Diverse Voices, Personal Stories

Four professors and administrators from underrepresented groups describe their own journeys.
Diverse Voices Personal Stories

BUSINESS SCHOOLS WORLDWIDE are adopting initiatives designed to make everyone in their communities feel welcomed and supported. At some universities, these efforts are led by faculty and administrators who are themselves members of underrepresented groups. At other schools, institutional policies and behaviors have only served to isolate minority professors and students even more. BizEd asked four academic leaders how they have worked for equality, acted as role models, and overcome the challenges minorities often face in academic environments. Below, we share their insights on what strategies they have found to be most successful in promoting true diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education—and what more still needs to be done.

'Our Right to Exist'

Carma Claw

Last summer, when Carma Claw became an assistant professor of management at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, she was the first Diné, or Navajo, citizen to be a doctorally qualified business professor at an AACSB-accredited business school, according to the college. She earned her doctorate as part of The PhD Project, which is dedicated to attracting underrepresented minorities to business doctorate programs. Last November, she presented at AACSB’s Diversity and Inclusion Summit, and she further describes her path to academia below.

After earning your MBA at New Mexico State University, you worked for 17 years in the defense sector before deciding to pursue your PhD at NMSU. How welcome did you feel in your doctoral program, given your perspective as a Diné citizen and the type of research you wanted to pursue?

As I was looking at doctoral programs, I visited campuses when I traveled for my job— well-known institutions with high percentages of native populations. But I didn’t feel those campuses were welcoming—perhaps based on the people I spoke with. After several years, I found Joe Gladstone, then an assistant professor at New Mexico State who was studying Native American enterprises. Joe had found mentors, so I knew there would be professors there to support me. When I made my campus visit, the dean at the time was also very excited and supportive. I felt he was authentic when he talked about this avenue of research.

From the late 1800s to the 1970s, the U.S. government forced many Native American parents to send their children to boarding schools to receive a Western education. You have described how your great-grandparents refused to send your grandmother to these schools. How did their resistance affect your own education?

In the late 1800s, the Navajos were being rounded up and sent off to concentration camps. When they were released, the government decided, “If we cannot exterminate them, let’s assimilate them.” But my great-grandfather decided to protect his children from these schools, which he viewed as another way to extinguish the Navajo existence. Because of that decision, my grandmother was able to pass our philosophy to my mother.

Eventually, Navajo leadership decided that we would have to adapt to the changing environment we were living in if we were to be able to fight for our right to exist. We would have to incorporate some Western education without losing who we are. So, when I went to college, my mother told me, “Don’t forget your language. Don’t forget who you are as a Navajo.” She told me to use Western education as a tool, not as a replacement for my Navajo education.

You have noted that many business schools view your research on enterprises operating within tribal cultures as too “niche” to support. What is lost when such research is overlooked?

Culturally specific business research related to indigenous cultures already exists, it’s just rarely recognized. I remember studying the idea of reciprocity—the theory of social exchange—in my first organizational behavior seminar. I thought, “This sounds exactly like my culture.” When I started looking into it, I realized, “That’s because it comes from the study of indigenous culture!” But schools often teach the concept without a direct link back to the original research.

When business leaders don’t have a connection to these authentic sources, they are not fully informed. People like me, who are connected to those authentic sources, can help strengthen their understanding and make this information more reliable and credible.

At AACSB’s D&I Summit, you described the willingness to pursue culturally specific research as “a form of resistance as research.” Could you expand on what you meant by that?

By “resistance as research,” I mean we must create what [Arizona State researcher] Bryan Brayboy calls “liminal spaces”—spaces where we find ways to exist and pursue the work we want to do. I think these spaces are out there. Just the other day, I read newspapers from native communities that quoted several Native American PhDs. There’s a whole group of indigenous scholars finding ways to share what we know—what mainstream society has told us is inferior or irrelevant. That’s exciting, but we need to see more of it.

Creating these spaces is part of my job now. Joe mentored me, and it’s now up to me to find a student to mentor, especially in business academia where we don’t have a lot of representation.

What might attract more Native Americans to business schools?

It’s difficult for people to have a positive experience in programs where their perspectives are not accepted by top leadership. For example, I know that many programs would never look at me as a potential researcher—they would view my work as too diverse, too narrow, irrelevant, or nongeneralizable. But it’s important for institutions to see the potential for “outlier” research to generate new and interesting insights into business phenomena. When they do, students will view their cultures as places of growth and opportunity that support new ways of thinking.

How can schools bridge Western and Native American cultures?

It would be helpful to develop more case studies on topics that affect indigenous populations, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). It also would be helpful to ask nonindigenous students, “How do you think an indigenous person would view this? What would you do if faced with this situation?” Faculty could ask students to compare how indigenous communities have responded to situations such as the DAPL to how nonindigenous communities have responded to similar situations; they could adapt sources written by indigenous scholars in other disciplines to business environments. Such approaches would help bridge the two spaces.

Is it as simple as creating more case studies?

