Moving Past the Moment

Can business school leaders bring about real and lasting change in response to the current state of civil unrest?

IS THIS A MOMENT or a movement? An acquaintance recently presented this question to me as we reflected on the current state of civil unrest occurring in the U.S. and around the world. The unrest stems from systemic racial inequality that has been made even more intolerable, yet too familiar, by the recent murders of Black Americans—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, to name a few.

Is this a moment or a movement? I have been pondering this question through my various identity lenses as a Black man, a father of three sons, an American, a military veteran, and a dean of a business school. Each lens brings into greater focus my perceived and lived reality.

I wonder how many of my white colleagues have to consider what they wear to academic conferences because donning a black or navy blue suit over a white shirt will likely elicit numerous questions such as, “Can you show me where to find the nearest restroom?” I wonder how many of them have found that, when they research the growth strategy of Black businesses, they have to respond to journal reviewers who ask, “Why highlight Black businesses when you don’t demonstrate their conditions are any different from white businesses?”

A prominent peer-reviewed journal recently recognized that 99 percent of its published cases included white protagonists, so it put out a call for submissions for a special issue highlighting Black protagonists. My co-author and I submitted what we believed to be a well-written case, only to have a reviewer ask why it was necessary to highlight the ethnicity of the Black business owner. Leaving aside the apparent call for the special issue, we believed the case had value because it showed how the company’s growth strategy was connected to 8(a) Small Business Administration certification, a well-known government-backed business development program in the U.S. that assists firms owned by socially disadvantaged individuals. My co-author and I subsequently withdrew our submission. My research example is indicative of a moment when a journal and its editor desired to make a statement and change the status quo, but didn’t address the deep-rooted system of racism or unconscious bias that exists in our world of publish or perish.

Unfortunately, people of color within the academy know that racism and unconscious bias are par for the course. So, when we witness the “enlightening” currently going on within business schools, many of us wonder if we are currently experiencing a moment or a movement. There is no shortage of business schools coming out with their “we stand against racism” or “we stand against social injustice” statements. Such statements usually say something like, “In response to a problem we didn’t know existed, we are going to start a process to be part of positive change because the problem is not in line with our values.” These words are appreciated as a statement for the moment, but they do little to provide the intentionality and investment needed for the substantive action required of a movement.

THE VESTIGES OF SYSTEMIC RACISM, RACIAL INEQUITIES, AND SOCIAL INJUSTICES RUN SO DEEP THAT RENAMING BUILDINGS AND SCHOOLS WILL DO LITTLE TO TURN A MOMENT INTO A MOVEMENT.

As I write this, university buildings and entire business schools are being renamed because they honor publicly known racists. The board of trustees at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, recently voted to remove the name of segregationist Harry F. Byrd Jr. from its School of Business. (See “An End to Cognitive Dissonance” by Shenandoah University’s Astrid Sheil.)

We have had a similar event at my very own Alabama A&M University, which is among the U.S. higher education institutions known as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The university voted to rename a significant building because it initially was named after a former governor of Alabama with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

These actions are meaningful for the moment. But the vestiges of systemic racism, racial inequities, and social injustices run so deep that renaming buildings and schools will do little to turn a moment into a movement.

TAKING ACTION

If making statements and changing names is not enough for business schools to be part of a movement, what is? Let me offer two straightforward but impactful suggestions for deans and administrators:

Develop an awareness of the racial representation of faculty and administrators. I strongly suggest that academics view the website photos of leadership teams from business schools that make public statements about standing against racism and social injustice. They also should examine representation at their own administrations to see if representation is lacking. If so, they should establish goals and hold their leadership teams accountable for racial diversity and representation. 

One way to achieve this goal is by supporting The PhD Project with an investment of time and money. The PhD Project was launched 25 years ago by KPMG’s Bernie Milano, who started a movement to advance workplace diversity by increasing the diversity of business school faculty and administrators. Since then, The PhD Project has helped quintuple the number of minority business professors in the U.S.

Still, just 4 percent of U.S. business school professors are underrepresented Black Americans, Latinx Americans, or Native Americans, even though these groups collectively make up more than 32 percent of the U.S. population. More than 1,500 U.S. colleges and universities award degrees in business, yet there are only about 1,500 minority business professors. That equates to, on average, one underrepresented faculty member per college. Within the ranks of business school administrators—such as department chairs, directors, and deans—minorities are equally underrepresented. It is time for all business schools to do the hard work and make the investment required to ensure their faculty and administrative ranks are more racially just.

Require students to explore how they can make a positive societal impact. As dean of a business school that also offers courses and degrees in sociology, political science, history, and criminal justice, I have a unique opportunity to see that our students are exposed to these topics. Most business schools aren’t as fortunate to have these social science disciplines within their colleges, but almost all business schools have these disciplines somewhere within their universities.

Three years ago, Alabama A&M started requiring all of our undergraduate business majors to take classes in one of these social science disciplines. It is motivating to see a finance major take criminal justice classes and explore ways to modify our current system, which incentivizes private institutions for mass incarceration of minorities. It is equally inspiring to see a management major who takes an African American history course, then decides she wants to start her career advancing the causes of the NAACP instead of accepting that job offer from a Fortune 100 company.

The time is now for business schools to show students how they can use their business knowledge to create a more just and equitable society. I was pleased to see that AACSB International has made social impact an integral part of the new 2020 business accreditation standards.

MOVING PAST THE MOMENT

Business schools cannot hope to create appositive societal impact simply by renaming buildings or making a marketing statement for the moment. But they have a unique opportunity to begin a movement. If they follow the brief suggestions offered here—if they examine racial representation on their campuses and require learners to explore making a positive societal impact—they can begin the difficult work that leads to substantive change in racial and social justice.

Is this a moment or a movement for business schools? Ultimately, only time will tell, depending on whether schools simply react—or whether they act.



RELATED READING

An End to Cognitive Dissonance

A Champion for Diversity

Creating an All-Inclusive Campus

Understanding Identity

 


Delmonize Smith is dean of the College of Business & Public Affairs at Alabama A&M University in Normal.


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