When you get the deans from seven elite U.S. business schools on a Zoom call to talk about one of the most pressing social issues of our time, the result is a great deal of insight informed by a wealth of experience — and plenty of words of warning mixed with calls for action. Such a frank discussion occurred when the University of Michigan Ross School of Business hosted a panel of deans Tuesday (October 13) to discuss race in business education, the first installment in the school’s Business & Society Series that this year will be dedicated entirely to questions about race and racial justice.
Ross Dean Scott DeRue was joined by Jonathan Levin, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business; William Boulding, dean of Duke University Fuqua School of Business; Kerwin Charles, dean of Yale School of Management; Francesca Cornelli, dean of Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management; Nicole Thorne Jenkins, dean of the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce; and Raghu Sundaram, dean of NYU Stern School of Business. The panel was moderated by David Wooten, diversity and social transformation professor at Michigan Ross.
The deans’ panel was asked to address the challenges and opportunities they see in preparing graduates to be inclusive leaders of a racially diverse workforce. The overarching question that the deans were asked to confront: What have schools achieved in tackling race issues in business education, and what — or how — can they do better?
A DIFFICULT YEAR, AND UNFINISHED WORK
“This has been in many ways an incredibly difficult year — maybe unprecedented difficulty in all of our lifetimes,” Stanford Dean Levin says. “But it has had some silver linings. And one of them is that it’s forced all of us to go through a process of incredible innovation in just about everything we do, and this event is an example of that. And another is that it has focused all of our attention on the issues of race in an incredibly productive way — and in a way that has a lot of potential to help the whole country.”
Though not overly self-critical, the deans did not offer rosy assessments of the job B-schools are doing in addressing racial justice issues.
“A university, unlike business, unlike other things — we traffic in ideas,” Dean Charles of Yale SOM says. “And I would want us collectively to be a place where, during their two years, students feel comfortable in spaces created for that kind of open, vigorous, and free conversation. I candidly feel that we are doing less well at that. And we should be very attentive to that.”
Comparing business education to the business world, Dean Jenkins of Virginia McIntire adds: “I think we’re lagging. And I think we’re lagging substantially in part because there’s a huge difference between what we as universities aspire to what we say we are, and the actual lived experiences of historically marginalized people.
“And when you go into a corporation or some other organization post-university, you’re actually in a more homogeneous set of people, even though there may not be tremendous racial diversity. You are more similar in terms of social economics.”
Following is a transcript of the deans panel, edited for length and clarity, and grouped according to David Wooten’s questions.
RACE & BUSINESS EDUCATION DEANS PANEL
Wooten: How have perspectives on race changed in business education over the course of your academic career, and what are some of the factors that contribute to these changes?
JONATHAN LEVIN, STANFORD GSB
Let me step back and say something a little bit broader, which is that over the last decade, or increasing the last few years, there has just been a profound shift of awareness in this country around patterns of inequality and equal opportunity and the importance of diversity in all organizations, and that has led to very important changes in business schools and in business education that are still ongoing.
And I think, you know, all of us as deans have the opportunity to stand up in front of our current students and look at them and look at who is in business school today. And I know that for me, the picture that immediately comes to mind is to compare what those faces look like to the Fortune 500 CEOs or the leading investors in this country, the top venture capitalists or entrepreneurs or board members — and it’s just very different. And the only thing you can think when you look at today’s students is, If we do our jobs right, this is education. The most important thing we will achieve over the next 20 years or 30 years, is to change the face of leadership in this country and probably around the world.
That was part of the vision that drove us to start a concerted effort around diversity, equity, and inclusion three years ago and to appoint a senior associate dean to oversee it. And then this year with the heightened and appropriate focus on racial injustice in this country, to turn our full attention to that, start a lot of discussions and look at an action plan for racial equity that we are working really hard to execute on with, you know, incredible energy and enthusiasm. And I’m looking forward to hearing about all the things that are going on at my pure schools today.
WILLIAM BOULDING, DUKE FUQUA
I’m going to give kind of a nuts-and-bolts answer to this question because I’ve been around for many years in the business school industry and I’ve seen things evolve quite a bit. The first thing is that we started by asking questions: How can we improve as an individual school, how can we get better at what we do? And so this had a number of different phases. First was representativeness: How do we actually get students in our programs that better reflect the population the business community serves, and serves the business community in terms of their desire to populate their ranks with more diverse talent?
Then we we looked around and we saw, we’re creating more diverse student communities, but our faculty communities are not very diverse, and so we began to focus on: How can we better make our faculty reflect the student population that we serve?
From the representativeness dimension, we started to look at inclusiveness, not just counting numbers and getting people in the game, but making sure that people felt like they were on the team, and so I think a number of schools started to work on those dimensions that are very important to the community. And concurrent with all of this was something fundamentally important which was serious scholarship in the area of diversity and inclusion that helped us understand and identify the value. And so this serious scholarship then led to a second phase, which is more current: that this kind of content populates our curriculum.
It has really flipped from the question of How do we work on this problem, and how do we improve? to, How do we own the problem? How do we take responsibility to become a force multiplier and tackle these issues of systemic racism? — and to foreshadow a question that you’re going to ask: to actually flip from lagging the industry in terms of our performance in this area to leading the industry and helping them find the way forward to really deal with these very problematic issues.
The last point I’ll make, which is really embodied with what we’re doing today, is that instead of focusing again on our own programs, we’re now once again thinking about how to cooperate across the business school industry. And today’s event is a wonderful example of that. The business school industry, normally the deans in this call are competing with each other unbelievably fiercely — but now we recognize here’s an opportunity, for the third time in my career, to come together to tackle a problem together. The first time was around gender equity. The second time was around immigration reform. And now this time around, racial equity and justice.