To See Change, Business Schools Must Model Change
The summer of 2020 was turbulent and emotional, forcing citizens and organizations worldwide to take a hard look at diversity, racial inequality, and social injustice. As dean of a school of business that prides itself on grooming tomorrow’s business leaders, I resolved to do my part to create a more equitable society by making measurable changes at my institution. I challenged my faculty and staff to rethink our approach to diversity so we can better understand the needs and concerns of our students and how we can impact today’s business world.
At Post University’s Malcolm Baldrige School of Business in Waterbury, Connecticut, diversity is a critical topic for several reasons. First, we want our values to align with those of our namesake, Malcolm Baldrige, who promoted social responsibility beyond corporate walls.
Second, the university has a very diverse student body of about 14,000 students, and about 40 percent identify as minorities. One reason we achieve this high level of diversity is that the majority of students take classes online, so they can enroll from anywhere in the world. The business school generally accounts for about 5,000 of the university’s students, and we know we must find ways to appeal to this multicultural population.
For us, the topic of diversity is not a casual conversation; it’s a lightning rod for activity. Higher education has the unfortunate reputation of being an intractable, bureaucratic sector unable to act quickly. But if we want to see change, we must model change. We must be willing to put in the hard work and invest in people if we want to see progress toward equity.
At the Baldrige School, we have begun to focus on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by addressing the culturally indifferent learning approaches business schools have used for decades. We have started by taking six important steps.
Asking the Tough Questions
With the support of our president and provost, we have launched a discovery committee led by faculty members. They meet regularly to discuss our most pressing diversity challenges and outline strategies to rectify the problems. We open each meeting by reviewing a series of uncomfortable questions:
- Have we taken every possible step to become a diverse and inclusive school?
- Have we incorporated racial diversity and social values into our course outcomes?
- Are we breaking down the barriers that limit us from attracting a diverse student population?
- Do we do enough to represent businesses owned by women, minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or other underrepresented populations?
- Have we taught that understanding diversity impacts future success?
- What can we do proactively so that our next generation of leaders is more informed, is more educated, and has a wider lens on societal issues?
When the committee initially asked these questions, we discovered that our curriculum was significantly lacking in diverse business exemplars. We also discovered that our online discussion boards never put students in a position to question implicit bias. As educators, we want to expose students to these uncomfortable discussions in our business school—but as a school, we were unaware of how out of touch we really were.
We made the conscious decision to become comfortable discussing and teaching uncomfortable topics. Our goal was to develop awareness and use that awareness to help our students identify business solutions.
Facilitating Dialogue with Students
One of our most impactful changes has been to provide forums for students to express themselves. For instance, we now are using our discussion boards as places where faculty can initiate thoughtful and meaningful dialogue with students. Students can share ideas, thoughts, perspectives, and concerns surrounding DEI without fear of reprisal or misunderstanding. The quasi-anonymous environment created by discussion boards has allowed both students and faculty to confront implicit bias in a safe environment where learning is the objective.
We find that the boards enable students to question their own frames of reference. In one marketing class, for example, students are asked to explain why journalists may be susceptible to implicit bias. Some students have learned to reevaluate their implicit biases simply by reading their peers’ comments about diversity and inclusion; others have suggested new content sources that include relevant and culture-rich materials.
The quasi-anonymous environment created by discussion boards has allowed students and faculty to confront implicit bias in a safe environment.
We also encourage students to share their opinions of DEI in business and society. In one course, we look at how products are marketed in one country in ways that do not reflect the country’s true demographics, and we challenge students to seek out additional examples of implicit bias. In other courses, we ask students to look at the positive financial impact of highly diverse organizations or to discuss how organizational culture is influenced by DEI and unconscious bias.
Creating an Inclusive Curriculum
We have restructured our program to feature coursework dedicated to DEI issues and the impact they have in today’s business world.
First, we created a faculty-led committee to ensure that all 188 of our course syllabi are inclusive. To help us in this task, we drew on guidelines established by New York University. Next, we redesigned our curricular structure with intent. For example, we constructed a layered approach that incorporates readings, assignments, videos, and discussion boards into six of the core courses that span an undergraduate’s entire academic career.
Our realigned curriculum now features an introduction to dealing with DEI issues in business, a course that focuses on microaggressions, and courses that explore how diverse workforces can lead businesses to greater innovation. For example, our core marketing course considers how more diverse companies see both higher revenues and stronger customer loyalty. We have made improvements in 30 courses so far and expect to update another 40 over the summer.
