01 May 2024

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Harvard Business School

Q+A with HBS Leadership

by Shona Simkin

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work is in the headlines seemingly every day—about communities, campuses, court cases, and politics. It’s been nearly four years since HBS undertook the Advancing Racial Equity Action Plan, and a lot has happened in the interim. We talked with Angela Crispi, executive dean for administration; Terrill Drake, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer; and Kristin Mugford, senior lecturer and senior associate dean for culture and community, about the work continuing on the HBS campus, its role at the School and more broadly, and why it’s still an important focus.

Why is DEI work still important at HBS and the world at large?
Kristin Mugford:
I stepped into this role in July of last year because I was excited about, and continue to be excited about, the role that HBS can play both on our campus and more broadly in the world about what it means to do this work with excellence. I think of this work in terms of three components.

One: How do we make sure we create a community where everyone feels they belong? Two: How do we make sure that everyone on our campus—staff, faculty, contractors, students, alumni—can do their best work? Three: How do we harness and embrace all the different dimensions of diversity to advance our mission, which is to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world?

Angela Crispi:
Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at HBS is unwavering. We know that the more work we do in this arena, the more we realize that we’re capable of finding excellence in so many places and that we can do more.

Terrill Drake:
We’re trying to amplify the perspectives and experiences that may not be acknowledged in certain settings. We know that there are groups of people within our community, and at large, who have not felt like their voices are heard or that they are supported. That cements for me even more why this work is important and why we need to accelerate it. We also must ensure that we’re defining DEI broadly enough to include all members of our community.

How is HBS uniquely suited to this work, and what are our challenges?
This is Harvard Business School. We are about business excellence, and we know that excellence in business is putting the best people around the table and harnessing their diverse perspectives. That formula drives excellence. It’s not like DEI is a nice to have, it is an imperative if what you care about is excellence in your organizations. We have no choice if we’re Harvard Business School in walking the talk and being excellent at harnessing the power of diversity.

When I assumed this role, Dean Srikant Datar said this was important because not only are we educating leaders who make a difference in the world, but we cannot be teaching the world about how to do this if we are not expert at it ourselves. We have got to continue to strive and learn, to pick ourselves back up and try again when we get it wrong, and to model what this looks like when done right. How do we best achieve that aspiration for our students, faculty, and staff?

As an educational institution, this is at the core of who we are. People come here to learn. We have ideas to share with the world so that others can learn. And, of course, there are things we can continue to refine and improve within our institution.

Since I first accepted my role, I’ve witnessed a level of commitment to this work from colleagues across the School that inspires and challenges me to keep moving HBS forward. The ODEI team shares this dedication to the work, and we have deep knowledge, understanding, and experience to strategically advance DEI initiatives. After administering the culture and climate survey last year, we have established baseline data and will continue to collect information to help us develop priorities and objectives that guide our efforts.

DEI currently faces clear legal, political, and reputational challenges. We’re not immune to those challenges at Harvard or HBS, and misinformation and misrepresentations further complicate this work. One common misperception is that DEI hurts quality and reduces excellence. We know that the opposite is true—that by bringing diverse voices, mindsets, and people together, organizations produce better outcomes.

Why are you personally committed to this work?
I was walking through the airport the other day, and there was a famous quote from President Kennedy in a showcase about the JFK Library and Museum: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." That has stuck with me. It has been hard, but it brings joy when you see that a new voice has been heard, a new perspective has been learned, an avenue of excellence has opened up for someone else to take part in. I find—and I think you see this in staff and faculty and students too—the more that happens, the more you share, the more it creates a spark of an idea and grows.

There’s inherent joy in doing this work, and we sometimes forget that—especially when times are difficult. This joy stems from helping others access what they need to be successful and to participate in all the opportunities available at HBS. I’m an eternal optimist, and I firmly believe that the ODEI team will remain grounded in joy to fuel our commitment to the work.

One thing I find exciting about this work is that we all have clarity on the destination, but it’s not clear how to get there. Much as we ask our leaders and everyone in our community to adopt a growth mindset around what it means to be an inclusive leader—that we’re not going to get everything right, but we learn, get better, and try again—it’s the same thing with the DEI effort. The world evolves, but the aspiration remains the same—as a society we have to continue to learn how to achieve that North Star. I find it frustrating when we say there’s something wrong here, and the solution is to toss out the aspiration. No! We’ve got something to learn, and we examine, grow, and figure out how we can now do this work even better.

That learning mindset is the part that is missing. The challenge of this task is what excites me. I remain, and the School remains, as committed as ever to that aspiration. We just have to continue to get better in how we do it.

