Busi­ness schools are reck­on­ing with their poor record on race


The busi­ness school at City, Univer­sity of Lon­don, is start­ing a reck­on­ing with the past. Last month, its govern­ing coun­cil voted to re­move Sir John Cass from the busi­ness school’s name be­cause of the 18th-cen­tury English mer­chant’s role in the Royal African Com­pany, which then held the Bri­tish monopoly on the transat­lantic slave trade.

The school’s in­volve­ment with Cass only dates back 18 years, when it changed its name af­ter ac­cept­ing a £5m do­na­tion from Sir John Cass’s Foun­da­tion, a char­i­ta­ble body the mer­chant cre­ated to sup­port ed­u­ca­tion in Lon­don.

In the US, higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions are ac­knowl­edg­ing past ac­tive in­volve­ment with slav­ery. The move­ment started in the­o­log­i­cal sem­i­nar­ies — first at Vir­ginia The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, which last Septem­ber cre­ated a $1.7m fund to make repa­ra­tions for hav­ing used en­slaved peo­ple as labour on its cam­pus. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing Je­suit- founded Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, fol­lowed with repa­ra­tion plans.

And in the wake of the re­cent Black Lives Mat­ter protests world­wide, the mo­men­tum for change in higher ed­u­ca­tion has sped up. Within the global busi­ness school sec­tor, many in­sti­tu­tions are work­ing to be­come more in­clu­sive in their cur­ricu­lum, hir­ing and stu­dent ad­mis­sions pro­cesses.

Days be­fore its name change, Cass, now known as City’s Busi­ness School, had hosted a three­hour on­line work­shop called “De­colonis­ing the Busi­ness School”. The event at­tracted more than 400 par­tic­i­pants from over 300 busi­ness schools, who logged on to dis­cuss mak­ing their cour­ses and ad­mis­sions pro­cesses more in­clu­sive for all black, Asian and mi­nor­ity ethic stu­dents.

“This is a piv­otal mo­ment for race re­la­tions ev­ery­where, and it must go far be­yond name changes,” says Bobby Ban­er­jee, a man­age­ment pro­fes­sor at City, who helped or­gan­ise the on­line event in his role as co-founder of the busi­ness school’s Cen­tre for Re­spon­si­ble En­ter­prise.

“Black peo­ple don’t want to come to busi­ness school be­cause they don’t see black faces. We there­fore have to change hir­ing and pro­mo­tion prac­tices,” Prof

Ban­er­jee says.

The num­ber of black stu­dents on highly ranked US MBA cour­ses re­mains low. Har­vard Busi­ness School, where about 9 per cent of last year’s full-time MBA in­take were black, has added two se­nior roles to en­cour­age more mi­nor­ity ap­pli­cants. How­ever, Nitin Nohria, Har­vard Busi­ness School’s dean, wrote in an open let­ter to staff and stu­dents in June that at­tempts to re­cruit black stu­dents up un­til now had been “painfully in­suf­fi­cient”. Much the same was true for the re­cruit­ment of black pro­fes­sors, he added.

Laura Mor­gan Roberts, pro­fes­sor of prac­tice at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia’s Dar­den School of Busi­ness, co- au­thored a study of black HBS stu­dents in 2018, which found sig­nif­i­cant ad­di­tional bar­ri­ers for this group com­pared with their class­mates.

“Black stu­dents and alumni still face ob­sta­cles due to race and other so­cio-de­mo­graphic in­di­ca­tors. They ex­pe­ri­ence racism and clas­sism in their class­rooms from fac­ulty and peers, in so­cial net­work­ing, and with re­cruiters,” she says.

The PHD Project was founded in 1994 to track the num­bers of Bame aca­demics in the be­lief that rais­ing num­bers here would make stu­dents from such back­grounds feel more ac­cepted on post­grad­u­ate man­age­ment de­gree pro­grammes.

In 2010, it recorded 790 African Amer­i­can fac­ulty, or 2.7 per cent of all US busi­ness school pro­fes­sors. But the per­cent­age of black fac­ulty in 2020 has barely risen at 3.2 per cent.

Ear­lier this year, Wharton ap­pointed Erika James as its new dean. Pro­fes­sor James, the first woman and the first AfricanAme­r­i­can to lead the school, wrote her PHD the­sis on a study of busi­ness net­works. Racial in­equal­ity among aca­demics, she be­lieves is at root caused by a bias to­wards white can­di­dates by ma­jor­ity white fac­ulty com­mit­tees — the groups choos­ing who be­gins the process to­wards be­com­ing a tenured pro­fes­sor.

