Wooten: How are we doing, or perhaps, what’s stopping us from doing better? What are the major structural or cultural challenges that business education faces in becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive?
What are the fundamental challenges we face? I might piggyback on a previous question about how we’re doing. I think there are ways in which we’re doing great — maybe great is too strong, we’re not doing badly. There are ways, though, in which I would think we can be better. And I don’t want to compare us necessarily to industry, but to the values we proclaim of institutions of higher learning. For example, I think we can do better, collectively, in talking about the issue of diversity, inclusion, race, anti-racism, etc. in our curriculum, so that it is interwoven through what we teach. It is not a stand-alone, separate thing, but it is evident in everything we do. A structural impediment to doing that is that there are fields represented in schools and business that don’t naturally include diversity talk. It is harder to introduce a topic about race and representation in a class on accounting, say, than it would be if I were talking about a course on real estate law.
And so our hands are tied in a way, by virtue of the subject matter we discuss. We have to be thoughtful and imaginative and energetic and creative to address that structural problem, it seems to me.
My views about the need to diversify the way we should address anti-racism and the like are very well known by students, and now and then my colleagues and faculty. But I want students in the classroom to come into collision with ideas different from the ideas they have. I talked to our students recently, and they were surprised to learn that there are faculty members at great universities who are nervous about diversity initiatives or pushes. I disagree with those faculty members. The point is that a university, unlike business, unlike other things — we traffic in ideas. 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. I don’t know if I answered the question exactly but it’s a genuine feeling.
We are, after all, talking about a long history of injustice in equity, and we’re talking about system change. And so there’s both structure and cultural elements of that system change and we can look at a number of dimensions. Rankings drive behavior for a lot of business schools; looking industry-wide and to date, our rankings of favorite things like selectivity, test scores, GPA is over diversity, or over inclusion or equity in terms of the lived experience of students, for example. We also have university policies and, in some cases, public institutions such as ours have policies and structural practices that put other factors ahead of diversity — and in some cases actually undermine our attempts to enhance diversity, or create a climate in a lived experience that is more equitable and inclusive on campus. And so from a structural perspective, I think there’s a range of dimensions; from a cultural perspective, the word that comes to mind for me is entrenchment in some of these elements at business schools: hiring faculty from the same places they’ve always hired faculty, for example, and those places not becoming more diverse over time. And in terms of what we teach and how we teach, and the intersection of business school curriculum with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We are culturally more divided than we have been in a long time. And people seem to think that if one person gains somehow it’s a loss for them — and to me that zero-sum mindset holds us back from making real sustained progress. From a cultural perspective, there’s a significant amount of change that needs to happen, and we as business school deans have an opportunity — but also a responsibility — to use our platform to lead, and serve as a role model for that change.
I want to link it back to the prior question about business schools in relation to industry. I think it’s really important to keep in mind that as educational institutions, we are just fundamentally different than industry, and part of that is that education itself is fundamentally about encountering difference: different people, different cultures, different ideas. And it’s important to keep in mind that that is at the core of our mission, exposing people to that difference — that’s what enables us to deliver on what we’re trying to accomplish. And if you come at it from that lens, there are areas where I think we are doing better than we have historically. Certainly student representation. Faculty representation moves much more slowly, staff representation, and so forth.
I think the areas that are the most difficult have to do with creating an environment on our campuses that enables us to benefit from the changes in the composition of our students and faculty that puts people, as Kerwin said, in collision with one another in productive ways, and that draws out people’s different viewpoints, different backgrounds, and different perspectives or ideologies. And that’s just a very difficult thing to do, actually, and it’s particularly hard when there is such division in the country — that’s when it’s most important, and most difficult, to have a respectful disagreement and engagement. I think it’s incredibly important that we commit ourselves to that and try to do everything we can to make our campuses places where anyone can come and just feel, “This is my place. I can speak up. I can share my view. I’m going to be listened to. I’m going to be heard. And people are going to learn from me and I’m going to do the same. In response, I’m going to do everything I can to listen to the people around me and try to learn.” And, you know, I think we have to commit ourselves to that.
And, you know, if we had to give us a grade: We’re an incomplete. Just like the country is on these issues.
NICOLE THORNE JENKINS
As I said before, some of the major challenges that we have are the rules that govern our institutions, particularly those of us that are at public institutions — what we can and cannot do. I agree with the response in terms of inertia. But the opportunity and I think the responsibility that we have as business school leaders is, to look at some of the mitigating factors that we have that students have to go through to gain admission.
So the conversation that we’ve been having at the Commerce School here at UVA is around what in our pre-comm major is necessary to be a successful business major, and what is just a nice-to-have or something that helps us have a smaller pool of students to select from? So I’ll give you one example: calculus. I was an accounting and finance major in undergrad, and I’ve talked to our faculty around, “Do we really need calculus, or are only some aspects helpful to finance and accounting majors? And if we know that students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have had calculus in high school, are we then creating a perfect storm where students from specific backgrounds are going to be less able to gain admission to the School of Commerce?” And I think those are necessary conversations for us to have, because those are things that are exactly 100% in our control. I think that’s important for us to think about and have conversations around.
Additionally, we have challenges with rankings, and this external pressure that we have to maintain these historical high-quality perceptions — at some point we have to have conversations around what we are willing to give up to achieve what we know to be the right thing, not just for historically marginalized students, but for all the students that we teach. We’re in the transition where more than half of students and half of people in the United States under the age of 18 are people of color. And there’s a transition that is occurring. And we as business schools must do a better job of preparing our students for the world in which they’re going to be transitioning. They’re going to experience this transition over the course of their working lives. We’re going to be the institution that’s responsible for that failing. So we have to make these changes. It’s going to be for the betterment of our students.