A Champion for Diversity

For the last 25 years, Bernie Milano, president of the PhD Project, has promoted diversity in business education, one minority doctoral student at a time. Upon his retirement at the end of 2019, he reflects back at what he's accomplished—and what still needs to be done.

Bernie Milano

Bernie Milano speaks with two alumni of The PhD Project at the organization’s 25th anniversary gala in November. (Photo Courtesy of the PhD Project.)


IN NOVEMBER 2019, The PhD Project celebrated its 25th anniversary, and since its founding, it has known only one president: Bernie Milano. Milano started his career in the auditing division of KPMG. In 1994, he became president of the KPMG Foundation, whose initiatives focus on diversifying the pipeline of talent opting to pursue careers in business.

Soon after, the foundation supported the launch a special organization, also led by Milano, whose mission would be to encourage minorities to enter business doctoral programs and move on into faculty positions. To date, The PhD Project’s efforts have helped increase the number of minorities with doctoral degrees in business from just 294 to 1,517. Of this group, 1,327 now hold faculty positions at U.S. business schools. An additional 277 minority students are currently enrolled in doctoral programs, practically all of whom will join the next generation of business educators.

Milano is quick to point out that while this progress is laudable, it’s also relatively modest. In 25 years, the representation of minority faculty in business schools has gone from less than 1 percent to more than 4 percent. As he notes in a November 13, 2019, post on LinkedIn, “We can declare success. But more needs to be done before we can claim victory.”

In the same post, Milano notes that “the systemic model we envisioned [for The PhD Project] was unique, creative, and high risk—because there was no evidence to support our belief that there existed a significant pool of people who wanted to become business professors. There was no evidence that we would succeed.” Their choice, he continues, was to “either accept the status quo, or … take a risky step. We chose the latter.”

In May 2019, the National HBCU Business Deans Roundtable honored Milano for his contributions to diversity and inclusion in business education with its inaugural Bernard J. Milano Excellence Award. “Bernie’s leadership has had the most observable and pronounced effect on business education in my lifetime,” noted Joe Ricks Jr., chair of the division of business and J.P. Morgan Chase Professor of Sales and Marketing at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. “It has been amazing to see what his support for the roundtable and his leadership of The PhD Project has done firsthand.”

In January, Milano will turn over the leadership of The PhD Project to his successor, Blane Ruschak, KPMG’s executive director for campus recruiting and university relations. On the eve of his retirement, BizEd spoke to Milano about his role in promoting greater diversity in business schools. He is proudest, he says, of the growing number of minority faculty now in classrooms inspiring the next generation. He is also grateful for the staff, schools, and organizations that have supported The PhD Project over the years—and he hopes they will continue that support long after his tenure with the organization has ended.

What led you to move from working in KPMG’s audit division to leading its foundation—and eventually The PhD Project?

I started with KPMG in 1961 as a CPA. By accident, I got involved in college recruiting and fell in love with it. Over a number of years, my work morphed from a balance between working with clients and recruiting to all recruiting. I became the firm’s first partner in charge of national recruiting in 1975. My role in recruiting was very attached to the foundation’s activities and the desire to find a solution to achieve workplace diversity.

In the early 1990s, I began to look at our inability to recruit students of color. I talked to members of the foundation board, and I told them that this issue was more important than anything else we had attempted to tackle. Those conversations led to The PhD Project. It started with a small meeting in St. Louis that brought together about a dozen people who had tried to do something comparable in the past. KPMG provided US$5,000 and Citibank provided $5,000. AACSB International and the Graduate Management Admission Council joined. Those were our four founding organizations.

In time, we recognized that The PhD Project was going to have a very long life and, as a program within another organization, it would be difficult to attract other funding organizations. So, in 2005 we made The PhD Project a separate 501(3) public charity with its own board of directors.

Has KPMG seen these efforts translate into a more diverse talent pool, particularly among business school graduates?

I can’t say that they have. Even today, there’s a lack of critical mass. We’re still seeing schools that might have ten sections of an accounting course, but only one is taught by a minority professor. What we have to keep sight of is, all the data say that hiring more minority faculty acts like a magnet for minority students. They want to see themselves in the front of the classroom.

But there’s another impact of hiring more minority faculty that’s almost impossible to measure—its impact on majority students. The K-12 system we have in the U.S. is highly segregated by ZIP code, so it’s not uncommon for majority students to go through their entire elementary and high school experience without ever seeing a teacher of color or having students of color in their classrooms. And then they get to college and have the same experience. The first time they work with and report to people who are different from them is when they start their jobs.

