Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria

Harvard Business School today (Sept. 23) released an action plan for racial equality but shied away from setting any concrete targets that could be used to measure progress on putting more Black protagonists in case studies, hiring and promoting more underrepresented minorities as faculty, or increasing the percentage of Black students in its MBA program.

“Targets can get mired in controversy—from whether they are legally permissible or sufficiently bold or implausibly unrealistic,” wrote Dean Nitin Nohria in an email to the HBS community. “In the end, we know that what truly matters is what we accomplish. Our actions and outcomes will speak louder than our plans and goals. We need to hold ourselves accountable, and our results, which we will report regularly and transparently, will be the ultimate measure of our progress.”

The statement comes nearly four months after Nohria publicly apologized for failing to mount a more successful fight against racism and for not serving the school’s black community members better. He issued his rare apology on June 7 as protests swept through the U.S. and foreign capitals since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

‘WHY ARE HAVING THE SAME CONVERSATION AGAIN?’

Four days later, at a virtual town hall meeting, Nohria directly heard from some deeply disappointed participants in the session. Several alums pointedly asked, “Why are we having the same conversation again?’ and “Where is your action plan?”

Critics have noted that the number of Black students in Harvard’s MBA program has largely remained stuck in the fifties for three decades even as Harvard University has made major strides toward Black enrollment. Some 14.3% of Harvard University’s undergraduate class of 2023 are African Americans. Yet, at the business school, Black enrollment is not much more than a third of that number, just above 5% for the next graduating class of 2021 (see Harvard Business School Case Study: Why Progress Stalled For African-Americans).

Since the Harvard Business School’s founding in 1908, only four African-American professors have been awarded tenure by the school. Not one of the 14 new assistant and associate professors recruited to Harvard Business School in 2019 was Black. Only two of the 300 case studies taught in the required MBA curriculum feature African-American protagonists. And only one of the 28 members of the school’s senior leadership team is Black, a Chief Information Officer recruited only two years ago from UCLA. None of the 13 faculty senior leaders are African-American.

ACTION PLAN UNLIKELY TO SATISFY THE SCHOOL’S CRITICS

Steven Rogers, an HBS alumnus and a senior lecturer at the school from 2012 to 2019, is among Nohria’s toughest critics. He has accused both the dean and the school of “systemic anti-Black practices” that have prevented faculty and students from making any real progress at the school. In a commentary published by Poets&Quants in July, Rogers proposed 12 steps that HBS could take to make more immediate progress, including a mandate to require at least one case study with a Black protagonist in each of the 10 first-year courses. He could not be reached for comment

Today’s statement is unlikely to satisfy him or other critics who were looking for more specific details. Nohria not only failed to establish any targeted goals with his plan; he also did not provide any accounting of the school’s current metrics on racial equality. Instead, he cited seven largely vague actions to “promote racial equity on our campus.”

  • Make clear where we stand and where we aim to go.

  • Establish the enduring structures required for the journey ahead.

  • Attract additional Black talent to all parts of the HBS community.

  • Develop and disseminate research and course material on advancing racial equity in business.

  • Equip our students to become leaders for racial equity.

  • Engage with the broader business community to promote racial equity

  • Hold ourselves accountable to meaningful, measurable progress.

Those guidelines are the result of an HBS task force formed in July and led by Senior Associate Deans Jan Rivkin and Jan Hammond as well as CIO Ron Chandler. The three convened a group of 22 other faculty, staff, students and alumni to identify the “workstreams” that include short-, medium-and long-term actions. Nohria said an additional 47 persons volunteered to provide their “best thinking.”

HBS WILL HIRE A CHIEF DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION OFFICER

The lack of specific targets stands in contrast to Norhia’s earlier approach with women. Back in 2014, he publicly pledged to more than double the percentage of women who are protagonists in Harvard case studies over the next five years to 20%, from what was then 9%. HBS, however, has yet to meet that goal set six years ago.

