MBA Programs Say They Want More Diversity. So Where Is It?

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Feeling that London Business School wasn’t supporting Black students, Tabria Lenard and Cole Agbede did what any MBA candidates would do about a problem: They presented Dean François Ortalo-Magné with a deck of slides to make their point. One said that LBS had no Black faculty members.

Ortalo-Magné corrected them: There was one.

“He acknowledged he didn’t know if it was worse to not have any or to just have one,” says Lenard, 27, who choseLBS over schools in her native U.S. “The numbers are scary. They’re scary for London and scary for 2020.” Lenard and Agbede, 29, set up LBS’s first Black in Business group. LBS wouldn’t comment on the dean’s meeting with the students.

More than one in eight Americans are Black, according to U.S. Census data, a multiple of the 3.3% in England and Wales. The rest of Europe is harder to quantify, as many countries don’t collect such data. Neither do business school trade associations. Still, a Bloomberg Markets magazine analysis found that Black men and women are badly underrepresented in the financial services industry—and in the graduate programs that supply its talent.

Now, since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody sparked mass protests worldwide, that’s no longer acceptable. “Business schools and universities have had a rocket up them after the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Sally Everett, vice dean of education atKing’s Business School in London and a member of the equality, diversity, and inclusion committee of the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS).

Changes are coming in various forms, and are far from uniform. Some schools are focusing on increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in their classes and faculty. Others are addressing the heart of the B-school curriculum itself: case studies.

Making those case studies more equitable and highlighting protagonists from a range of backgrounds is one part of decolonizing the curriculum. It’s also part of a wider movement across U.K. universities to remove statues and links to wealthy patrons who built their fortunes fromBritain’s role in the slave trade or byexploiting colonized lands.

Some MBA programs have already vastly improved representation among ethnic minorities. TheRoss School of Business at the University of Michigan is reporting “all-time high” numbers of underrepresented minorities taking its programs, says Dean Scott DeRue. Ross is part of the Consortium, a group oftop 20 U.S. business schools from Yale to UCLA aiming to improve diversity.

Two-thirds of DeRue’s 15 direct reports at Ross are female or members of ethnic minorities. In October, the school appointed its first associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as a chief diversity officer. The school also recently launched a nationwide competition to improve diversity in case studies.

Clearly, much work remains. CABS recently surveyed members about attempts to diversify their curricula. A mere 3% said they had completed their efforts, while more than half said they weren’t actively working to transform their teaching ranks.

This has become a global issue. “Some of these cases are antiquated, because there’s not enough of them to talk about this new demographic environment, or the challenges of leading a multigeneration, multi-ethic, multi-gender workforce,” says Sean Ferguson, a Black associate dean and professor at theAsia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur who is trying to improve representation there.

Meanwhile, the publishing industry must catch up to supply broader course materials now so much in demand.Harvard Business School, which supplies almost 80% of the case studies in the world market through its offshoot, Harvard Business Publishing, has been racing to diversify the protagonists in its offerings since U.S. customer surveys after Floyd’s death in May revealed racial diversity as the top focus. “We understand what we do has an impact on the rest of the educational community,” says Jan Rivkin, co-chair of the anti-racism task force HBS set up on July 1. Scores of studies with non-White protagonists are in development, Rivkin says. “We want students from underrepresented groups to see themselves in the cases.”

Rivkin says areas of HBS’s racial equity plan are moving at different speeds. Fellowships for students who work on behalf of marginalized communities are available to current applicants, though the work on preparing case studies will take longer. “We’ve started things, but seeing the fruits of our effort will be a much longer-term thing.”

The challenge of outmoded case studies is something Geethu Mattam, 26, sees in her studies atHEC Paris. Mattam is one of the 93% of students at HEC who hail from outside France. She was raised in Kuwait and worked at Goldman Sachs in Bangalore, India, before opting to get an MBA. She dropped opportunities to attend U.S. business schools, in part because she perceived a hostile environment fostered by President Donald Trump. She also enjoys being part of a diverse student body. “A lot of the learning in your MBA comes from the experiential aspect,” she says. “Having a super diverse cohort—not just in terms of nationalities but also in terms of backgrounds—is amazing, and has been a huge, enriching experience.”

Still, Mattam wishes that what she is studying were a better match for those who are studying it. Blind spots include Southeast Asia and Latin America—areas generally mentioned only with reference to global companies with operations in these areas. “That’s something that’s lacking, but I’m not sure how much the school would be able to change quickly,” she says.

Some schools have seized the moment to make significant change. In the U.S., theOwen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University created a business class on how to address structural racism over the summer, including case studies on theclash involving Nike, dissenting athlete Colin Kaepernick, and the NFL. “Student response was amazing. I had a waiting list and ultimately, 38 students took the class,” says Mark Cohen, the class’s creator. Student evaluations called it the most important class they had taken. “Some even thought it should be required of all students.”

Who is teaching also matters. Ferguson is struggling to staff the Asia School of Business with faculty members who look like and share the experiences of the students, who are mostly from Southeast Asia. Of 22 ASB faculty members, only two have Malaysian heritage, compared with about 30% of the students.

“Higher education has gotten very global,” Ferguson says. “Everybody is searching for the best faculty.” It’s an issue he encountered at his previous post atHKUST Business School in Hong Kong, where teachers tended to have come from mainland China. “There’s a billion people from mainland China,” he explains. “The best of the best from there can overwhelm a place of 7 million people.” This also happens in the U.S., where a tendency to cherry-pick professors from abroad leaves some schools with few American faculty members. “That will be a very long-term effort,” says HBS’s Rivkin.

Lenard and Agbede set up their club at LBS to expedite progress. “There’s education and awareness, but what’s the action plan?” asks Lenard. “What are we doing to change the narrative, and what are we doing to change the conversation? We couldn’t be silent anymore, and we needed to measure and quantify some of these experiences to do something about it, because that’s the next step.”

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