike the company’s white employees, would have to eat in the kitchen where the black workers ate their meals.
Two years later I began my wondrous relationship with Harvard Business School (HBS) as a student (‘85), a member of the Visiting Committee (2002), and a faculty member (2012-).
Since arriving at HBS, I have taught Entrepreneurial Finance in our executive programs and created a new course titled BLACK BUSINESS LEADERS AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP, which has enrolled students from 9 of Harvard University’s 14 schools. I created this course after researching and discovering that our curriculum virtually did not include AfricanAmericans. Specifically, I learned that we had published approximately 10,000 case studies and only 60 (less than 1%) had a black protagonist. I further learned that approximately 300 case studies were taught to our first year students in the required curriculum and only 2 (less than 1%) had a black protagonist.
It occurred to me that we were not teaching our students 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.
In an effort to quickly address this exclusion, I met with each of the 10 department Course Heads, shared my findings and asked them to include at least one case study with a black protagonist in their curriculum. I also offered to help them identify 3 black protagonists candidates and they could select one whom they could include in a case study.
In response, virtually nothing was done. 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 HBS 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.
There are no blacks in any position of leadership including associate or assistant deans. There are only 2 black tenured professors and less than 3% of the entire 300-plus member faculty are black. There are zero Course Heads who are black. And in the leadership positions held but non-faculty members, none are black. I asked for a meeting with a Nitin a few years ago where I shared all of these facts and very little has been done.
President Bacow, there is something terribly wrong at HBS. 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.
For example, a new Managing Director of Admissions was recently hired. After an expensive national search, the person selected to fill that position was an alum(2013) who had only 2 years of work experience as an adult, none of which was in Admissions or Human Resources. Conversely, another candidate who was rejected, is also an alum(2000), and is a black woman who had over 15 years of work experience, which included 5 years as the Associate Dean of Admissions at Georgetown’s business school. She is now the Dean of Admissions at Duke’s business school.
Shamefully, Nitin and the HBS leaders decided to reject the most qualified candidate, who was a seasoned black woman, in favor of a woefully inexperienced white male. This anti-Black bias was so disappointing and egregious that the HBS Presidents of the Alumni African American Student Union and Alumni Latino Student Unions came to campus to voice their displeasure to Nitin. They were so incensed that they contemplated taking the story to the media. But they decided against doing so because Harvard is their home.
The final example of anti-black bias involves the reasons given by Nitin and his leadership team for the rejection of my application for promotion to the position of Professor of Management Practice. This is a 4-year appointment position for practitioners who are non-tenured faculty members.
In December before I submitted my application(please see attachment) to Nitin, I was told by Professor Paul Healy, the head of the subcommittee appointed by Nitin, that every candidate who ever applied in the history of HBS, has been promoted. While that was interesting to hear I knew that nothing was guaranteed, especially given HBS’s horrible history with black leaders. My research showed that only 1 black person, Dennis Hightower, has ever been promoted to the position of Professor of Management Practice. Dennis was promoted 21 years ago. And since that time, no other black person including Senior Lecturers with stellar executive resumes from Fortune 500 companies such as Henry Mcgee(Harvard ‘74, MBA ‘79), the former President of HBO Entertainment and Paula Price, the former Vice President and CFO Ahold USA, had ever been nominated for the position.
It had always been rumored that the Professor of Management Practice position was for former corporate executives who joined the faculty. But that rumor lost steam last year when a Senior Lecturer who held a staff position in the local government was promoted.
Therefore, I decided to apply. I was confident that my work experiences as the CEO of two entrepreneurial ventures, plus the publication of a text book on finance and 20 new case studies, combined with my successful record of teaching worldwide where I received a record 26 Professor of the Year awards in executive programs and 2 Most Outstanding Professor in the MBA Program at Kellogg, and accolades from colleagues, students and alums at HBS( lowest evaluations were classes where I was asked to be an emergency substitute professor), were sufficient for the promotion.
Disappointingly, I met with Paul several weeks ago and he informed me that my opportunity to get promoted was not even a close decision by the subcommittee, and it was unanimous that I was not qualified to be a Professor of Management Practice due to substandard work experiences, publications and teaching.
In response, I told Paul that I was disappointed and vehemently disagreed with their conclusions. I also informed him that all of the published information stated that the decision was solely Nitin’s, not the subcommittee. He told me that he had spoken to Nitin and he agreed with the subcommittee and therefore that was the final decision. I told him that was counter to what was published. I was entitled to hear directly from Nitin and not to do so would be unfair and the epitome of unprofessionalism.
On June 28, I received an email from Nitin informing me that he was not promoting me based on the subcommittee’s recommendation.
President Bacow, I AM NOT WRITING TO ASK THAT THE DECISION BE CHANGED. My focus is on the need to change all of HBS as it relates to the inclusion of blacks in every facet of the school. I am citing my experiences to highlight the fact that HBS leaders have an, intentional or unintentional, anti-Black disposition that is making a mockery out of our motto that we “Develop leaders who make A difference in other people’s lives.” This school that I dearly love, needs to change. True inclusion is not organic, it comes from purposeful leadership because it requires change and disruption. HBS’s leadership is doing exactly the opposite; allowing the status quo to reign, which perpetuates the organizational norm of excluding qualified blacks.
Paul’s reasons for denying me the promotion is a perfect example of the “old white guard” furthering the status quo by falsely claiming that a black person’s work is substandard despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I was shocked when he opened the meeting by telling me that the subcommittee was not impressed with my ownership of a real estate company that provides housing to low-income black citizens in one of the poorest communities in the country. He said that it was the subcommittee’s belief that this company and my leadership were not impactful or innovative, and it reflected the “absence of a deep level of leadership.”