I think institutions also need to consider the community outside of the organization, which can be difficult for people to navigate. For example, Fort Lewis is located in what is considered a border town, which lies along the border of Indian communities. It’s a town where racial differences still exist. When I came here, I had to consider, do I want to be in that space? Are my kids ready to take on that kind of environment? But I realized that we would face difficulties anywhere we went, so we must learn to manage them.

That’s why I always tell my kids, “Act like you’re supposed to be here, because you are.” When my middle-school-aged daughter faced racism at her school, I told her, “Let’s not look at it from a discrimination standpoint, let’s look at it from a miscommunication standpoint and see how far we can get.” When we’re in town and my kids say, “We’re the only brown people here!” I tell them, “Act like we’re supposed to be here. We’re having a good time.”

Journey to Leadership

Terrill Drake

Terrill L. Drake is the associate dean of strategic initiatives at the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania. He oversees external relations; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and programs and events. He also serves as the chief operating officer for VSB outreach and strategic initiatives.

What challenges did you overcome in your journey to your current position?

When I started at my previous post, I immediately recognized a lack of representation at the highest levels of senior leadership. There were a handful of underrepresented minorities at the director level, but no clear path or opportunities for any one of us to be a part of the dean’s leadership team. There were no natural leaders I could look to as advocates. This created a glass ceiling for underrepresented minorities, which contributed to turnover for high-potential members of this group over the years.

I saw this as a challenge to overcome and made it my personal mission to earn a spot on the senior leadership team. While I was given promotions to executive director and earned a full scholarship into the executive MBA program, what I ultimately wanted was an opportunity to lead change at the highest levels of the organization. I wanted to be the voice for my team or others like me.

After conversations with the dean and vice dean, I was given the opportunity to write a proposal for an organizational restructure that would create a position for an assistant dean who would serve as the chief operating officer. After many iterations, my proposal was accepted and the new role was created. There was a shared understanding that I would be appointed to this position after a national search process would legitimize my candidacy. But, ultimately, I wasn’t chosen for the role, in part due to a change in leadership at the dean level.

What was your next step?

I expressed disappointment and pointed out the need to diversify the voices among our leadership. Eventually, I was promoted to the leadership team and had the opportunity to establish and oversee the office of diversity initiatives, which focused on inclusion issues for faculty, staff, and students. I took on this new responsibility in addition to my role overseeing the office of programs and events and advising the dean and vice dean on strategic initiatives. The new position gave me the opportunity I had been looking for to bring about change and allowed me to be a voice not only for myself, but for others.

It also led me to my current position at the Villanova School of Business. Culture was extremely important to me in my job search, and I wanted to be a part of a community that values the contributions of all faculty, staff, and students.

Based on your experience, what initiatives do you think work the best to increase inclusivity and diversity among students, staff, and faculty?

It is extremely important for people in positions of power to mentor and sponsor talented individuals from underrepresented groups. Mentors and sponsors build the network of people who not only understand what those individuals do, but realize the value these individuals bring to the organization. Sponsors can ask if all of the voices are being heard around the table when a school is making organizational decisions.

Simply put, if organizations want to increase diversity, they need to make sure the culture is set up to seek out diverse opinions and put people from underrepresented groups in positions of power. Representation is important as we look to recruit faculty, students, and staff. We need to communicate a desire to change and the benefits of change within an organization, because the world around us is also changing.

Do you think part of your job is to be a role model for students, staff, and faculty who come from underrepresented groups?

I believe my role is to be a resource to assist them with their needs. I take many opportunities one-on-one or in groups to listen and understand their experiences, and I help them voice their unique experiences to our leaders. I also mentor them and work to create an environment where they feel included. I want them to look back on their experience here and see they were thriving instead of surviving.

At the Villanova School of Business, we believe our efforts to create an inclusive, equitable, and diverse community will enhance mutual respect and give every member of the community a sense of belonging.

Working Across Differences

A. T. Miller

A.T. Miller serves as the chief diversity officer for Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. Before coming to CMU, Miller served as associate vice provost for academic diversity at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and as faculty director of the Center for Global and Intercultural Study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He also helped start and directed the Africana studies program at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

What inspired you to study issues related to race?

My parents were very active in the civil rights and open housing movements when I was a child. I learned early on that there are lines we should not cross in terms of our own identity. In other words, you can’t just assume that you can join in other communities and other engagements—you have to know how to be a respectful ally and advocate.

Since then, I’ve come to understand more and more about power and privilege, about the imbalances and inequities within our society. I’ve learned that it’s important to know how to navigate where power is flowing.

How have you seen higher education’s attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion change over your career?

Each of my various positions has reflected what at that time was considered the way to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). At Union, for example, I was a faculty member and program director of Africana Studies, and then I chaired the multicultural affairs advisory group. Those first efforts often took the form of task forces and committees run by dedicated volunteers.

