The Inclusive Curriculum

Small changes to classroom materials can have big impacts in making students from underrepresented backgrounds feel included.
The Inclusive Curriculum

ON MOST COLLEGE campuses, universitywide diversity and inclusion programs are designed to attract and retain students and professors from underrepresented groups, and faculty generally have little input into those efforts. But these initiatives also have the wider goal of making students from all backgrounds feel welcome—and there, faculty could have a great impact, simply by increasing the diversity present in their course materials.

I teach in the accountancy department at a small liberal arts school in the Midwestern United States. Our student body is mostly white, and the business school is predominantly male. As a biracial female professor, I am personally invested in the adoption of inclusive practices within the classroom.

The ways that instructors can bring diverse topics into the curriculum in many liberal arts fields tend to be fairly obvious. For instance, an American history class covering the Civil War period should include frank coverage of slavery and Reconstruction, while a political science class on mass movements might cover the Civil Rights movement, LGBTQ+ Pride, and the Arab Spring. Any literature or history course should include materials that reflect perspectives from individuals who are not white, cis-gender males.

But the need and strategy for incorporating diversity and inclusion into business classes are often less apparent. Diversity might not seem to be a consideration at all in numbers-based courses such as accounting, finance, and economics; classes on management, human resources, and marketing are more focused on people, yet instructors still may find it difficult to bring in diverse perspectives. Even when instructors specifically discuss how to apply general principles to underrepresented populations, these units often “other” the groups they are intended to include.

Because business schools have a mission of developing future leaders, it is incumbent upon them to intentionally incorporate diversity in their curricula. In AACSB International’s 2016 Collective Vision for Business Education, the organization states that “leadership principles need to be as closely tied to cultivating the human dimension of the business as they are to pursuing profitability.” Leaders who understand that human dimension will not just tolerate diversity, but work seamlessly with a varied workforce to build on the capabilities of all employees. Classroom discussions and activities that incorporate diversity can help students develop this ability.

RESHAPING THE CURRICULUM

While professors might find it daunting to consider diversifying their materials, they should know that even small changes can have big impacts. One easy way is to select names for the people in their problems, exams, and cases that suggest broader ethnic or national origins. Random name generators and name lists online can help them find suitable choices. They can make sure that their cases include senior executives who are women and married couples who have same-sex or gender- neutral names. They can choose graphics and pictures that also reflect diversity. When professors bring in guest speakers, they can intentionally seek out individuals from various backgrounds to discuss topics not related to the speakers’ personal identities.

Small-scale changes enhance the inclusiveness of the classroom by representing situations reflective of society.

These small-scale changes enhance the inclusiveness of the classroom by representing a range of individual situations reflective of society and students’ lived experiences. Faculty who are ready to incorporate diversity and inclusion in more deliberate ways can take bigger steps, perhaps using activities and assignments like these to bring diversity into every business field:

Accounting & Finance

  • In courses that include an analysis of a company’s financial statements, faculty can select a business owned or run by a member of a minority group. They can make this evident by including pictures of the owner or CEO when they introduce the assignment and by having students provide a short biography of the owner or CEO.
  • To go a step further, faculty can select a company with a potentially controversial business model, such as a for-profit prison, or a company with a potentially controversial reputation, such as Chick-fil-A, which has come under fire for its stance on LGBTQ+ issues. After students conduct an analysis, they can discuss the social issues surrounding the company, which could also tie in to discussions of corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

Management & Human Resources

  • Faculty can lead discussions about work-life balance and what that means to different people at different points in their careers. Students can consider parental leave, elder care, remote working, and flexible working hours—all issues that in many parts of the world are seen as affecting women more than men.
  • Students can examine research about the impact of ethnic-sounding names on the job search process. They might start with “The ‘Name Game’: Affective and Hiring Reactions to First Names,” a 2008 piece by John Cotton, Bonnie O’Neill, and Andrea Griffin, or “It’s All in the Name: Employment Discrimination Against Arab Americans,” a 2011 article by Daniel Widner and Stephen Chicoine.
  • Faculty can assign case studies about businesses that have been involved in high-profile incidents of racial profiling (Starbucks, Applebee’s, Kroger); cultural insensitivity (Gucci, Burberry, Zara); workplace discrimination (General Electric, Tesla); or sexual harassment (Google, Vice Media). They can lead discussions on how companies can make meaningful advances in inclusivity in the workplace.