That’s why companies are spending a gazillion dollars on diversity training and diversity awareness. Majority students have come up through a monocultural preparation pretty much from birth to the time they graduate from college, and we end up hiring them. I think the impact of exposing majority students to minority faculty is just as important as bringing in more students of color studying business.

It's not uncommon for majority students to go through their entire elementary and high school experience without ever seeing a teacher of color or having students of color in their classrooms.

In 1994, there were only 294 minority business faculty in the U.S. Did The PhD Project draw on those faculty to become role models outside their schools?

Oh, absolutely. I often tell people: I don’t have a PhD. I’ve never been a faculty member. I’ve never been black, Hispanic, or Native American. So, who am I to be able to figure all of this out? But right from the beginning, we had many faculty and deans who couldn’t wait to help us design and develop this program. They had gone through their own experiences the hard way, not knowing, for instance, if there was another black doctoral student in marketing in the whole country. They had been in doctoral programs where there were no blacks or Hispanics on the faculty. They really were the pioneers, the trailblazers. And when they heard this idea was being developed, they climbed all over us to ask, “How can we help?”

At our first conference, all of the presenters in our panel discussions were people who had received doctorates and who were now faculty. I can tell you those folks appreciate the power of The PhD Project far more than the people currently going through their programs. Our current group can say, “This is nice—we get together every summer, and we have this conference, this listserv, this Facebook page, and these alumni networks. We’re told what universities have openings when we’re about to go on the market.” The people who came before them had absolutely none of that. And many of them, 25 years later, are still engaged with us and still support us.

What kinds of stories did these early faculty have to tell?

They’re all individuals with individual stories. But I’d like to mention one woman who actually inspired us to revamp our thinking and set up five doctoral student associations, or DSAs. Carolyn Callahan is now the Brown-Forman Professor of Accountancy at the University of Louisville, and she formerly served as its associate provost and dean of its College of Business. Carolyn came to our conference in March 1994, before we were even able to formulate what The PhD Project would look like. She sat right in front and told us that when she was in the doctoral program at Michigan State, there wasn’t another black student in the program and only one black person on the faculty—Matthew Anderson, who’s still there. Once she joined the program, she said that things would happen to her, and she couldn’t tell whether they happened to all doctoral students, or whether she was receiving that treatment because she was a black married woman with three children. At the time, I thought, “We can’t let that happen.”

That you couldn’t let these doctoral students feel marginalized?

Yes, I just thought that was a recipe for disaster. It was a recipe for having them say, “Thanks, but I’m out of here.” I knew that we couldn’t run a program that encourages people to leave their careers, sell their homes, make their kids change schools, make their spouses change careers, and disrupt their entire lives, only for them to have to walk into an environment where failure is a more probable outcome than success.

So, we decided to try to find every minority doctoral student in business in the country, so that we could bring them together in their own doctoral student association. The first year was mainly funded by KPMG, so we started by forming a DSA in accounting. Next, we started a DSA in information systems. I tried to approach other companies to support associations in other disciplines, such as marketing, but came up completely dry. So, I went back to the foundation board and said, “We’re in this for a dime, might as well be in for a dollar.” The board increased the funding to start DSAs in three other disciplines: finance and economics, management, and marketing.

By 1997, we had networked more than 90 percent of the minority doctoral students in the country by discipline. We started bringing them together for conferences before annual meetings in their disciplines—so the DSA in marketing meets just before the annual meeting of the American Marketing Association. This allows us to bring in top presenters, who are already there. More important, it allows us to bring in doctoral students who might otherwise not be able to attend professional meetings.

Had it not been for Carolyn having the courage to be vulnerable and talk about her experience, I’m not sure how long it would have taken us to figure out how much we needed to create doctoral student associations.

Have the KPMG Foundation and The PhD Project focused at all on increasing the number of minority business faculty outside the U.S.?

Certainly. About 12 years ago, a contingent of educators came to our offices from South Africa. The problem they were facing was that post-apartheid, more blacks were going to college but all the faculty at South African universities were white. After that visit, they launched The PhD Project in South Africa, using our materials and website. More recently, professors from Australia and New Zealand have approached us about starting what they want to call The PhD Project Down Under; another woman wants to launch something like this specific to the U.K. The PhD Project model can be applied in any country. But it takes an organization like KPMG, AACSB, or GMAC to be willing to put up the capital to get it started.

What benchmark would indicate that The PhD Project’s job is done?

That’s kind of like asking, “When will we put someone on Pluto?” It’s so far out there. Even now, in the U.S., the number of minority faculty averages less than one per business school. But one benchmark we want to reach is to have the demographics of the faculty mirror the demographics of the student body—we want all students to have the opportunity of being taught by someone who looks like themselves.