Nohria seemed to anticipate some criticism over his statement. “We know some of the questions you may still ask include: ‘Why will this time be different?’ ‘Why haven’t you established targets?,’” he wrote. “What feels different now is the intensity and eagerness we encounter across our entire community to tackle this issue and be agents of change.”

Dean Nohria agreed to the hiring of a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer and the formation of a DEI Board of Advisors made up of alumni and outside experts to guide and support the school’s efforts. Nohria, who will step down as dean at the end of this year, has committed $25 million to the school’s racial equality plan over the next ten years.

‘ON THE TOPICS OF RACISM AND RACIAL EQUITY, HBS LACKS EXPERIENCE AND EXPERTISE’

Nohria said that the group repeatedly heard that they needed to approach their work with humility. “On the topics of racism and racial equity, Harvard Business School and the large majority of our community lack experience and expertise,” he added. “Like much of the non-Black community, we are still learning what it means to be Black in America. So even as we advance our mission of educating others, we must continue to listen, learn, and engage.

“Relatedly, although the context of racism against Blacks in the United States is unique, we came to appreciate that the lessons we learn through this work will apply broadly and be essential to business leaders worldwide. Regrettably, racism and discrimination know no boundaries and are pervasive around the globe.

“We became convinced of another simple yet profound observation. The work we do to promote racial equity will not only benefit Black members of our community. It will also make Harvard Business School a better institution for every member of our community.”

HBS DEAN NITIN NOHRIA’S FULL LETTER

What follows is Dean Norhia’s complete letter:

Dear members of the Harvard Business School community,

I am writing today to share with you Harvard Business School’s Action Plan for Racial Equity, the result of an intensive effort that engaged faculty, staff, students, and alumni in deep reflection, often difficult discussions, and thoughtful planning.

The horrifying murder of George Floyd, and an all too long history of similar injustices, has spurred our collective awakening to the grave and continuing systemic racism in the United States that creates unacceptable, even dire inequities for our Black community members. This moment has made urgently clear that the School must redouble its commitment to combat racism—and anti-Black racism in particular—to create meaningful and enduring change that will enable every member of our community to thrive. Our Action Plan for Racial Equity reflects our highest aspirations for the School and the role it can play in business and society.

Background

In July, we announced the formation of a Task Force charged with focusing on four broad areas: advancing anti-racism education and research, supporting the Black community at HBS, engaging the broader business community, and changing our culture and organization. Ron Chandler (Chief Information Officer), Jan Hammond (Senior Associate Dean for Community and Culture), and Jan Rivkin (Senior Associate Dean and Chair, MBA Program) agreed to serve as co-chairs of this Task Force, and the group that formed—25 faculty, staff, students, and alumni—quickly identified seven workstreams. The goal? Bold but achievable recommendations in each workstream, including actions the School could take in the short, medium, and long term. In addition to the Task Force members, another 47 individuals volunteered their time and dedicated their best thinking to this work, addressing questions such as: How can we enhance the School’s culture? How can we significantly and consistently increase the number of cases with Black protagonists?

Our process yielded a few key observations.

First, many individuals at the School have strived to make progress toward racial equity over the years. In 2018, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the School’s African-American Student Union (AASU). Its founding members were committed to addressing both the challenges they experienced as a racial minority in the classroom and the broader socioeconomic issues the Black community faced nationwide. Their activism led to important curricular changes and a new consortium with nine other business schools focused on increasing student diversity. Since that time, the leaders of AASU and the HBS African American Alumni Association have played a vital role in advancing racial equity at the School, including urging us to act now.

Another example with long roots at the School that thrives today is the Summer Venture in Management Program (SVMP). Since its founding nearly four decades ago, the program has engaged thousands of graduating and rising college seniors, including many Black and underrepresented minority students, interested in exploring business as a career. Many SVMP participants have gone on to earn MBA degrees, including at HBS. More recently, we’ve forged partnerships with organizations like Year Up (founded by Gerald Chertavian, MBA 1992), bringing young adults from diverse backgrounds to campus through internships that often transition to permanent employment.

