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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 three-hour 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.

Bobby Banerjee

“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.

Commencement ceremonies at the Harvard Business School campus © Rick Friedman, Corbis/ Getty

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.

Earlier this year Wharton appointed Erika James as its new dean

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 African-American 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.

A statue of Sir John Cass in London. City removed the name of Cass from its business school due to the merchant’s involvement with the slave trade © Leon Neal/Getty

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 calling for its removal.

Brian Robb, a masters in real estate graduate, believes that the removal of the Cass name devalues his degree because City is far less recognised globally © Raul Ospina

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.”

This article has been amended to reflect that City is a part of the University of London; to update the number of black students on Harvard’s MBA course, and to clarify Sionade Robinson’s role in the Cass review.


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