Economics

  • Faculty could ask students to conduct research on the call for the United States government to make reparations to the descendants of slaves. Their research should include not just a philosophical consideration of whether reparations should be made, but what such a program would look like. Who would receive reparations? How much? In what form? Should direct payments be made to individuals or should investments be made in programs that may disproportionately benefit African Americans, such as universal pre-kindergarten, low-income housing, and prison reform? For guidance, students could consider how other countries have handled reparation for indigenous peoples, such as the Māori in New Zealand, and what economic impact reparations have had in those cases.

Marketing

  • Students can investigate what types of products are marketed to different demographics. How are certain groups targeted, and what is the societal result?
  • Students can discuss companies that have chosen to include nontraditional models in their marketing campaigns, such as Cheerios (interracial families), Gillette (transgender men), and American Eagle (disabled women). What types of reactions, both positive and negative, have these companies received? Why do students think companies make these choices? What is the result for society?

All Majors

  • Faculty can require students to write short papers or make presentations about individuals from underrepresented groups who have made significant contributions to a specific field of study.
  • Professors can highlight present-day and historical individuals from underrepresented groups who have made key contributions to their particular disciplines.
  • Finally, all faculty can take time in class to address current events related to their fields of study that highlight issues of discrimination and equity.

No matter what the classroom discussion is about, professors should make sure that students from underrepresented groups are not made to feel responsible for the diversity education of their peers. Nor should these students be asked to “speak for their groups.” They are individuals whose personal experiences are their own. While they should feel comfortable to share experiences that are germane to the classroom discussion, their participation should not be coerced, expected, relied upon, or made the focus of the activity.

A PERSONAL APPROACH

In my own classrooms, I have been intentional about using names and scenarios that reflect societal realties. In addition, I have included specific elements designed to expose students to diversity they might not have experienced in their lives.

For instance, as a group assignment, I have required students to write biographies of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds who have made significant contributions to business fields. Students discuss the individuals’ career trajectories as well as how they were shaped by the social climate in which they lived. My students have come up with many intriguing examples, including a sports agent, the founder of the first black accounting firm in the U.S., and one of the first women to earn a CPA license.

No one faculty member is responsible for representing the many dimensions of diversity.

I also have developed a series of slide shows that I use during Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month to highlight individuals who represent that month’s focus. This is one of my favorite projects, and I would like to expand it to include LGBTQ+ business leaders.

The individuals I have spotlighted so far include Ursula Burns, the first black woman to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Xerox); Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines; and Lauren Simmons, the only full-time female trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. My intent in highlighting the contributions of these individuals is twofold: to give representation and inspiration to students from similar backgrounds, and to normalize the presence and successes of people from underrepresented backgrounds to students whose past exposure to such individuals is limited.

SHARED RESPONSIBILITY

Most experts recognize the importance of diversity and inclusion on university campuses. For instance, in their 2005 paper “Toward a Model of Inclusive Excellence and Change in Postsecondary Institutions,” Damon Williams, Joseph Berger, and Shederick McClendon call diversity “a key component of a comprehensive strategy for achieving institutional excellence.” Furthermore, they call for institutions to make “concerted efforts to educate all students to succeed in a diverse society and equip them with sophisticated intercultural skills.”

Unfortunately, diversity and inclusion efforts are frequently left to those who identify as members of underrepresented groups. This unfairly burdens those individuals with a task that should be shared across the community. That’s why all faculty members should proactively work toward improving the inclusiveness of their classrooms as a way to support universitywide efforts. Diversity has many dimensions, and no one faculty member is responsible for representing them all. But each professor who makes some effort toward diversifying the curriculum is contributing to the enrichment of the campus environment.

Creating an inclusive classroom does not require faculty to have all of the answers or even to ask all of the right questions. However, it does require that faculty genuinely recognize that the world is a diverse place—and that, to be successful, students will need to be able to interact effectively with people from many backgrounds. When inclusiveness is introduced to the business curriculum in intentional ways, course-specific content is enhanced rather than diluted, and learning is more powerful.

Joanna L. Garcia is an assistant professor of accountancy at John Carroll University’s Boler College of Business in University Heights, Ohio.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.



Related Reading

Driven by Difference

Committing to Diversity

Creating a Sense of Belonging

Creating the All-Inclusive Campus

¿Son Las Mujeres Iguales?

Learning Other Cultures

Diverse Voices, Personal Stories

Advertise With BizEd