Harvard Business School Case Study: Why Progress Stalled For African-Americans

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria poses with students during a Black Lives Matter protest on campus

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria poses with students during a Black Lives Matter protest on campus

“Why aren’t there more black students here?”

The question was posed in the office of Harvard Business School Dean George Baker some 52 years ago in the year when Martin Luther King was assassinated by a white sniper.

“He was very honest but his answer seemed so naive,” recalls Lillian Lincoln Lambert, then one of five African-American students in the Class of 1968. “His response was, ‘We don’t know where to find them.’”


More than half a century later, an increasing number of people are asking the same question not only of the MBA student population at HBS but just as importantly of the representation of African Americans on the faculty, in the school’s senior leadership roles, and the number of case studies with Black protagonists.

Some 52 years ago, the handful of Black students, including Lambert, at HBS who formed the African American Student Union set a strategy for reducing “faculty resistance” to the organization’s core objective of increasing Black MBA enrollment to the a target of the approximately 10% that African Americans then comprised in the overall U.S. population.

But in every one of the past 52 years, the school has never come anywhere close to that goal. Instead, Harvard Business School has fallen well short of it. In fact, the number of African Americans who graduated with MBAs from Harvard in 2017—just 47 of 937 students, or 5.0%—was lower than in 1971 when 58 left the school with their MBA degrees.


On just about every important metric, the school’s record on African American progress is abysmal:

  • The number of Black students in Harvard’s MBA program has largely remained stuck in the fifties for three decades even as Harvard University has made major strides toward Black enrollment. Some 14.3% of Harvard University’s undergraduate class of 2023 are African Americans. Yet, at the business school, Black enrollment is not much more than a third of that number, just above 5% for the next graduating class of 2021.
  • Since the Harvard Business School’s founding in 1908, only four African-American professors have been awarded tenure by the school. The record is so bad that it took 19 years between the granting of tenure to Tsedal Neeley in 2018 and David Thomas, now president of Morehouse College, in 1999. HBS has never given tenure to an African American professor of accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, general management, or entrepreneurship. Not one of the 14 new assistant and associate professors recruited to Harvard Business School in 2019 is Black. 
  • Harvard Business School trails every other professional school at Harvard University in the percentage of underrepresented minority (URM) tenure-track and tenured professors. Today, just two of the 102 tenured faculty members are African American. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has more than triple the percentage of URM professors in so-called ladder faculty positions than HBS.
  • Only one of the 28 members of the school’s senior leadership team is Black, a Chief Information Officer recruited only two years ago from UCLA. None of the 13 faculty senior leaders are African-American.
  • Only two of the 300 case studies taught in the required MBA curriculum feature African-American protagonists.


At a time when the death of George Floyd has raised consciousness about the issue of racial equity and fairness, Dean Nitin Nohria has openly acknowledged the school’s failures. “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,” he said in a public statement on June 7.

He pledged to do better, but some lay the blame on Nohria who has been dean of HBS for ten full years when virtually no progress has been made. Nohria failed to respond to requests for an interview. “We have no comment,” says Brian Kenny, a spokesperson for the school, via email. To many, however, the school’s mediocre record can be attributed to an anti-Black culture that pervades much of the school’s senior professor ranks, old-guard white faculty who have control over the MBA curriculum and the hiring and promotion of professors at the school.

Only last week, for example, the co-presidents of the school’s Student Association asked each member of the faculty to publicly pledge to “strive to ensure that by the 2022-2023 academic year the case makeup within my course will as closely reflect the composition of the student body.”


“We have been troubled by the slow-moving nature of the academy experience in addressing diversity within the cases we teach, wrote Annie Plachta and Caleb Bradford in a letter obtained by Poets&Quants. “We believe we are at a special moment in time where we can no longer make excuses for the near-absence of Black and other minority protagonists within the curriculum.”

