When I first heard that Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria had publicly apologized for the school’s numerous failures to the African-American community, I was both surprised by his personal confession of complicity and highly skeptical that the anti-Black culture that he had led for a decade would substantially improve. As a senior lecturer at the school for seven years from 2012 to 2019, I had been regularly lobbying Dean Nohria on Black issues. I would initiate meetings with him every year in the fall and spring, armed with my sheet of paper with “Black Agenda” handwritten on the top. I wrongfully assumed that a “man of color” would want to rid the school of its anti-Black racism. Boy, was I wrong! There was no progress.
And then, when I finally read his entire apology, I was outraged and glad that I had retired from the toxic anti-Black environment. The list of his initial “reforms” was so vague and inconsequential as to amount to “Black-washing.” For example, Nohria‘s most substantive commitment was a promise to create a webpage on the school’s website dedicated to advance racial understanding. Seriously? There was no declaration to do anything specifically to include Black people by eliminating the anti-Black norms and practices. There was nothing then and nothing now, three weeks later. Thank goodness that companies like Netflix and its CEO Reed Hastings, did not follow Dean Nohria’s ‘do-nothing’ lead.
These are the ideas of a politician, hoping that the current passion for real change fades. They are modest, insincere, and as an alum, embarrassing efforts to placate the need for more progressive steps to eliminate the school’s anti-Black practices. They are entirely inadequate to address decades of neglect, of systemic racism in the culture of the business school. My cousin, who has an MBA from the University of Chicago, stated the disappointment perfectly when she said, “HBS should be on the leading edge of anti-racism by setting an example for other institutions.”
‘I FELT AS IF I HAD BEEN POUNDING MY HEAD INTO ONE OF THE WALLS AT BAKER LIBRARY’
Where am I coming from? For much of my seven years at Harvard Business School, I invested many hours trying to advance a Black agenda for the school, with results similar to what we see at Harvard College which is filled with Black students, faculty and teaching content about Black people. With envy, I used to always say that HBS will be recognized throughout the country as the epicenter for black people in business. It was my declaration after I arrived at the school in 2012 and immediately knew something was wrong and needed to be changed (see Harvard Business School Case Study: Why Progress Stalled For African Americans).
It felt like I was stepping back in time. There were virtually no Blacks anywhere! A dearth of black faculty, students, in case studies, and no blacks in the staff, or leadership positions. Because this was my alma mater I sought to improve things. Those efforts were consistently met with passive-aggressiveness. Plenty of people nodded their heads in seeming agreement, but nothing ever changed. By the time I left last year, I felt as if I had been pounding my head into one of the walls at Baker Library.
I believe that real change at Harvard Business School is impossible from within. The school is the perfect case study for perfecting systematic anti-Blackness. The latest evidence to support the belief that it cannot change from within is a wonderful effort, mounted on the eve of Juneteenth, by the two co-presidents of the Student Association to get the faculty to publicly “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.” The faculty resisted and the student leaders accepted their solution, followed by the students and faculty congratulating each other on mediocre results.
To spare the non-signers of the Pledge any possible embarrassment, the students agreed that only the number of faculty who agree to the pledge will be made public, not their names. Instead of giving credit to the actual people who agreed to the pledge with a deadline of more than a year, they were manipulated into giving a less-than-consequential number. They were stonewalled, and HBS is not a better school today for their well-intentioned efforts.
‘ANTI-BLACK BELIEFS ARE EMBEDDED IN THE SCHOOL’
So how many of the school’s teachers actually agreed to this very modest goal? Only 90 professors out of the more than 230 full-time faculty positions at HBS have made the pledge, less than 40%, in the wake of worldwide protests over racial inequality and a national discourse over the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. The likelihood of anti-black norms and practices being abolished, is very low when 61% of the faculty will not even agree to have at least one case study with a Black protagonist in their course within the next two years.
So it is as a former insider who knows this culture well that I make the following recommendations. As my former Section B classmates told me, “You’re not some outsider. You’re a member of this family with a voice at this family table, come what may.” I know that getting even one of these recommendations implemented at HBS will be almost impossible. This is evidenced by the inability to get even half of the faculty to pledge to include a case study with a Black protagonist. Anti-Black beliefs, practices and norms are so embedded in the school that it reminds you of the anti-Black feelings of the country when slavery ended and most Americans failed to support its abolition.
Am I an out-of-touch radical? Hardly. If I were, HBS never would have accepted me as a student, selected me as a member of its Visiting Committee, or hired me to teach at the school. And Fortune 500 companies like SC Johnson would not have assigned me a seat in their boardrooms. And schools like Williams College would not have invited me to sit on their Board of Trustees. But, like many of my former colleagues at HBS who are rightfully committed to the inclusion of women, immigrants and LGBTQ people, I am a “Race man,” committed to the inclusion of Black people and dedicated to the betterment of the Black community through business.
12 STEPS TO MAKE BLACK LIVES MATTER AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
If the Harvard Business School wants to make Black Lives Matter, it must include Black Americans in every fabric of the school including case studies, students, faculty, staff, leadership, hourly employees, operating expenses, philanthropy and investments.
