PhD Project Tackles Business School Deanship Diversity

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by Lekan Oguntoyinbo

As dean of the Whitman School of Business at Syracuse University, Dr. Melvin Stith does the same job as other top administrators. He recruits talented faculty and graduate students, mentors new professors, seeks partnerships with corporations and foundations, and strengthens relations with alumni. What makes Stith unusual is that he is African-American, a rare minority among administrators at the approximately 1,600 business schools in the U.S.

“We’ve just done an elaborate survey,” says KPMG Foundation President Bernie Milano. “We believe there are five African-American deans, nine Hispanic-American deans and we don’t know of any Native American deans.” Milano also directs The PhD Project, an organization devoted to boosting the number of Black, Hispanic and Native American business school professors. In the 16 years since The PhD Project launched, the number has risen from fewer than 300 out of 26,000 to more than 1,000 today.

But among the ranks of the administrators, progress has been particularly slow. According to Dr. Quiester Craig, dean of the College of Business at North Carolina A&T State University, the numbers are still not particularly impressive even at the approximately 85 or 90 historically Black colleges and universities with business programs. Craig has conducted his own informal survey and concludes that of those, “No more than 50 percent are headed by persons of color, and that might be a little generous.”

In recent years, several men and women of color have been appointed to high-profile leadership positions in business schools. These include Dr. Carolyn Callahan, director of the School of Accounting at the University of Memphis, and Dr. Peter Blair Henry, dean of the Stern School of Business at New York University. Notably, the Henry B. Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa has both an African-American dean and assistant dean in charge of its school of management. The University of Georgia’s College of Business also has an African-American associate dean.

Dr. Jeffrey Robinson is an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Rutgers University and a product of The PhD Project. He says top administrators can be critical agents for change. “As dean,” he says, “you are actually able to impact local areas as well as global areas. The dean sets the tone for who’s going to be hired as professors. The dean sets the theme for the school. At Rutgers, the dean was interested in entrepreneurship and thought about impacting the local community.”

Robinson says he recently saw another vivid example of a dean’s leadership driving the agenda. “I went to Syracuse for a conference on African entrepreneurship,” he says. “It may have been supported by the faculty but I know it was actively supported by (Stith). He came to speak to us and talked about the importance of African businesses. They have a center for African business. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the dean is African-American.”

Building on The PhD Project’s success, Milano and several business school administrators have developed the Achieving Higher Education Administrative Diversity (AHEAD) Project. Founded last summer, the AHEAD Project attracted 41 professors at its first interest meeting. Organizers are working with groups like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a Tampa, Fla.-based body that accredits business programs to create webinars.

They have enlisted the help of several business school administrators to serve as resources and mentors to junior faculty and are trying to interest doctoral students in positions in administration. They also plan to ensure that some of their seminars dovetail with the convention of the American Marketing Association, which typically attracts doctoral students and faculty.

“We see the impact that a minority professor has on a class,” says Milano. “As a dean, your impact is on all of the faculty in the department. The higher up you go … the greater the impact you can have.”

That assessment is shared by Dr. Randy Bradley, an assistant professor of information systems at the University of Tennessee. “I believe you can only do so much by being in front of the classroom,” says Bradley, who aspires to be a department head or a dean someday. “I believe your ability (to have an impact) as a professor is somewhat limited. I see the change coming by being in administration.”

“We certainly recognized the impact an African-American dean can have on a business school,” says Milano. “Fifteen years after we started (The PhD Project), it just seemed like the next thing we should do is to encourage (minority professors) to think about administration. Once you’re successful as a dean, the next step is provost. And for the next step, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they became president?”

Milano and his collaborators say several factors account for the dearth of underrepresented minorities holding positions as deans or department heads.

“Many of the faculty never really considered it or thought about it because, in their experience, whether as students or faculty members, they saw very few administrators of color,” says Milano. “The other thing I’ve seen is that invariably search committees are always trying to find someone who’s already a dean. Just like presidential searches for universities. They’re always trying to find someone who’s already a president.”

Adds Stith: “We always tell students about going to school and rising through the corporate ranks. We never talk to them about the academy itself being a viable career path. We never say to students, ‘You’ll be a great university professor.’ Business school salaries are pretty good. But it’s not just about the finances. It’s about the quality of life and how you want to spend your time.”

Milano says many of the minorities who are entering academia bring a set of experiences that make them ideally suited to be college administrators. “We are attracting minorities principally out of other careers, mostly corporate careers,” he says. “They have a set of credentials that make them uniquely qualified to be an administrator.”

Callahan had been a successful professor for about 15 years before she considered going into administration. She had been tenured at two highly respected universities, including Notre Dame.

“It became obvious to me that the way to effect change in programs was to be an administrator,” says Callahan, one of the original faculty members of The PhD Project. “They are role models for our minority students and they enrich everyone’s experience. It’s accepting the fact that we live in a global world and that we need to raise our tolerance level.”

Serving as an administrator, she says, could help set the tone in deciding who gets hired to teach.

“Business schools are just now incorporating minority candidates,” she says. “We still have a long way to go.”

When Callahan first came on board at the University of Memphis nearly two years ago, she was the only woman in the department. She says she just hired two female faculty who will start this fall. She is also having discussions with a minority assistant professor, who she’s certain will be tenured next year, about becoming director of graduate studies. “I’ve started to groom him so he can have the experience he needs,” she says.

Callahan’s zeal for bringing more minorities into the administrative fold is almost evangelistic. “I will go anywhere to speak to minority groups,” she says. “I speak every year at the Leadership and Mentoring Institute in July to encourage other minorities to pursue administrative paths. I speak at three or four women’s conferences each and every year. I think I have chaired the (thesis) committees of more women and minorities than anyone else. I try to actively encourage the brightest master’s students.  I tell them, ‘You could do my job.’ I believe minorities bring with them a sense of strength. They have overcome challenges. They have lived in two worlds. I think it adds value to the whole university.”

Robinson is bullish about the future. He says the increase in minority business school professors is fueling a growing pool of administrative candidates that will make change inevitable. “I do think we’re at the point now where there are professors who have been in the field long enough to get promoted,” says Robinson. “I really expect to see, especially among the top 50 programs, a good number of deans and associate deans who are African-American, Hispanic and Native American. It’s going to happen. You can’t stop the wave.”

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