Business schools take active role in fostering equity and diversity
For the first time, James Madison University’s College of Business offered spring 2020 students in its MBA program an elective course focused specifically on diversity.
By the end of the semester, JMU had hired the course’s instructor, visiting professor Demetria Henderson, as the business school’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
The appointment was a sign of how the national conversation on race that followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor prompted Virginia business schools to examine the role they should play in forging future business leaders able to foster inclusive workplaces.
Many schools are updating case studies to make sure they reflect diverse protagonists and examining the campus experience they offer to students and faculty from diverse backgrounds. Others are employing new technologies and increasing community interaction in order to build practical skills they believe students need in today’s workforce.
‘We can’t wait any longer’
At JMU, College of Business Dean Michael Busing saw a need to turn what had been a scattershot approach to matters of diversity, equity and inclusion into a more intentional effort.
“We have known that we need this for a long time, but it really does take a moment like this to get people to say, ‘We can’t wait any longer,’” Busing says.
Henderson, who was already teaching at the school as a visiting professor, seemed a perfect fit for the task.
She worked for more than 15 years in consulting and banking before earning her doctorate in management from the University of Texas at Arlington. Her research on how social class affects hiring was inspired by the experiences she had as a Black woman working in corporate America.
With her MBA students this spring, Henderson focused on creating an environment where students felt safe discussing the many aspects of diversity. Instead of hearing lectures, students discussed a variety of readings that caused them to question previous assumptions, and in some cases to change how they were interacting in their full-time jobs.
“It is about sharing information and experiences,” says Henderson, who is planning an undergraduate elective business course on diversity for the spring 2021 semester.
Both Henderson and Busing say JMU needs to focus on hiring a more diverse business faculty — a goal shared by many other business schools, and one that won’t come easily as JMU faces a hiring freeze due to the financial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Henderson stresses that just as the school must broaden its recruiting efforts to bring in more diverse faculty, it also needs to create an environment where faculty from different backgrounds feel welcome once they arrive.
Busing agrees. “You can’t just say, ‘We will hire for diversity.’ You have to create a culture where everybody feels included,” he says.
This means supporting minority faculty with mentoring, looking at quality of life for various groups in the surrounding Harrisonburg community and being sensitive to the fact that loading an individual with committee appointments because they are a member of an underrepresented group can leave them with less time to pursue their own professional goals, Henderson says.
At Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, Director of Diversity and Inclusion Janice Branch Hall has made recruitment and retention of a more diverse faculty a priority since she was hired in February 2019.
“A big part of that is understanding their needs and unique challenges, making sure we are providing research support [and]making sure promotion and tenure expectations are clear,” she says. “We want to make sure they are positioned well for success.”
Changing the classroom conversation
Hall and senior leaders at Virginia Tech have developed a web-based training site to equip faculty with the skills to lead classroom discussions that don’t shy away from potentially sensitive matters related to diversity and inclusion.
“If we are in the business of developing future business leaders, we have to have these conversations in the classroom,” Hall says.
At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Martin Davidson, senior associate dean and global chief diversity officer, agrees.
“What is happening for students in the classroom is so powerfully affected by how skillful our faculty are in facilitating conversations about diversity,” Davidson says. “That skillset for our faculty is one critical element we are focusing on.”
Darden does this through regular seminars and teaching development forums — many of which have gone virtual in the COVID-19 era — that discuss what it means to lead an “inclusive classroom.” Examples are equitably calling on students to give responses and being aware of the unconscious biases that may affect teaching and other interactions with students.
This is also a goal at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business. The school recently began using a virtual reality platform that simulates role-playing scenarios with avatars, giving students a chance to practice broaching potentially polarizing topics with virtual managers and colleagues, and offering them a venue to assess and improve their skills.
“Students need to not only know in an abstract way what diversity and inclusion mean, but we also want to help students change behaviors to interact with each other in a different way and recognize biases as they are happening,” says Inga Carboni, an associate business professor at William & Mary.
Carboni uses the technology in a diversity course that is required for all undergraduate business students at the school. She has used it with online MBA students and will be training senior administrators at the school with it this fall.
Constant vigilance is key
Darden first established its chief diversity officer position in 2007, before many other top business schools. But Davidson says work on diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t something that can be checked off a list as a single accomplishment. Efforts to recruit more diverse students and faculty can take years to bear fruit and fostering a culture where diverse individuals feel welcome requires ongoing effort.
“It’s like working out — if you stop doing it, then you stop getting the benefits,” he says. “Our objective is to change our DNA, to change the way we operate so it becomes natural to pay attention to and practice inclusion.”
Jeff Tanner, dean of the Strome College of Business at Old Dominion University, was attracted to ODU specifically because of its commitment to diversity and inclusivity.
ODU’s student body has a higher proportion of Black and Hispanic students than the state average for four-year public institutions, according to 2019-20 data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
One in four students at the school are first-generation college students, and one in four have military affiliation, giving the school a wide diversity of age and life experiences.
“Inclusivity is such a pillar of who we are, it is such a basic part of our organizational DNA, that it attracts you or it repels you,” Tanner says. “Therefore, we attract people who seek this kind of place.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. When a student in a January 2020 focus group remarked that speakers at school events didn’t reflect the student body, Tanner was surprised. He was proud of the school’s recent signature speaker series, which featured four speakers, three of whom were Black.
But when a committee looked more deeply at speakers across the business school, they found that most people who were invited to speak to classes and student organizations were white.
“I realized that while I might see one thing, students are seeing another, because they are exposed to a different set of experiences, and we really needed to do the deeper dive,” Tanner says.
He is adamant that inclusivity needs to be pursued with a bigger purpose, and at ODU he has tried to steer that purpose toward fostering better conditions for minorities to thrive in the Hampton Roads business community.
Strome’s chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants, for example, works with Future Business Leaders of America clubs in local high schools to recruit a more diverse group of future students.
The school’s Transitional Entrepreneurship Lab is devoted to promoting economic well-being among disadvantaged communities, and in fall 2020 it put on a small business academy for vendors that meet Virginia state government’s Small, Women-owned and Minority (SWaM) business certification standard.
“One of the things I have really tried to do as dean is give this idea of inclusivity a purpose beyond, ‘It’s a nice, good thing to do,’” Tanner says.
At Virginia Tech, Hall sees a similar dynamic in the impact that faculty research can have on the business world. She points to research Tech professors are conducting on the importance of diversity on corporate boards, Black entrepreneurship, social justice branding and other topics that are driving new conversations within business schools and out in the business world.
“We are focused on ways that our faculty can conduct research that really impacts the human condition, and how we engage in society, and what that means in a global economy,” she says.