Business Schools Redouble Diversity Efforts after Black Lives Matter Protests

Many US business schools are enrolling record numbers of ethnic minority students

In May, the police killing of George Floyd sparked a tide of global Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against racial injustice. This has forced education institutions to not just reassess the effectiveness of their efforts to promote diversity and inclusion on campus, but whether they are having a positive impact on wider society.

“This is an area that has always been of real importance and focus, but without a doubt, the ongoing events really brought into sharp relief that there were significant ongoing issues. And some introspection followed,” says Bill Boulding, dean at Duke University Fuqua School of Business.

“Business schools can play a significant role in being a force multiplier,” adds the professor in North Carolina. “The business community has the ability to have so much impact by identifying the barriers to racial justice and opportunity, and bringing those barriers down.”

At the same time as this racial reckoning, the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately hit the ethnic minority community and exacerbated the gaps in financial security and healthcare access.

“We have to take this moment to double down on our efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion — precisely because it is those who are already in the margins who are most severely impacted,” says David Porter, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in California.

Business schools have a poor record on race, however. According to a recent GMAC study, since 2009, the percentage of GMAT exams taken by Black US citizens has stalled at eight percent. The lack of Black students in MBA programs is a factor contributing to low representation in corporate leadership, despite the fact that highly inclusive companies are proven to experience greater success.

Awareness and access

The under-representation of Black people, deans believe, is because of issues of awareness and access. There is a high financial barrier to an MBA, with schools at the top end of the market charging upwards of $200,000 — excluding the lost earnings from two years of full-time study. The broader impact of racism in society means Black communities have, on average, fewer resources than white households.

“In many of our families, we are the only breadwinner and we don’t have the safety net to take on more debt for an MBA,” says Shari Hubert, associate dean for admissions at Duke Fuqua, who is Black. “I’m the only one with an MBA in my family, but I do believe it’s one of the best investments Black people can make. If more Black people make it in business, there are more role models.”

The admissions process is problematic, however. MBA programs often rely on existing talent pipelines and a limited framing of what makes a successful candidate. This includes those who come from blue chip corporations (which often have their own diversity issues), those who have had the resources to prepare for standardized tests (which some experts argue are biased), and those who have networks of people who can recommend them to business schools.

Some MBA rankings compound this problem, because they value and measure statistics like GPAs, standardized test scores and earnings. “This is compounded by the inequities that exist in the educational system as a whole,” says Martin Davidson, global chief diversity officer at University of Virginia Darden School of Business. “We see consistently that resources tend to flow away from Black and Hispanic schools and communities. These inequities in education start early and persist.”

Some business schools recruiting more ethnic minority students

In the face of inequities in education, several business schools have raised the proportion of ethnic minority students enrolling this year to record highs. Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business enrolled the most diverse class in its history: 51 percent of US students identify as racial or ethnic minorities. At Berkeley Haas, US minorities reached a record 39 percent from 30 percent last year. At Duke Fuqua, the proportion of ethnic minority students leapt 40 percent this year to 38 percent of the class.

These gains can be attributed to a wide range of diversity and inclusion initiatives. Many business schools are working with nonprofit organizations that foster a more diverse pipeline of MBA candidates through outreach and financial aid, including the Consortium, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, Forte, Reaching Out MBA, and the Summer Institute for Emerging Managers and Leaders.

Others, such as Duke Fuqua, hold workshops for minority applicants to provide them with insight into the admissions process and target historically Black colleges and Spanish speaking institutions.

Scholarship budgets are also ballooning (they doubled at Berkeley Haas between 2018-19) and barriers to admission are coming down, with some schools including Darden waiving admissions testing requirements that some see as a barrier to Black students.

“You have to seed the pipeline with diverse candidates, but then minority students need to have a great experience at business school, and feel like they have a stake in the school’s success,” says Darden’s Davidson. “After they graduate, the best schools make sure those diverse alumni remain engaged, and help grow that powerful network.”

His school’s annual Diversity Conference connects alumni with students, creating opportunities for mentorship and networking. Held remotely this year, it was more accessible and has never been more popular. Faculty members also created a free online course on the Coursera platform titled Foundations of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Work to seed ideas for the business world.

There have also been new appointments and the creation of new leadership positions. At Haas, Porter is the school’s first chief diversity officer, and the school also hired a new director of diversity admissions, while staff, faculty and administrators are going through diversity and inclusion training. Hiring more diverse faculty will be a priority for many schools.

Addressing bias in the curriculum is also important, with case studies often dominated by while male protagonists. “In preparing the leaders of tomorrow, it is imperative that we give students the skills necessary to lead the diverse teams which will continue the lengthy process of eliminating the structural barriers that have long divided our country,” Porter says.  

To ensure further progress, many schools have established new diversity and inclusion working groups of students, faculty, staff and alumni to facilitate greater transparency, communication and accountability. These groups will provide fresh recommendations for affecting positive change in the months ahead.

To spark discussion about uncomfortable subjects like racism, the Robinson College developed a series of town halls to help faculty members engage with students about these issues. “Beyond the near future, universities need to use this pivotal moment as an opportunity to create lasting change across all aspects of the university — from values and curricula to students and faculty,” says the dean, Richard Phillips.

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