These efforts offer insights into what works and why—emphasizing, for instance, the importance of proactively creating opportunities for diverse talent to engage with the School, and developing partnerships when we lack the resources or knowledge to make progress on our own.

Second, we repeatedly heard that we needed to approach our work with humility. On the topics of racism and racial equity, Harvard Business School and the large majority of our community lack experience and expertise. Like much of the non-Black community, we are still learning what it means to be Black in America. So even as we advance our mission of educating others, we must continue to listen, learn, and engage.

Relatedly, although the context of racism against Blacks in the United States is unique, we came to appreciate that the lessons we learn through this work will apply broadly and be essential to business leaders worldwide. Regrettably, racism and discrimination know no boundaries and are pervasive around the globe.

We became convinced of another simple yet profound observation. The work we do to promote racial equity will not only benefit Black members of our community. It will also make Harvard Business School a better institution for every member of our community.

The Action Plan

The Dean, Senior Associate Deans, and senior staff of Harvard Business School—along with the entire community of HBS faculty, staff, students, and alumni—are resolved to take the following actions to promote racial equity on our campus and in the world.

  1. Make clear where we stand and where we aim to go.

  2. Establish the enduring structures required for the journey ahead.

  3. Attract additional Black talent to all parts of the HBS community.

  4. Develop and disseminate research and course material on advancing racial equity in business.

  5. Equip our students to become leaders for racial equity.

  6. Engage with the broader business community to promote racial equity.

  7. Hold ourselves accountable to meaningful, measurable progress.

Please click here to read the Action Plan in full.

Next Steps

We have identified faculty and staff leaders to take responsibility for each element of our action plan. They will move expeditiously to develop goals, targets, and timelines. Other critical next steps include hiring a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer, and creating the enabling infrastructure—including forming an Initiative focused on racial equity and a DEI Board of Advisors comprising alumni and outside experts—to guide and support this work. Until then, the Task Force co-chairs will partner with a small advisory council to ensure we realize progress on this plan.

We know some of the questions you may still ask include: Why will this time be different? Why haven’t you established targets?

What feels different now is the intensity and eagerness we encounter across our entire community to tackle this issue and be agents of change. Additionally, we see tremendous value in creating a proven infrastructure to support our effort—essentially embedding it in all the School’s processes and practices while bringing greater intentionality and strategic coherence to the initiative we will launch and the work we will do. Moreover, we are determined to begin the cultural changes necessary to enable everyone to feel welcome, thrive, and advance our mission.

Targets can get mired in controversy—from whether they are legally permissible or sufficiently bold or implausibly unrealistic. In the end, we know that what truly matters is what we accomplish. Our actions and outcomes will speak louder than our plans and goals. We need to hold ourselves accountable, and our results, which we will report regularly and transparently, will be the ultimate measure of our progress.

I want to thank Ron Chandler, Jan Hammond, and Jan Rivkin, who took on this difficult work with their characteristic focus, skill, and commitment; Dilan Gomih (MBA 2019), our extraordinary project manager; the Task Force members; everyone who led and joined the workstreams; and the many members of our community who offered input on our action plan. While it provides a clear roadmap for the work ahead, we view it as a living document that will continue to evolve as new ideas emerge and circumstances change.

Now we must get to work, with an immediate sense of urgency and the sustained, long-term resolve to advance racial equity. To be true to our mission, we must enlist the full spectrum of human talent and educate leaders who will make a difference by making the most out of the differences that enrich us individually and societies globally.
With humility and resolve,

Nitin Nohria

DON’T MISS: Former Harvard B-School Prof Slams Dean For School’s ‘Systematic Anti-Black Practices’ or Harvard Business School Case Study: Why Progress Stalled For African-Americans

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