I went to Ann Arbor as the coordinator of multicultural teaching and learning, as universities started investing more in these efforts. At the time, these new positions were often established as a result of campus activism—my role grew out of a movement on campus called FAIR Teach, or Faculty Against Institutional Racism. Then, when I went to Cornell as associate vice provost, institutions were taking diversity, equity, and inclusion even more seriously.

Now that I’m chief diversity officer at CMU, DEI is in the C-suite. Now that institutions understand that the complexity and persistence of these issues must be addressed more systemically, more universities have chief diversity officers to address socially embedded inequities in all realms of the institution, not just in the classroom or within the student experience.

Was it difficult for you to be accepted as a white man teaching Africana and race studies?

Oh, yes. I’d walk into the room, and people would ask, “You’re the professor?” I think that’s healthy—it’s important that everyone is conscious and questioning and aware at all times. But I know many people don’t want to ask these questions out loud. So, I’ve learned to get the fact that I’m a white diversity officer on the table, because it’s an important part of my identity and how I’m doing this work.

You also ask whether people have been “accepting,” but I think it’s more important that people are open to working across differences. You may not accept other people’s politics, but you need to be able to listen and share your viewpoint with them in a respectful way, not write them off or have a shouting match. Everyone, including myself, should always be slightly off balance, slightly uncomfortable. I try to stay in a learning mode and in a state of curiosity— to ask others, “How do you do this?” or “How are you involved?”

Could you describe situations when you’ve had to apply this skill?

There are moments when I need to make folks in the LGBTQ community understand that just because the university’s diversity officer is a gay man, that doesn’t mean they “win” or get extra attention. And then there are times when things get a little too warm and friendly—the doors close, and people think, “Oh, we’re all white here, so I’m going to say this.” I don’t want others to assume I’m part of their group just because I look this way or behave that way.

That said, I’ve learned that it’s helpful to be the person in a room full of men who can view issues through a feminist lens. I might be able to leverage my perspective in a way that a woman could not because of persistent systemic misogyny. I try to learn from the discomfort of these moments, rather than ignore it.

What advice would you offer to other diversity professionals?

That diversity where people don’t feel included is chaos, and inclusion where everyone agrees with each other is not diversity. One without the other doesn’t work. Schools need to find the right balance if they are to create communities where people can be fully themselves. If people are constantly self-censoring, they’re not able to give their best work.

Also know that with true diversity and inclusion, there will always be misunderstandings. We must notice and attempt to address these moments by learning and growing from them, not by trying to eliminate them.

A Better Way to Show Belonging

Kamil Omoteso

Kamil Omoteso is pro vice-chancellor and dean of the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom. Previously, he was the head of the School of Economics, Finance and Accounting at Coventry University in the U.K., and he also has held academic positions at Lagos State University in Nigeria, De Montfort University in Leicester in the U.K., and University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, in the U.K.

Is there one particular challenge or incident you have experienced as part of an underrepresented group in a business school setting?

In one of my previous institutions, all the staff within the department had to be relocated to a new space. To our surprise, the only four black staff members—out of about 35—were relocated to the same segment of the building with our offices adjoining each other’s. Even the nonblack staff in the department were shocked to see the arrangement. We used to jocularly refer to the area as the “colonial wing.” My thought on this was, “Is there a better way to tell a group of people that they don’t belong here?”

How did you react? How did the institution react?

We just rolled with it—held our heads up and did the job we were employed to do, and we did it really well. The issue was addressed immediately when a new head of the department assumed the office. The four of us didn’t have to say a word about it—it was too obvious!

Based on your own personal experience, what initiatives do you think work the best to increase inclusivity and diversity among students and faculty in higher education?

One of the things that works is mentoring on different aspects of academic and leadership progressions. Mentors can be internal, external, ethnic minority, and ethnic majority. Sponsorship is also good for boosting confidence and providing reassurance, advocacy, and training.

Other things that work are unconscious bias training for managers and colleagues, role modeling, fairness, and fair representation. As for quotas, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.

What obstacles do you believe are still hindering change at the university and in the workplace?

One obstacle is the negative mindset or perception that minorities can’t be good enough. Another is risk aversion, as executives or administrators think it might be “risky” to hire black, Asian, and minority ethic (BAME) candidates. Another problem is the lack of role models, which perpetuates the vicious cycle.

Do you think part of your job is to be a role model or resource for students and staff who come from underrepresented groups?

It certainly is. I’ve had BAME students tell me how proud they are to meet a black professor or pro vice-chancellor. I’ve experienced this within the university, at recruiting events, at graduation, and so on. My presence boosts the aspirations of these students, creating a mentality that says, “If he achieved this, it means I can.” Some students have even approached me informally to be their mentor.

My presence also has an effect on the staff. I’ve observed an increase in the proportion of BAME applicants whenever we advertised any post, whether for an academic or leadership position. This has followed me everywhere I go.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

Related Reading

Driven by Difference

Committing to Diversity

Creating a Sense of Belonging

Creating the All-Inclusive Campus

¿Son Las Mujeres Iguales?

The Inclusive Curriculum

Learning Other Cultures