PhD Project Alumni Aim to Lead Institutional Change

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Thursday, August 18, 2016
By Lee Davidson
AACSB International in partnership with The PhD Project created a seminar with the goal of growing diverse administrators in higher education institutions.

How do you change culture? That was the heavy question that participants in AACSB International’s Aspiring Leaders Seminar weighed during a breakout session to address major issues at their institutions. AACSB International in partnership with The PhD Project—which aims to enroll minority students in business doctoral programs and help place them in academic positions—created the seminar with the goal of growing diverse administrators in higher education institutions. The seminar attendees, all tenured faculty and graduates of The PhD Program, hold a variety of teaching and administrative posts at business schools and institutions across the U.S.—large and small, private and public, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

In a group of participants representing large public institutions, conversation centered on the challenge of bringing diversity topics front and center for faculty, staff, and students. The barriers are many: lack of budget, programming, leadership, and faculty interest, to name just a few. But interesting and effective solutions were also brought to the table.

Building a Program of Inclusivity

Mary Triana, associate professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconson-Madison, told the story of her school’s implementation of school-wide "lunch-and-learns," which served as a forum for students, faculty, and staff to share their diversity and inclusion-related experiences with other students and colleagues in the school, during a buffet-style lunch. Topics have included LGBT matters, a sense of belonging in the school, and unconscious bias, among others. At first, attendance at the lunch-and-learns consisted mainly of students—the very MBA students who'd driven the initiative from the dean’s office in the first place. But once the director of diversity made specific requests for dean's office staff and school faculty to attend, participation grew and became more inclusive of all college constituents.

These sessions have since become a vehicle for students, faculty, and staff to learn about the challenges faced by each other, connected to various aspects of their identities. The lunch-and-learns, which are sponsored by the dean’s office, are now packed and are viewed as a safe space for discussing diversity-related tensions and have helped move the school farther along the continuum of inclusion. As a result of the initiative, along with a formalized diversity strategy, the WSB is now viewed as a leader in the space of diversity and inclusion and has been recognized by the university’s top administration, as well as peer schools.

Gaining Leadership Buy-In

Following up on this success story, Andy Policano, seminar co-facilitator and endowed chair and director for investment and wealth management at the University of California Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business, noted that college and institution leadership must have visible involvement in initiatives like this if they are to succeed. Even if, as in this case, the idea for the lunch-and-learns came from students who felt a lack of support and understanding for diversity matters, gaining a buy-in from faculty might only come when they see administrators and other faculty involved. Policano noted that faculty dislike forced training; for initiatives like this one to gain traction and become sustainable, participation must be voluntary and the leadership should set an example by their own participation.

Challenging Tradition

In a different group—of faculty from HBCUs—participants noted the challenge of changing the traditional style of administration at HBCUs, which has tended to be more autocratic than democratic. Some group members discussed the problem in terms of old guard versus new guard of faculty and leadership (notably, a distinction that was also made in the previous group’s discussion). New faculty come in with progressive ideas and enthusiasm for change, but when they encounter barrier after barrier to implementing such change, their optimism wanes, and sometimes, too, their passion. In discussing ways new faculty can maintain their fervor, another attendee said that what helped him remain focused—and also prevent burnout—was to create his own strategic plan that aligned with his school’s but also incorporated small goals of his own, to accomplish professionally.

Larry McDaniel, chair of the Department of Management, Marketing, and Logistics at Alabama A&M University’s College of Business and Public Affairs, disagreed that older faculty, as a whole, are not receptive to change; there can be innovative and progressive-minded older faculty just as there can be change-averse younger faculty. Less emphasis, he seemed to be saying, should be placed on making that distinction. Rather than newer faculty waiting out the exodus of the old guard of faculty to institute change, all faculty should look for ways to work together to transform the institution as a whole.

Continuing the Momentum

While the seminar highlighted the many challenges of elevating diversity and inclusion as a priority in business schools and higher education institutions, it more significantly showed that there are current and aspiring administrators in these institutions willing to do the work necessary to improve diversity and inclusion on campuses, and who have the right ideas, knowledge, and networks to get that important work done. With continued collaborative efforts like the Aspiring Leaders Seminar, these changes are likely to come sooner rather than later.

Lee Davidson
Digital Media Manager, AACSB International
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