In Scathing Letter, Newly Graduated MBAs Criticize Notre Dame’s ‘Systemic LGBTQ Discrimination’

The University of Notre Dame’s Golden Dome on a beautiful fall Game Day before a football game. Eric Sweeney photo illustration

Eric Sweeney and Teja Nelluri graduated this weekend from Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, in a commencement ceremony held in person with the rest of the Class of 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Two days later, on Monday (May 24), the former co-leaders of Mendoza’s LGBTQ+ club published a scathing letter detailing pervasive discrimination at the school ranked 27th in the United States by Poets&Quants and 36th by U.S. News — and urging LGBTQ+ candidates for graduate business education to apply elsewhere.

Posting on LinkedIn, Sweeney and Nelluri describe an MBA journey fraught with prejudice and lack of support from school administrators, saying Notre Dame failed to live up to the promise contained in its “Spirit of Inclusion” that “We value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members of this community.” “We have experienced systemic discrimination from University of Notre Dame administration,” the two MBAs write, “and would advise prospective MBA candidates to look elsewhere for their business school experience.

“It is clear there is a problematic environment for LGBTQ+ students on campus. We want to ensure prospective LGBTQ+ students are able to make a fully informed decision about enrollment at Mendoza. Based on our experiences, we must advise LGBTQ+ prospective students to choose an alternate business school as it is our opinion the University of Notre Dame and the Mendoza College of Business are not safe places for LGBTQ+ students.”

In response, a top school official concedes that Notre Dame has “more work to do,” but insists that “We do not discriminate against any applicant on any basis — including sexual orientation.”

‘A PUNCH IN THE GUT’

Notre Dame’s Mike Mannor: School needs to “be vigilant in reinforcing our commitment” to LGBTQ students “until every student feels that they can thrive here.”

Nelluri, a 2021 graduate of Notre Dame’s MBA/MSBA dual-degree program, is an international student from India “who prides himself on being an agile process improver and who is guided by a deep sense of right and wrong,” according to the biographical information provided to P&Q by the two MBAs. He will go to work in supply chain management. Sweeney, “a creative problem solver with a drive for success, penchant for communication, and desire for inclusivity,” has been hired as a consultant at a Big 4 firm.

In their LinkedIn column, the outgoing leaders of the Notre Dame Mendoza LGBTQ and Allies Club say their aim is “to share our reflection and advise potential LGBT+ MBA candidates to choose an alternate program to Mendoza,” and they describe “discrimination based on sexual orientation from the highest levels of the University.” They point to two events: the school’s denial of a requested name change for the club, and Notre Dame’s revocation of a short-lived partnership with Reaching Out MBA, a leading nonprofit group for LGBTQ+ MBAs and MBA students, to offer a campus fellowship. The latter was an example of the “most egregious discrimination,” Sweeney and Nelluri write, describing an initial agreement in 2020 comparable to what Notre Dame does for women MBA students through the Forte Foundation.

“As women are a grossly underrepresented population in MBA programs, the Forte Fellowship encourages female admissions,” they write. “Notre Dame’s MBA classes are generally dominated by white men, with only about 30% of the class identifying as female. For the MBA class of 2022, the Mendoza website boasted that all female MBA candidates received a Forte Fellowship.” In a similar vein, Mendoza’s admissions team “was able to quickly establish a partnership in time for the 2020 ROMBA Conference. It was with great pride that we saw our school’s logo in the conference book along with other top MBA programs.”

That pride was short-lived, however.

Notre Dame terminated the partnership with ROMBA and a ROMBA Fellowship was never offered to a student,” Sweeney and Nelluri write. “According to an email we received from the Associate Dean of the MBA program, the university concluded: ‘As a Catholic university, our business school aspires to be both distinctively and authentically Catholic in our mission, while also working hard to foster inclusive excellence throughout our community. Given our Catholic mission, we are unable to provide fellowships that specifically provide privileged access to our MBA program to LGBTQ candidates.’

“To say this decision was a punch in the gut is an understatement. This decision laid bare the disparity between LGBTQ+ students and all other students. We are not valued as other members of the community as the spirit of inclusion states.

“Officials at the highest levels of the University participated in making this decision including the Dean of Mendoza College of Business and the Vice President for Mission Engagement and Church Affairs, Fr. Gerard Olinger, as the decision is based heavily on Catholic Social Teaching.”

‘WE DO NOT DISCRIMINATE’

According to Reaching Out’s own 2016 data, as many as 7% of MBAs at major programs are out/self-identifying — a number that has certainly have grown in the last five years. As of last year there were more than 250 Reaching Out Fellows from 60 business schools, and more than 1,700 students and alumni on Reaching Out Connect, the group’s alumni platform.

Sweeney and Nelluri cite a 2020 survey conducted by Notre Dame in which 285 students — about 45% of total LGBQ respondents — reported having personally experienced adverse treatment because of their sexual orientation — and they add that of these 285, “93% did not report the incident to the University. Over half of these students said they ‘did not think the University would have taken action.'”

“Of the 5,295 survey respondents,” Sweeney and Nelluri write, “about 55% reported having heard disparaging remarks based on a person’s sexual orientation.” The school itself, they add, has been guilty of discrimination “at the highest levels.”

In response to Poets&Quants‘ request for comment, Mike Mannor, associate dean of the Notre Dame MBA program, said the school is committed to supporting its LGBTQ+ students and

“In regard to the Notre Dame MBA program specifically, we will reflect carefully on the concerns raised by Eric and Teja, and work to take additional steps to create an environment where every LGBTQ+ student feels welcome and valued,” Mannor writes. “We do not discriminate against any applicant on any basis — including sexual orientation — when making admissions and fellowship decisions. We do financially support our MBA students in attending the Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA) conference, provide administrative support to our LGBTQ+ student club, and vigorously work to root out discrimination in our classrooms and community. Nonetheless, we need to be vigilant in reinforcing our commitment until every student feels that they can thrive here.”

MULTI-PRONGED DEI EFFORT DETAILED

Sweeney and Nelluri quote a January 2021 email from Dean Martijn Cremers, saying his promise that “a key priority for us is to advance diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of the Mendoza” has not been fulfilled. But Mannor says the school under Cremers has organized several college and MBA program DE&I task forces “that are actively working to create a more inclusive culture for all students, faculty and staff.” He points to the appointment of “senior college leaders to serve as diversity catalysts to spur these internal efforts,” and adds that in the MBA program, “we have also made changes in admissions to prioritize recruiting diverse cohorts, are nearing completion of an updated statement of values with our students, and are making progress toward our first MBA DE&I transparency report.”

“As Mendoza Dean Martijn Cremers has emphasized on multiple occasions, diversity, equity and inclusion are foundational to our imperative to Grow the Good in Business: to educate business leaders who focus on contributing to everyone in society, to cooperating in solidarity and to creating a culture where we succeed and grow together,” Mannor writes. “Our community believes deeply in the dignity of every person and strives every day to make such dignity come to life through our work.

“Although cultural change is complex and can take longer than any of us would like, the inclusion of diverse voices and perspectives is an integral part of the process. I greatly appreciate the honesty of Teja and Eric in voicing their experiences and concerns in this vital matter and hope that LBGTQ+ students will contribute their insights in a like manner to the Notre Dame MBA program in the future.”

See Eric Sweeney and Teja Nelluri’s letter to LGBTQ+ MBA candidates on the next page, as well as the Mendoza College response. 

AND DON’T MISS ANNUAL LGBTQ MBA CONFERENCE GOES VIRTUAL and AN ACTIVE SUMMER SIGNALS A BIG 2019 FOR LGBTQ MBAs

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