One benchmark we want to reach is to have the demographics of the faculty mirror the demographics of the student body—we want all students to have the opportunity of being taught by someone who looks like themselves.

What is The PhD Project’s next step?

We want more minority faculty to ask their minority students, “Have you ever thought about becoming a professor?” In fact, many of the people coming to our conference this year were encouraged to come by minority faculty. The more minority faculty we have, the bigger the magnet we’ll have to attract people to academic careers.

What barriers do you believe are keeping that number from pushing higher?

Even today, a huge percentage of first-generation college students have little or no exposure to business. They have exposure to teachers, social workers, dentists, doctors, and lawyers. But rarely do they hear someone say something positive about a career in business. Even when these students have access to college counselors, those counselors rarely have any affinity for business schools. That’s a continuous problem.

That’s why the KPMG Foundation is supporting a program called the National Academies Foundation. NAF places small academies, or learning communities, within high schools, primarily those in the inner city. So far, NAF has created 700 academics—250 in finance—at high schools around the U.S. KPMG Foundation has been supporting NAF financially and helping with curriculum development to try to provide students more positive exposure to finance, accounting, and business careers. In 2018, 87 percent of the students who participated went to college—some came from schools where normally only around 10 percent of the student body goes to college.

We don’t really care if they end up majoring in business or accounting. We just want to expose them to the business world and teach them financial literacy, and we want to inspire them to go to college and do well. First and foremost, we want to show them that there are people who care, and that they can achieve things that they might not realize.

Two PhD Project alums have become presidents of higher education institutions: Miles K. Davis is president at Linfield College, and Melvin Stith is interim president at Norfolk State. The PhD Project co-created the Aspiring Leaders Seminar with AACSB to help turn more minority business faculty into high-level academic administrators. How important is this effort?

We know that the higher up these faculty can go, the more impact they will have. Many faculty who come to us are from the corporate world and don’t want to go back into administration. But, fortunately, a good number do, and I’m thrilled that AACSB supports the Aspiring Leaders Seminar. Each year between 35 and 40 people participate, and afterward we make sure that they are fully aware of the openings out there.

But we’re going even further than that. At KPMG we have the Board Leadership Center (BLC) that works with public company nominating committees looking for board members. The BLC helps them identify the skill sets they need on their boards, find candidates, and conduct onboarding. The PhD Project has a network of people who’ve been in the corporate world, who have PhDs, and who now are on the faculty at universities—these people are perfect matches for being on corporate boards. We’ve now seen 25 or 30 of our alums take a Board Fit Seminar, two PhD Project members recently were elected to major public company boards of directors.

What are you most proud of, in terms of your impact on diversity in business education?

Well, this isn’t really about me. There are so many fingerprints on this program, it’s incredible. I get recognitions and awards, and people say nice things about me, but the truth is that I’m blessed to be with a firm that’s generous and courageous. The fact that KPMG has stayed with this effort for 25 years is really unparalleled. It’s also been incredible to me that we have support from organizations like AACSB and GMAC, from faculty and faculty organizations, from the corporate world. We have every sector pulling in the same direction because everyone recognizes the critical importance of what we’re doing.

I’m also very proud of the people who left their jobs and incomes to make the life-changing move to pursue their doctoral degrees. And I’m proud of the people who come to our conference, but leave saying, “No, thank you, this isn’t for me.” They took three days off from work to attend, showing that they’re serious enough that they wanted to learn as much as they can before taking this huge leap. I’m just proud of the courage that all of these individuals have displayed.

You are currently serving on President Donald Trump’s Board of Advisors on Black Colleges and Universities. You also served on this board under President George W. Bush. What progress has this board made during your service?

President Bush was really engaged and did everything he could to recognize the unusual history—the burden, if you will—of black colleges. When I was serving on Bush’s board, the Senate proposed giving $450 million to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to help them improve their technology. But by the time it went through committees, it was decided that the money should go to MSIs—or minority serving institutions. MSIs include Hispanic-serving institutions, which are more a product of demographic shifts than of a system that once kept people of color from going to college for centuries. The shift in focus to MSIs also meant that the money would be distributed to between 350 and 400 institutions, rather than to 102 HBCUs.

Now, lawmakers talk mostly about MSIs, to the point that they’re burying the whole essence of what an HBCU is and why it’s there. Every administration that tries to get the black vote tries to throw money at black colleges, but it ends up being more words than action. It has been frustrating.

What do you plan to do next?

I’m very involved in our church, and I’m on the board of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark in New Jersey. I will stay on the President’s Board of Advisors for Black Colleges and Universities and the board for [business student honors association] Beta Gamma Sigma. I’m going to stay involved. Religion, community, and education—those are the three things that have always driven me.