What is the ODEI currently working on?
One of the biggest areas of work this past year has been debriefing the culture and climate survey results. We administered the survey to all faculty, staff, and students last spring to measure perceptions and experiences from members of the School. Our team spent a lot of time analyzing the survey results, and we recently began translating the data into strategic priorities and actions. We’re excited to share an executive summary of the survey results in the coming weeks.

We have also been supporting the School’s working groups on antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arabism, classroom culture and norms, and free expression and community values. Over the past few months, we have heard from numerous members of our Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities through focus groups, interviews, and an anonymous survey, and we recognize how challenging this year has been. We are committed to sustained, ongoing efforts that allow our Jewish, Muslim, and Arab community members to heal and to know—without any doubt—that they belong here.

There are a number of other projects that we have been making progress on and are excited to launch soon. We’re working on our learning, development, and dialogue offerings, which will enhance the existing DEI education available to the community. We’re continuing to implement the Racial Equity Action Plan, with a keen eye to the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action as we evaluate how we might need to shift and pivot to move the plan forward. And we’ve been helping to lead a School task force for the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery work, which further examines and contextualizes the University’s findings for the HBS community.

What are other examples of DEI efforts at HBS?
This is a very broad area, and there’s a lot of work happening that people might not see—like identifying new providers in our supply chain, or working with Harvard’s Construction Academy to create opportunities and partnerships for smaller diverse firms to bid on our major campus projects.

We work really hard to create the best conditions for everyone to do their best work—we’re teaching that the environment and workplaces matter: it’s not just because you want to make the space pleasing. Whether it’s a meeting around a table, a Zoom call, or a classroom in which every detail from the chalkboards to the layout to the upholstery is purposeful. DEI is at the heart of creating the conditions to do the best work, and we’re forever striving to model what we know organizations ought to be doing.

One of the challenges in harnessing all dimensions of diversity is that many important dimensions are things that are not visible: socioeconomic background, first generation, political beliefs, religious beliefs, disabilities, life experiences. There is incredible richness in all these dimensions of diversity, but trying to bring them together and harness them in the classroom is more challenging when that data isn’t on the class card or unseen in the community. That’s both a great opportunity for us as a school, and a challenge as well. Embracing and supporting all these kinds of diversity is an important piece of the work.

What are some of the challenges of DEI work, generally?
One is that some people don’t want to talk about their diversity. Perhaps in their community or under their roof at home they embrace their background, but they come to work or school and they don’t want to share. And that’s not because they’re holding back or are afraid, sometimes people just want privacy, and they don’t want to talk about their family background or that they’re first gen. That’s a place of respect we have to find ourselves in—we don’t always know someone’s story, and it’s ok to not participate or attend or be part of a conversation.

Another challenge is a human one, and it’s that we’re exhausted. Specifically, those of us in DEI roles. We read about attacks on our industry, attacks on the scholarly work that supports what we’re doing, attacks on practitioners. We’re watching things happen to our colleagues at other institutions, across the country, and it’s hard to see on a daily basis. At the end of the day, we’re trying to push through the exhaustion and find small wins to move toward progress. I'm always optimistic and think we’ll get to the other side of these challenges.

I want to echo what we talked about in an earlier Q+A. We tend to assume things about one another because of an identity or a phrase that’s taken out of context. Part of the challenge around what’s happening in the Middle East is the assumption that saying X must mean Y or Z. We do the same thing with DEI—if you’re a DEI professional, you must only care about one thing or only certain groups and not others. If I could wave a magic wand and give us all a lot more curiosity and empathy about one another, we’d be in a better place. So much of the attack on DEI is based on assuming things, as opposed to asking questions and being curious and trying to help achieve this aspiration.

Is there anything else you’d like the HBS community to know?
This is our collective responsibility. There’s not one group or person who owns this—we all do. We have a shared objective that is as important as ensuring that we’re financially responsible, that we create the best experience for our learners, and that we tell our story in the right way. I have extraordinary appreciation for our colleague’s work in this arena. This is what every organization should be doing, and it starts with us. It’s hard, but it’s gratifying when we see real progress. Bring it on!

I find when it’s hard, it’s inspiring. Like what Angela said, we like to do hard things. I’m inspired by the challenge and the aspiration.

Knowing that this is about collective ownership, please call upon ODEI as a resource. We have amazing minds on our team and across the DEI teams at the University, so don’t hesitate to reach out. If we can’t help directly, we’re happy to figure out what we need to bring in to offer support.

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