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

David Thomas is one of only four African American faculty members to be awarded tenure. He left to be dean of Georgetown University’s business school and is now president of Morehouse College

‘ANTI-BLACK RACISM IS EMBEDDED IN EVERY PART OF THE SCHOOL’

He strongly believes that the underlying cause of the school’s racial failures is anti-Black racism. “Harvard itself is a great case study on systemic anti-Black racism,” insists Rogers. “It is embedded in every part of the school. There is this anti-black mindset that leads to these practices. Is there a pro-active statement of it. No? But it is so clear that it is not important at the school. And if you choose to try and make it important, there is this quiet passive-aggressive pushback. In my opinion, it is nothing more than anti-Black racism.”

Rogers rejects the most commonly cited reasons for the lack of Blacks at the school. “To say today that there is a pipeline problem is a great insult,” he maintains. “There are Black people in every capacity in life that are qualified to be in business school and in the faculty. If you want to find black people, you go to where they are. If you look at the 1968 effort, they went to the dean and said we need to recruit more black students. The dean said what should we do? We should recruit at historically black colleges and universities. And it went from 5 to 26 or something.

After leaving Harvard last year, Rogers went on a tour of ten historically black colleges and universities, from Spelman College to Morehouse College. “My presence there was the first time there had been anybody from Harvard Business School,” says Rogers. “We are just not making the effort to recruit Black students. The end result is the result of effort. If there is no effort, you get the status quo. Not only should they be going to the historically black colleges and universities but they should be going to any college and making presentations to Black Student Union organizations. Just look at the black population at Harvard University where it is now over 14%. We only have this problem in the business school. Even if the business school recruited from the college, they could have better success than they have now.”

FOR BLACK FACULTY, A PROBLEM OF MENTORS AND SPONSORSHIP

Thomas, who originally left Harvard Business School to become dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, agrees that the school’s lack of progress in enrolling more Black students is highly disappointing. “When I saw the data on the numbers, that’s the thing that surprised me greatly,” he says. “It’s not clear to me how we can defend that with any exogenous explanation. Harvard is the best business school in the world. I can’t believe that the pool of Black applicants at HBS is thinner than any other school.”

When Thomas first came to Harvard to teach in 1990, he read The Elusive Phenomena by Fritz Roethlisberger who taught organizational behavior at HBS in the late 1920s through the mid-1940s. He came away from it understanding that having a supportive mentor and gaining sponsorship would be critical to one’s success at Harvard. “It’s a place where you need two kinds of brokers: big and smart. You need one or two big and influential people who are willing to say this person will get there even if they are not there yet. And you need a smart highly credible broker who is willing to say a person is onto something and is very honest in their feedback. I had great support from Joe Badaracco who said, ‘In my view, many a white senior faculty member probably would have been shy to say anything critical about a Black guy.”

“Similarly, people who communicate early that they think you are here because at HBS we do pathbreaking work and you have that potential have already made the conclusion that intellectually you belong there and have all the firepower to succeed. We at HBS were never good at doing that well for black faculty members. It’s not accidental that the organizational behavior group produced all but one of the four tenured faculty members and the interesting thing about it was after all of us were promoted, we were all pretty successful. Linda Hill was amazing and continues to be amazingly productive. Jim Cash was amazing and became a senior associate dean. I did prize-winning research and was a senior associate dean and department chair. You would think that instead of wondering if Black people could make it, the senior faculty would have thought this is the next Jim Cash and I am going to invest.”

‘WHERE IS YOUR ACTION PLAN?’

Rogers is more pointed in his criticism of why HBS has so few Black faculty either tenured or on the tenure track. “You end up with the results you have when you have that few,” he believes. “If the pool is only one in every 20 years, you are not going to have much success. You have to do a root cause analysis versus addressing the symptoms. And the root cause is anti-Black norms and practices.” 

The paucity of Black protagonists in Harvard case studies, which are used in the vast majority of business schools all over the world, partly stems from the lack of African American faculty at HBS. “People tend to write cases about people like themselves,” notes Thomas. “Cases usually come out of intimate connections. We are still socially not integrated, even though we are professionally integrated. So if the faculty member doesn’t have in their network the kinds of relationships with Black people that will lead to cases, it won’t get done. The lack of Black role models is what agitates Black students. They’re not represented in the curriculum. It’s an issue that has been around a long time and it’s been a problem.”

What makes this time different, of course, is that it is occuring at a time when there is a national conversation about race, social justice and economic inequality that has brought millions of white and Black protestors to the streets. “This is a new conversation primarily for white people,” points out Jennifer Eliason, associate director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at HBS, in an interview published today (June 24) on the school’s website.

‘IT IS ALL ANYONE IS TALKING ABOUT’

“Black Americans have always felt the experience of racism. Other communities of color have always had experiences with racism and discrimination. It has been an everyday conversation for people of color their entire lives. Many white folks, even those of us who consider ourselves allies, are deeply saddened to realize that racism is prevalent. For many white people, this is the first time in which racism has been a daily, in your face conversation. It’s in the news, social media, here at work—-it is all anyone is talking about.”

At a virtual town hall meeting on June 11, led by two business school professors, Nohria heard all of these complaints yet again. Some deeply disappointed participants in the session pointedly asked, “Why are we having the same conversation again?’ and “Where is your action plan?” In a June 15th statement, the dean pledged to move urgently forward with what he called an “anti-racism action plan, but also expressed the need to move “thoughtfully because the issues we have to tackle are systemic and severe.

“I will resist the urge to ask HBS’s Black community for patience and trust,” he added. “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.”

DON’T MISS: FORMER HARVARD B-SCHOOL PROF SLAMS DEAN FOR SCHOOL’S ‘SYSTEMATIC ANTI-BLACK PRACTICES’ or HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL DEAN APOLOGIZES FOR RACIAL FAILURES

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