It seemed an entirely reasonable if mild suggestion in a respectfully written letter sent on the eve of Juneteeth. Yet, within three days, their request was rejected. “Colleagues worry–understandably–that identifying faculty who pledge could draw adverse public attention or accusations to those who choose, for many sound reasons, not to sign,” claimed Jan Rivkin, senior associate dean and chair of the MBA program. “Some fear that academic freedom may be compromised. Moreover, individual action might be scattershot: we’d write cases that didn’t get taught, pursue the same protagonists, miss opportunities to coordinate, and so on.”

The upshot: Rivkin got the student leaders to concede not to identify any faculty to spare the non-signers any possible embarrassment. Instead, only the number of faculty who agree to the pledge will be made public.


“I was stunned,” says Steven Rogers, who left HBS last year after being a senior lecturer at the school for seven years. “At a time when every company CEO is making declarations of some kind on racial injustice, HBS is saying we are not even going to let a pledge be published for those who want to do it. That is like saying we are going to let the ones who are the bad guys continue to get cover because they don’t want it known that they are not good guys. Those cowards don’t want it known that they are anti-Black. So the ones who want to do it won’t get credit because of the minority’s unwillingness to do the right thing right now. We publicize the names of students who graduate with honors. Does that make the other students suffer? Of course not. It’s antithetical to the capitalism the Harvard Business School teaches. That is a place where Black lives don’t matter.”
Harvard Business School, of course, isn’t the only graduate school of business with a poor track record of progress in advancing racial equity. But as the wealthiest and most-watched business school in the world, many would expect it to lead the charge, not to be a laggard. And because an MBA from Harvard opens many doors that would otherwise be closed, increasing the number of African Americans who graduate from the school would have a meaningful impact on the representation of Blacks in U.S. corporate leadership. Research has also shown that campus leadership, including a diverse faculty and a curriculum with diverse role models, plays an important role in creating a sense of belonging and inclusiveness.

The current debate on campus goes beyond mere numbers. In a public letter to her HBS classmates last week, Alexis Jackson who is a member of the Class of 2021 wrote of the often awkward moments she feels as one of the few African Americans in an Harvard Business School class. “As you utter in class a comment that discredits the Black experience,” she wrote, “I patiently wait until my heart rate slows down and I regain my composure before raising my hand. Unlike you, my comment in an emotional state will cause me to come off as an ‘angry black woman’ and make everyone, including you, less comfortable. I make you more comfortable because regardless of my confidence in myself, I still feel like a visitor in your world – where my membership and access to these privileged spaces may be voided at any point.”


That is one reason why most of the African American students at Harvard are reluctant to criticize the school on the record. They fear retaliation by some of their professors and possible rejection by future employers who might read their comments. “We’re working on a few things right now, and it makes sense to be relatively discreet until the right moment,” says Bukie Adebo, one of the co-presidents of the school’s African American Student Union. Rogers notes that most Black students are not likely to rock the boat due to the “imbalance of power” between the 50-to-60-year old white men who are largely in charge and hand out grades and the 20-something students. “The school itself admits a certain kind of Black student,” he believes, “someone who is not prone to protest.”

David Thomas, now president of Morehouse College and one of the four Black professors to gain tenure at HBS, says the school’s poor record on African American academics has now led to a recruitment problem. “Fundamentally,” he says, “a lot of the challenges came from a lack of mentoring in young black faculty. HBS is the kind of place where if you don’t come to understand and feel good about the school early, it becomes a hard place to be. Harvard no longer gets all of the top black talent that is out there wanting to come. They now have a problem that is not a selection problem on their side of the fence but on the Black folks’ side of the fence. It’s created a supply issue on the other side.”

The dean’s defenders assert that he has done more for African Americans than any of the previous nine deans of the business school. They say Nohria is the only dean to publicly admit the school’s failings and apologize for them. He has poured far more money into need-based MBA scholarships which now total $38 million a year, a 52% boost from $25 million in 2010 when he became dean. Unlike other campus leaders, Nohria stood with Black MBAs behind a Black Lives Matter banner on the steps of Baker Library, and he opened up the school’s purse book to back an elaborate 50th anniversary of the African American Student Union, with a slick documentary produced by filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain. He has also created a new administrative position at the school, an associate director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, putting a white woman in the job.

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