Specifically, I recommend the following:
1. HBS needs to mandate at least one case study with a Black American protagonist in each of the 10 first year, Required Courses (RC) for the 2020-21 class. None of the cases should be about Black athletes or entertainers or should make the protagonist the problem of the case. In other words, none of these cases should feed into negative stereotypes about the Black community.
2. HBS should require the publication of at least 25 (13 female and 12 male) new case studies annually, with Black Americans as protagonists. At least 13 of those cases should include people from the 2,500 Black HBS alums.
3. HBS admissions staff should annually visit and present at least 25 of the 101 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and at least 25 Black Student Union organizations at the country’s leading public and private universities, the same as it makes private visits to places like McKinsey & Co. and Blackstone.
4. HBS should increase the number of Black American MBA students to match the 14.3% of Harvard College’s undergraduate class. But that increase should include 90% who have evidence in their background of caring for and helping the Black community. Last week I spoke to two black students who are members of the African American Student Union at HBS. I asked why the organization, and they individually, have not spoken out against the anti-Black practices at HBS? One student proudly told me “that his calling was not to be a Dr. King or Colin Kapernick. That HBS was his chance to make a lot of money, and he was not going to jeopardize that opportunity.” We do not need an increase in Black students like that, with an opportunistic mindset. We need Black students who “pay it forward” like the five Black MBA students at Harvard in 1968 who successfully pressured HBS to enroll more than handful of Black students.
5. HBS needs to increase the number of Black American professors to match the percentage at Harvard College. The business school now trails every other professional school at the university in under-represented minority tenure and tenure-track faculty. But like the increase in Black students, we need Black faculty who are not simply opportunists, who benefit from the fight of other Black people but give nothing back by, for example, having no relationships with Black students and writing no case studies with Black protagonists.
6. The school should never permit a group of all-white and/or Southeast Asian faculty to interview Black Americans for any job opening or promotion. While I do not intend to disparage the entire Southeast Asian community, I include the latter group because at HBS most have seemingly been as anti-Black as whites. Dean Nohria has done a wonderful job of appointing his own people to at least a third of all leadership positions on campus. But many of them, along with him, have practiced anti-black racism.
For example, when Bharat Anand, who I was told is Nohria’s brother-in-law, was promoted to the Vice Provost position at Harvard College in 2018, I sent a letter to Provost Alan Garber, informing him of Bharat’s stalling and unwillingness to meet with me to discuss the inclusion of Black case studies, faculty and programs targeting Black alums in the new HBX online program that he helped to create as a member of the HBS faculty. His inaction was the quintessential definition of passive-aggressiveness that excluded Blacks.
7. Harvard should implement the NFL’s Rooney Rule for the hiring of all non-faculty leadership positions. A Black American candidate must be interviewed as part of the recruiting process.
8. HBS needs to spend at least 8.46% (in memory of the eight minutes and 46 seconds that George Floyd had a cop’s knee on his neck) of its an annual operating budget with companies owned by Black Americans, many of whom could be alums.
9. HBS needs to invest at least 8.46% of all investments in Black American financial services firms such as private equity firms, mutual funds, and investment banks, many of whom could be alums.
10. HBS needs to donate at least 8.46% of all philanthropic donations, to organizations like HBCUs that service the Black American community.
11. HBS should publish a note about the case for Reparations to Black Americans who are descendants of American slaves.
12. Like the Confederate monuments, Nitin should be immediately removed as the Dean of Harvard Business School. He should be replaced by a Black female, who is not presently at the school.
Several Fortune 500 companies are implementing several of these recommendations. I am hopeful that HBS will commit to doing the same. It needs to begin the true healing of the wrongs done to Black people. As one civil rights leader said, “If you stick a knife six inches into my back and withdraw it two inches, that is not healing. Only when you take it out completely can the true healing begin from your blow that caused the damage.
Author Steven Rogers graduated from Williams College, where he majored in history, was an honor student, a leader in the Black Student union and played football. After earning his MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1985, he went to work as a consultant for Bain & Co. before becoming a successful entrepreneur. He began teaching entrepreneurial finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management where he had been voted Kellogg’s Professor of the Year twice in the daytime MBA program and a record 26 times in the Executive program. In 2012, he began teaching at Harvard Business School as a senior lecturer for a seven-year stint. Co-author of a book on entrepreneurial finance, Rogers is the author of 24 business cases featuring Black businesspeople, cases he developed for a new course on “Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship.” He has also been a visiting professor at the United States Military Academy. Rogers is currently an advisor to the Steans Family Foundation, leading their work on economic development via Black entrepreneurship in a poverty-stricken community in Chicago.
DON’T MISS: HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL CASE STUDY: WHY PROGRESS STALLED FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS or HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL DEAN ASKED AT A TOWN HALL ON RACE: ‘WHY ARE WE HAVING THE SAME CONVERSATION AGAIN?”