“It is a long game . . . we have to start 10 years prior to that at­tract­ing and pro­mot­ing re­search staff,” she says. “That is not all of the is­sue. There are will­ing, tal­ented peo­ple of colour who are out there but are not vis­i­ble to schools like Wharton.”

Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness last month an­nounced mea­sures to im­prove in­clu­sion of dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties on its cam­pus, in the heart of Cal­i­for­nia’s Sil­i­con Val­ley. These in­clude a process to in­crease black staff rep­re­sen­ta­tion through ac­tive out­reach, mea­sures to elim­i­nate bi­ases in its hir­ing pro­cesses and a staff in­tern­ship pro­gramme for tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds.

In Lon­don, City is hop­ing the ef­forts to make its cur­ricu­lum and ad­mis­sions process more open will en­cour­age more black stu­dents on to MBA pro­grammes. It is also re­view­ing his­toric sources of its fund­ing to dis­cover whether there are any other links with slav­ery be­yond Sir John Cass, and will pub­lish this re­port later this month.

Sion­ade Robinson, as­so­ciate dean for peo­ple and cul­ture at the school, who is a mem­ber of the com­mi­tee con­duct­ing the re­view, says ear­lier fail­ure to un­earth links be­tween Sir John Cass and slav­ery was em­bar­rass­ing.

“We ob­vi­ously ask our­selves why we didn’t look deeply enough. But now we have that knowl­edge, we have to do some­thing with it. We can’t shrug it off,” she says.

Funmi Ade­bayo grew up in Lu­ton, north of Lon­don, be­fore com­ing to City’s Busi­ness School to study in­vest­ment and fi­nan­cial risk man­age­ment as an un­der­grad­u­ate in 2009. She went into a ca­reer in in­vest­ment bank­ing.

She would like to see some­thing more mean­ing­ful than the “knee jerk” name change, in­clud­ing an over­haul of staff and stu­dent re­cruit­ment and class dis­cus­sions about what it is to be from dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties.

At City, Mx Ade­bayo was the only black woman on her de­gree course and none of the pro­fes­sors who taught her was black. But she recog­nises she is priv­i­leged among peers be­cause she at­tended a pri­vate school, helped by a schol­ar­ship. “There is a cer­tain pro­file that in­vest­ment banks want and I got a foot in the door by go­ing to a pri­vate school, then go­ing to a re­ally good busi­ness school like Cass,” she says.

The is­sue of Cass’s name change up­sets some teach­ing staff and stu­dents be­cause they think it is a dis­trac­tion from deeper chal­lenges. Laura Emp­son, a pro­fes­sor of the man­age­ment of pro­fes­sional ser­vice firms at the busi­ness school, says she is op­posed to the name change for this rea­son but adds that cur­ricu­lum changes are also prob­lem­atic when they come from a group of largely white teach­ing staff from a rich na­tion.

“I find the de­colonis­ing the cur­ricu­lum ar­gu­ment very dif­fi­cult. As far as I am con­cerned this is just a dif­fer­ent kind of im­pe­ri­al­ism. It is an­other way of say­ing that lib­eral white man knows best,” Prof Emp­son says.

Be­fore City an­nounced its de­ci­sion to drop the Cass name, about 1,500 stu­dents, staff and alumni had signed a pe­ti­tion on Change. org call­ing for its re­moval.

A day af­ter the an­nounce­ment, an­other pe­ti­tion was posted, this time by a Us-based masters in real estate grad­u­ate, Brian Robb, who be­lieves that the re­moval of the Cass name de­val­ues his de­gree be­cause City is far less recog­nised glob­ally as a higher ed­u­ca­tion brand. A week later, this cam­paign had gath­ered 3,200 sig­na­tures, in­clud­ing peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as cur­rent and past stu­dents, and pro­fes­sors.

“I am all for Black Lives Mat­ter and I am all for racial equality,” Mr Robb says. “I pro­pose that they keep the name and de­nounce Sir John, com­ing for­ward with an apol­ogy, that it was a mis­take to ac­cept this do­na­tion.”

Funmi Ade­bayo, a grad­u­ate of City’s Busi­ness School, would like to see an over­haul of staff and stu­dent re­cruit­ment at the in­sti­tu­tion © Char­lie Bibby/ft

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