This was their conclusion after reading my application, which stated that I created a real estate company that owns rental properties in the Englewood community of Chicago. In this community the unemployment rate is 21.3%; almost half (42%) of the residents live below the official poverty line; and the average annual income is $11,993 compared to almost $28,000 for the average Chicagoan.
I created this company with $2 million of my own money that I earned from being an entrepreneur following business school when it was not popular for MBA alums to follow that path. I created the company for the purpose of making a difference in other people’s lives. I wanted to provide quality housing to poor black people, as well as create jobs for poor black people. I could have comfortably invested the money in middle-class communities where the investment risks and challenges are lower, but I wanted to put my multi- million dollar investment, leadership efforts and hard work into uplifting good hardworking people who have the least resources and opportunities.
In addition to my personal investment, I was able to convince Northern Trust Bank, one of the oldest(125 years old) and most risk averse banks in the country , which caters to the affluent, to provide additional financing. My banker told Professor Joe Badarraco, who was one of the 3 subcommittee members, that everyone in the bank thought I was crazy when I made my presentation to them for a 7 figure line of credit. He said that they asked each other after I left, “Why in the hell would a man from HBS want to risk millions of his own money and our money, to invest in one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden communities, at the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression?” He went on to tell Joe that my company was enormously successful for all stakeholders including the bank, which made excellent profits; people in the community, who got well paying jobs; and tenants, who got suburban quality housing at affordable prices.
Disappointingly, Nitin supported the subcommittee’s conclusion. One of the reasons stated in his letter was that “my leadership experience as a practitioner does not meet our standards.”
What are “our standards?” Did my company and leadership not meet HBS standards because it helped to solve a problem for poor black people? My banker told Joe that my company had one of the most powerful impacts of any of the bank’s loan recipients because we used the money to help change and dramatically improve numerous neighborhoods.
Was my leadership deemed unimpressive because my employees were black working class high school graduates who were tradesmen instead of white collar college graduates?
What does such conclusions by Nitin, Paul, Joe and Professor Carl Kester, the other member of the subcommittee, say about HBS and it’s leaders? Do they understand or even care that poor black Americans have unique needs that come from unique experiences, and that the leadership of a business in those communities is just as challenging as the leadership of a company that provides services or products to the wealthy?
Who are we at HBS? Do we only assert that deep leadership comes from corporate executives employed by Fortune 500 companies? If so, why have blacks with that background not been promoted?
Does impact and innovation only come from entrepreneurs in the tech industry and those companies that provide products and services to the people of means? We teach our students at HBS that innovation comes from identifying a problem and creating a solution. How is it that creating a solution to the problem of poor quality housing for low-income people does not stand up to that definition?
These comments by Paul and Nitin, minimizing and denigrating my professional leadership experiences—because I chose to create a company that services poor black peoples—were at the best, insensitive and callous, and at the worst, elitist with anti-black undertones.
Quite frankly, when I later learned of whom the subcommittee was comprised, it did not surprise me that they so brazenly condemned my work. Several of them are Course Head leaders who for years neither identified the problem nor tried to fix it even when I brought it to their attention. They all are enormously proud scholars who are not change -agents, and resent it being implied that they are part of the problem. Last year, when my course began it attracted media attention from around the country, including such news outlets as the Washington Post, Boston Globe, NPR and the Harvard Gazette. Although I never criticized anyone publicly, I am sure it appeared that way because those men at the helm allowed the omission of black protagonists in the curriculum we teach to our 900 first-year students, for far too long.
President Bacow, I’d like to reiterate that I am no longer seeking the promotion. But I hope that you agree that we can no longer afford for HBS to operate this way, and that a major overhaul is required if HBS is to truly be the greatest business school in the world.
From: “Bacow, Lawrence S.”
Date: September 7, 2018 at 9:46:09 AM CDT
To: Rogers, Steven Scott
Cc: Office of the Dean, Healy, Paul M., Badaracco, Joseph L., Kester, W. Carl, Garber, Alan M, Nohria, Nitin, Wilson, John Silvanus
Subject: Thank you
Thank you for your note summarizing your various experiences at the Harvard Business School and your concerns about the environment there. I think you already know that I have firmly and fully embraced the priorities outlined in the report generated by the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. Without exception, each Harvard Dean has made a commitment to move this institution toward “inclusive excellence.” In my view, the concerns you raise are best analyzed, understood, and remedied in that context.
I have made an effort to understand the HBS climate a little better. Alan Garber and I have been in touch with Nitin and his team to learn more about their views and plans. I am encouraged by what I have learned, and I want to encourage you with this response.
Nitin is well aware of the need to improve the environment at HBS, where diversity, inclusion, and belonging are concerned. He and his team have been in touch with various groups at HBS who share viewpoints similar to yours. He told me about a number of meaningful efforts to continue to make measurable progress on the very issues you raise.
I hope you will be pleased to hear about new efforts to diversify the HBS personnel and curriculum further. 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.
I also expect that John Wilson’s work with the schools will be valuable in establishing a better framework for tracking our progress. Among many other things, the Task Force report called for Harvard-wide strategic planning, surveying, and accountability, and John’s team is already at work on developing that infrastructure. This can only help as we look to make inclusive excellence a refreshing, new reality at Harvard. I have asked John to meet with you to understand your perspective and concerns better, as they will inform his work, as well as to share with you his plans and progress.
My thanks, again, for your thoughtful note. I am committed to making our shared vision of inclusive excellence a thriving reality across the University. Your candor and willingness to share your concerns help to make us better.
All the best,
Lawrence S. Bacow