Decolonizing the Business School Curriculum

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Tuesday, February 28, 2023
By Sally Everett
Illustration by iStock/Vadim Sazhniev
As more business schools strive to become diverse and inclusive, they should consider the very sources of knowledge they teach in their classrooms.

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  • Business schools in Western and European countries have benefited from an imperialism that placed their ideologies in a powerful and privileged position.
  • To decolonize the curriculum, schools must do more than diversify the reading list; they must incorporate the knowledge and educational approaches of scholars from different philosophical and cultural backgrounds.
  • By doing this, we will open our field to greater diversity and wider analysis, which will strengthen the discipline as a whole.

Education is powerful, and the knowledge that forms the root of any curriculum is even more so. Business academics often take for granted our sources of knowledge, but we need to realize how those sources have influenced the way we think and the way our discipline has evolved.

For too long, thinkers and scholars from wealthy countries that make up a minority of the world have been privileged over those in poorer countries that represent the majority of the world’s population and landmass. Business school research has continued to focus on the white, the Western and Eurocentric, and the male.

But today, business schools around the world seek to become more inclusive and diverse. Some of us want to go even further—to address racial injustices, dismantle global power structures, and decolonize the typical business school curriculum. This requires us to do more than broaden our reading lists, change the language we employ, and ensure that the images and examples we use with our students are more representative. It requires us to engage in a fundamental rethink of business education and question the sources that form the base of our knowledge.

To do this, we must engage in a deeper level of reflection and change at every level of the faculty. We must revise established programs through unlearning and critical questioning.

Such a massive overhaul presents us with both a challenge and an opportunity. Judy Muthuri, a professor of sustainable business and development, explains it this way: Each of us needs “to be an activist in our classroom” so we can build anti-racist, socially just business programs. Ultimately, we will strengthen not only our understanding, but also our discipline as a whole.

Countering the Arguments

When I discuss decolonizing business education, I often face skepticism and reluctance. “The business theories are the theories—they’re not malleable like the arts and humanities,” other professors tell me. But these established theories did not develop in a bubble, away from the realities of imperialism and the legacies of colonialism. Universities in Western countries benefited greatly from having their ideologies prioritized and lauded above other forms of thought from the wider world.

I have regularly been told that the established models need to be taught to put business in a historical context. But if we’re going to make that argument, we need to understand how financial global business operations were influenced by the interconnected histories of wealth—what Yasmeen Narayan, a scholar on postcolonial and psychosocial studies, calls “the detailed cartographies of colonial wealth production.”

Colonization is not an artifact of the past—it’s happening right now as multinational corporations exploit the dependency relationship between the Global North and the Global South.

For example, as British historians Catherine Hall and Nicolas Draper point out, those of us in the U.K. must look at the legacies of British slave ownership and be open about how Britain benefited—and still benefits—from the “slavery business.” On a broader scale, we should not shy away from considering how central the plantation economy was to the development of capitalism globally.

Just as important, we need to recognize that colonization is not an artifact of the past—it’s happening right now as multinational corporations exploit the dependency relationship between the Global North and the Global South. It is incumbent upon business scholars to highlight how contemporary geo-colonial capitalist formations are playing out in business practices in today’s world. If we don’t, as South African scholar Stella Nkomo has pointed out, we may well be perpetuating the “miseducation” of our students.

Going Beyond the Reading List

If we are serious about decolonizing the business school, we must take four vital actions:

Question and expand our sources of knowledge. While the demographics of business school professors and students have changed significantly in recent decades, the scholarship we draw on for our course materials frequently remains Eurocentric and American. Therefore, the first thing we must do is actively unlearn the knowledge and approaches that have dominated business education. We must rethink what we have been taught to prioritize and legitimize.

To do so, we must include materials from a range of scholars from different philosophical and cultural backgrounds. This is not to suggest that all theories and thought that come from outside of Western traditions are identical or even similar. But practices and theories that have their foundations outside of colonial realms provide valuable and essential contributions to our fields of study. Including them in our classes will enable us to create more just and inclusive learning environments.

As part of this change, we should amend assessment criteria. Professors should cite different perspectives in their classroom materials, and students should include perspectives from scholars in the Global South.

We must actively unlearn the knowledge and approaches that have dominated business education. We must rethink what we have been taught to prioritize and legitimize.

Design and teach courses in an inclusive manner. In addition to focusing on the topics we teach and the materials we use, we need to consider how we teach. Does our personal teaching style encourage diverse perspectives to be presented? What voices do we listen to in class? What types of stories do we perpetuate?

Engage a diverse range of internal and external stakeholders. Inside the classroom, this means ensuring that people who are Black, Asian, and from marginalized ethnic populations are sufficiently represented as students and teachers. Outside the classroom, it means seeking out guest speakers and community leaders who come from diverse backgrounds.

Hold a collective conversation with our colleagues about decolonization. If we each reflect on our own privilege and positionality, we can lay the foundation of an honest dialogue. When we discuss new theories and make visible what for so long has been invisible, we are taking steps toward decolonizing our thought processes.

Inviting Student Voices

Another powerful way to achieve decolonization is to seek input from our students and make sure their voices are truly heard. So often business educators do not have the lived experiences to authentically relay the impact of imperialist thinking on daily life, but our students do. We must give students the chance to speak truth to power.

Recently, we did just that at King’s Business School at King’s College London when we invited some of our MSc International Management students to present their own research on the importance of Indigenous management theories. They outlined the chronological shift in how management theory has treated the importance of the natural environment. They also explored how Indigenous practices can contribute to the formulation of corporate social responsibility strategies—not by appropriating Indigenous knowledge, but by incorporating it alongside Western knowledge.

As one student put it, “After all, the business leaders of tomorrow will only be able to have a holistic worldview if their education is holistic and inclusive in the first place.” Their work was enlightening for us all.

As we decolonize the curriculum, we broaden the epistemologies that shape our knowledge. We expand the methods we use to investigate ideas, gather data, and conduct analysis.

We also held a universitywide event in which 100 students offered their views on how to decolonize the curriculum. One noted that decolonizing is about more than just learning about other cultures; it’s about celebrating them as well. A different student said that teachers should be made aware of the importance of decolonizing the curriculum, because such a shift crucially transforms the educational experience.

Others were equally blunt. One felt that the term itself was important because it “imposes a certain obligation on the ‘colonizers’ to decolonize the curriculum since they have been in control of the whole narrative.” A fourth one summarized it this way: “It is time to hear from other people and groups.”

Building a Stronger Discipline

As we take a deeper approach to decolonizing the curriculum, we open up our discipline to greater academic rigor. We show that we recognize the ways that empire and racism have shaped management forces and business practices.

Not only that, we broaden the epistemologies that shape our knowledge. We expand the methods we use to investigate ideas, gather data, and conduct analysis. Frameworks and disciplines that have sat too comfortably on their pedestals will be thoroughly tested by a greater range of thought. This will allow us to come to more thoroughly contested conclusions and build a stronger discipline.

It is easy to virtue signal and talk about making changes, but decolonizing the business school curriculum is a challenge. We cannot expect to easily undo ways of thinking that are so deeply entrenched.

Nor is it possible to make these changes within one specific academic cohort. It is up to all of us in our fields to challenge our familiar mental habits, no matter how uncomfortable that is. We must all be involved, and we must all be responsible for achieving change.

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Sally Everett
Vice Dean (Education), Deputy Dean, and Professor of Business Education, King’s Business School, King’s College London
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