As faculty revise curricula, I strongly encourage them to be flexible in design. This allows them to more accurately reflect the rapidly changing socio-business landscape by incorporating current examples, trending news, and relevant case studies.
Diversifying Case Studies
In fact, including relevant case studies quickly became a paramount goal after an inventory of our curriculum revealed a lack of diversity in the cases we taught. Our MBA program, for example, used to rely on nationally recognized case studies from Harvard Business School—but these historically have lacked examples featuring Black business leaders. A few years ago, retired HBS faculty member Steven Rogers noted that “less than 1 percent of the 10,000 case studies published by Harvard Business School feature Black business leaders.”
We’ve spent several months identifying exemplary women-owned and minority-owned businesses that could serve as more appropriate illustrations of how the fundamental influences of race, religion, color, and ethnicity can positively impact businesses and society. We look for real-world examples of underrepresented populations significantly contributing to business and industry.
We now use a case study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business featuring Federica Marchionni, a female protagonist who left Dolce & Gabbana USA to become CEO of Land’s End. We also teach a case study on Lagrant Communications that is available from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. This one showcases a minority-owned marketing and communications agency focused on serving African American, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ consumers.
In addition, we incorporate project-based learning into our classes, which allows us to take advantage of a more diverse present-day business environment. While case studies point to past examples and challenge students to analyze the outcomes, project-based learning focuses on current businesses and asks students to predict outcomes or formulate plans to bring about desired results.
Revising Hiring Practices
While what we teach is critical, who teaches the material is just as important. It is vital that our faculty see the world through the lens of our students, so we have adopted hiring practices that mitigate unconscious bias within the business school.
When we hire full-time faculty, we begin by reviewing CVs and cover letters from which the demographic indicators have been removed to decrease the probability of unconscious bias. The administrator in charge of hiring for the position—usually the assistant dean—conducts phone screens of the probable candidates, asking them all the same set of three to five questions.
The top candidates are then interviewed by the members of a hiring committee—a panel of business school faculty who volunteer their time to helping us expand our roster of instructors. Committee members ask the top candidates the same set of questions but might vary their follow-up questions based on responses. The committee informs the assistant dean of its recommendation, which carries significant weight because any new faculty members will primarily work with other professors. The dean and provost interview the top two to three finalists before the hiring decision is made.
When we hire full-time faculty, we review CVs and cover letters from which the demographic indicators have been removed to decrease the probability of unconscious bias.
If the committee and the assistant dean do not agree, the assistant dean makes the final decision. Fortunately, both groups are in alignment with the hiring strategy and they have agreed on every new hire to date.
So far, we have found this arrangement to be greatly beneficial for the health of our teaching community. The process of hiring adjuncts is not as formal or structured, but it does start with a sterilized review of the CV.
Since July 2019, 40 percent of the new faculty members we’ve hired have identified as Black, Hispanic, or another underrepresented minority. While we feel we have a diverse, eclectic faculty in place now, we still have a long way to go, as minority faculty make up only 33 percent of our teaching pool. However, we are encouraged by the increase in numbers of professionals looking to join our school. We are confident our hiring practices will increase our diversity moving forward.
Seeking Student Participation
Another way we address DEI is by routinely conducting candid discussions with students about how they perceive the education they receive at our business school. As dean, I commissioned a Business Student Advisory Board that focuses on informing the business school’s strategic direction.
Students on the board not only provide valuable insights on our diversity initiatives and curricular ideas, but also help us enhance the learning environment. In February, for example, student board members were asked to find case studies, articles, video content, and other instructional resources that aligned with current syllabi and addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their curated content was shared with the faculty, and some of their discoveries were incorporated into the curriculum.
The student board also is critical to increasing the transparency among students, our faculty, and our administration. Students are no longer on the outside looking in. Now they are behind the scenes influencing and shaping what is discussed and executed within the school—and they are engaged.
A Long-Range Agenda
We know our DEI initiatives will be deemed successful only if there is a unified, coordinated approach to enlighten students and cultivate positive actions. The university’s motto, “Post Makes it Personal®,” encapsulates our tradition of putting students first.
We also know the actions we are taking are by no means enough. Making our school more open to DEI issues is a work in progress. The task has an open-ended agenda and no deadline. As our society evolves, so will our programs and our school.
Diversity and inclusion will play increasingly important roles in creating a more equitable society. At the Malcolm Baldrige School of Business, we believe education is the center point in that process. We want to ensure that our faculty reflect our student body. We also are committed to providing a curriculum that keeps pace with market demands for culturally sensitive, well-rounded graduates.