2021 was quite a year for controversy. A fake data scandal ensnared two professors at Harvard Business School; an MBA who made national news for a racist performance in Central Park returned to the headlines, suing her former employer over her firing; three B-school professors were suspended in Alabama over racist photos; and a man sued Columbia Business School over an MBA he says he earned in the 1970s but never received.
All fascinating stories of misbehavior, error, and mendacity. Yet none made our final list of the top scandals of 2021.
That’s because Poets&Quants‘ annual list contains the biggest eyebrow-raisers in the world of graduate business education — a miniature ranking of the most memorable instances of shameful behavior and the kind of missteps that make headline writers gleeful. See the biggest scandals of 2019 here and 2020 here — and read on for our selections of 2021’s biggest controversies.
UCLA professor Gordon Klein was suspended in summer 2020 over what the Anderson School of Management determined was a racially insensitive email exchange in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minnesota. The long-time accounting professor says his suspension was a stunt that cost him most of his income from consulting. In October 2021, he sued the school.
Klein, who has been with the Anderson School since 1981, stoked student resentment by grilling a student who had inquired about final exams, asking Klein to “give Black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota.” In response, Klein posed several questions that came across as insensitive, such as whether the same accommodations should be given to students “that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian.”
His response went viral and quickly drew student ire. A Change.org petition calling for his firing generated tens of thousands of signatures, and Klein received death threats and required police protection for a time.
Suing for actual damages to his reputation and income, Klein accuses Dean Antonio Bernardo and the university of “fraud, oppression, and/or malice” for having engaged in what he terms “unlawful conduct.” He is also asking for punitive damages “for the sake of example and by way of punishing defendants for their unlawful conduct in an amount to be proven at trial.”
Eric Sweeney and Teja Nelluri graduated in May 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, 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.”
Donald Trump was bad for the business of business schools — but on the way out the door in January 2021, he was very good for some high-profile products of graduate business education.
In a flurry of last-minute acts, the former president granted a highly publicized pardon to Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, who graduated from Harvard Business School with honors in 1983. Bannon has been charged by federal prosecutors with defrauding donors of more than $1 million in a scheme purportedly aimed at supporting Trump’s wall on the Mexican border.
Trump also gave a pardon Bob Zangrillo, a Miami-based developer and venture capitalist, who earned his MBA from Stanford in 1994. He was charged in the college admissions scandal for allegedly conspiring to bribe athletics officials at the University of Southern California to fraudulently designate his daughter as an athletic recruit. He also paid someone to take classes on his daughter’s behalf. The bogus grades were submitted as part of her college application. No other parents caught in what the Justice Department called Operation Varsity Blues received pardons, including two other Harvard MBA grads and one other Stanford MBA.