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An HBS Alum Assails The School’s Racial Equity Plan

A Harvard Business School classroom during more normal times

A Harvard Business School alum is comparing the school’s recently unveiled Action Plan for Racial Equity to a bad cold call in an MBA class.

Alterrell Mills, a Black American who graduated from Harvard with his MBA in 2016, is highly critical of his alma mater’s initiative to make progress at racial inequities on campus from the number of Black students and professors to the percentage of case studies with Black protagonists.

In an essay published in The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper, Mills calls the statement an “overly wordy plan” that “relies heavily on rhetorical devices and structure that skirt accountability, and fails to address past inconsistent efforts toward progress.”


Alterrell Mills graduated with his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2016

Alterrell Mills graduated with his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2016

Two months ago, Mills published a case study on Harvard’s lackluster efforts to erase underlying race issues on its campus (see Can This Case Study End Racism At Harvard Business School). The school’s “action plan” was issued after Dean Nitin Nohria made a rare public apology for failing to mount a more successful fight against racism and for not serving the school’s black community members better.

Critics have noted that 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 (see Harvard Business School Case Study: Why Progress Stalled For African-Americans).

Since the Harvard Business School’s founding in 1908, only four African-American professors have been awarded tenure by the school. Not one of the 14 new assistant and associate professors recruited to Harvard Business School in 2019 was Black. For many years, only two of the 300 case studies taught in the required MBA curriculum feature African-American protagonists. Though in 2019-2020, the school says it has kicked up the total to a dozen cases. And 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.


The school’s action plan, made public on Sept. 23, shied away from setting any concrete targets that could be used to measure progress on putting more Black protagonists in case studies, hiring and promoting more underrepresented minorities as faculty, or increasing the percentage of Black students in its MBA program.

Dean Nohria, however, did agree to the hiring of a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer and the formation of a DEI Board of Advisors made up of alumni and outside experts to guide and support the school’s efforts. Nohria, who will step down as dean at the end of this year, has committed $25 million to the school’s racial equality plan over the next ten years.

Mills, now a social entrepreneur who has worked in mission-driven organizations, including the Harlem Children’s Zone and Tesla, is not impressed. “Often such roles are short-term tactics that bolster positive public relations and experience high turnover,” he wrote of the decision to recruit a DEI officer. “Without linking equity goals to either financial performance or individual performance reviews, the efforts are doomed from the outset.”


He also points out that the $25 million commitment to support the Racial Equity Initiative “is over a 10-year period, amounting to $2.5 million annually. Compared to the nearly $300 million HBS generated in publishing revenue, this is under 1%.”

Mills tells Poets&Quants he is not the only alum who is unhappy with the plan. “A few folks have expressed disappointment with the plan, but most had already low expectations or didn’t read the plan in detail. My sense is many folks are not hopeful HBS will really ever change.”

In his essay, Mills recalls his days in Harvard classrooms during cold call discussion on case studies. “We have all witnessed, or had ourselves been subjected to, the dreaded cold call of a classmate that refused to acknowledge their lack of preparation, drawing out their monologue and digging a deeper hole with hubris-laden attempts to avoid admitting to not having read the case,” he wrote. 


“It is painful to watch. The classmate flipping through pages of the case, pointing to exhibits and hoping to repeat some of the talking points covered in their discussion group just prior to class. Harvard Business School’s Action Plan for Racial Equity conjured up familiar memories of watching bad cold calls.”

Mills, who had been co-president of the African-American Student Union (AASU) while at Harvard, criticized the vagueness of the plan. “HBS’ opaque plan, which is at times redundant, provides some glimpses of an organizational and leadership culture that has stalled progress for Black admittances, tenured faculty and case protagonists within the required first-year curriculum,” he wrote.

For HBS to move forward, adds Mills, the school needs to model sincerity. “Instead of perpetuating the equity gap as a ‘pipeline problem,’ it ought to acknowledge structurally embedded bias,” he wrote. “The system that brought fewer than 40 Black faculty members to HBS over six decades cannot be a system anyone should aim to replicate. Attracting more candidates to a broken system is similar to scaling a product with poor unit economics. It is hubris that points leaders to strategies that overweight acquisition relative to retention or continuous process improvement. This is the same ego-centrism that compels the cold-called classmate to dig deeper into their ignorance, toward the hope they will eventually be off the hook of accountability.”


About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.