05 Aug 2020

Juneteenth Case Pledge: Q+A with Class of 2021's Annie Plachta and Caleb Bradford, and Jan Rivkin and Matt Weinzierl


Caleb Bradford, Annie Plachta

by Shona Simkin

In mid-June, MBA Student Association Co-Presidents Annie Plachta (MBA 2021) and Caleb Bradford (MBA/MPP 2021) sent an email to all Harvard Business School faculty with an important ask: to sign a pledge. The “Juneteenth Case Pledge,” in honor of the date that the final slaves were emancipated from the Confederacy, asked each faculty member to commit to write a case with a Black protagonist by Juneteenth (June 19) of 2021 (or 2022 if met with serious challenges). Further, they asked that faculty sustain their diversity efforts by having the set of cases in their courses reflect the composition of the student body, as closely as teaching objectives permit, by the 2022-2023 academic year.

“We are asking for your commitment on behalf of the student body, as future leaders who make a difference in the world, and as a woman and a Black man who rarely saw protagonists who looked like them in the classroom. These acts may seem small, but nearly 80% of business school cases taught around the world are developed at Harvard. If we change the way we write and teach cases, we can change business education,” wrote Plachta and Bradford.

This email pledge was the result of weeks of conversations, Zoom meetings, drafts, and collaboration. We Zoomed in with Plachta and Bradford—as well as Senior Associate Dean and MBA Faculty Chair Jan Rivkin and Professor and MBA RC Chair Matt Weinzierl—to ask them more about their efforts, the response, and their hopes for the MBA Program going forward.

What inspired the pledge?

Annie Plachta: Many students and student groups have long asked about promoting better diversity amongst our case protagonists. With the current renewed focus on diversity in our society at large as well as here at HBS, we thought it was appropriate to seize the moment and really push the issue of why case protagonists are not more representative of business as a whole.

Caleb Bradford: The motivation that ignited this effort has always been there—affinity groups and faculty groups have wanted to advance our curriculum in a very meaningful way. While we are in this once-in-a-generation moment, we also wanted to capture that long-standing desire and advocate for much needed change from the grassroots level in our education.

Did you receive support from faculty and administration?

CB: Yes, it's been an incredibly collaborative effort. Jan and Matt really helped to make sure that Annie and I hit the right tone and that we were able to galvanize the faculty in a way that would allow them to work with us and bolster the effort. After Annie and I asked faculty to sign the pledge, Jan—on behalf of the School—showcased how HBS is going to address all of the resources that will get this from idea to implementation. We call it the ‘scaffolding of success,’ and it represents the myriad tools that enable faculty and students to kickstart ideas that drive course objectives with diverse protagonists who illustrate and elevate those objectives.

Jan Rivkin: I want to make sure to give credit where it’s due. Annie and Caleb had this underway well before Matt and I were involved—the train was in motion before we boarded, in the best possible sense. When our students are productive activists for change in organizations, they are doing exactly what we hope they will do. Before Matt and I ever spoke to Annie and Caleb, it was clear that the student leaders were going to ask faculty to make a diversity-related commitment. The role Matt and I played was mostly to help Annie and Caleb refine the pledge a bit, to boost the chances that many faculty and faculty units would eagerly sign on.

Matt Weinzierl: I’ve seen a desire among the faculty to make progress on this issue since I first arrived at HBS a decade ago. What was different here was that it was the students making this ask in a very concrete and eloquent way, rather than it coming from inside the faculty. This was an important kick from the outside to get it moving.

What was the reception from the faculty?

AP: We were really excited by how positive the reception was. There were certain terms and exact wording that some faculty felt they couldn’t reach, so we decided to get the faculty units involved. All units have now signed the pledge, which means that those individuals who couldn't meet the pledge requirements can still contribute through other efforts such as leadership diversity training or thinking more critically about hiring. We realized that our initial ask wasn't the only way to create change. It was super helpful to talk the issues through together, and we ultimately felt like we were able to meet our end goal with a more galvanized base. Caleb and I feel strongly that this was not about our specific asks; it was about bringing an issue to light and having everyone moving together and thinking through how to make sustained change.

Beyond opening it up to faculty units, were there additional modifications?

That makes the cases reflect the entire, rich diversity of all our students. Opening the pledge up to the unit level allows integrated and coordinated action by a body of faculty rather than individual moves. Annie and Caleb were really receptive to all of these ideas, and they were focused on the outcome, not the precise process.

Faculty also raised concerns about an initial plan to list publicly all faculty who signed the pledge. The intent was good: to allow students who wanted to get involved to reach out to faculty. But the list of those who did not sign could be turned into a social media frenzy, and faculty could be labeled as resistant, or worse, when in fact they couldn’t sign for a host of reasons that had nothing to do with their support of the effort. Caleb and Annie changed the plan to reveal the total number of those who signed and to allow unit-level commitments, and that dramatically alleviated the concerns.

CB: What’s important for us is not to make a splash or get a headline, but to see lasting change come about in a structural way; to fundamentally alter the direction of HBS and its protagonist representation. Now all of the units are involved on a more systemic level, and they have made enduring commitments to work for change beyond case protagonists. The constructive feedback that brought that together enabled us to elevate not only the optics but also the impact. The most important aspect is seeing enduring impact for not just our class, but all the classes who will be educated here at HBS, and everyone who will have an HBS case in front of them or think about what is HBS doing as a leader in the vanguard of the higher education space. The modifications we made were an incredible win, honestly. They ended up being a huge benefit to our efforts overall.

AP: Some of our peers have been concerned that we’d lose a sense of accountability if we didn’t publish the names. We feel that the faculty units signing the pledge actually brings a greater, more systemic, focus on accountability. On an individual level, we strongly believe that the professors who signed it will hold themselves to their commitment. And, Caleb and I plan on being involved long after we graduate—we’re also committed to seeing this through.

It sounds like the pledge has sparked a lot of conversations—have you seen it resonate in other ways?

JR: After individual unit meetings about the pledge, I had many faculty colleagues tell me that it was the best conversation about race that they've had since arriving at HBS, even if it was a difficult one. Our unit heads and course heads stepped up rapidly and successfully to important conversations and decisions, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to them.

Diversity among our case protagonists helps our students who come from underrepresented groups. As one of my students said, “If I can see it, I can be it.” But it also helps every other student at HBS because they learn to appreciate all the sources of talent in humanity. To put it another way, when we fail to have diverse protagonists we are failing every single one of our students, because we're sending them out into the world not understanding all the places that talent can come from.

MW: And as Annie and Caleb have pointed out, HBS is the primary source of cases for most business schools, so failing to have diverse protagonists is a disservice to a much broader population of students, not just our own. The faculty of HBS view it as both a responsibility and a privilege to contribute in this way to graduate business education as a whole.

CB: The student energy has been incredible. We've been inundated with requests from students wanting to get involved, with creative ideas for not just case protagonists but other things we could bring forth as an institution and as a leader in the world. Several students have offered to help, with one student proactively building a website to help coordinate efforts for new cases; faculty can submit a notice (basically a wanted ad) for a case they wish to write, and students can submit ideas and offer their help. Hopefully this increases the partnership and dialogue between students and faculty in a way that might lead to a future where there won't have to be such pledges or initiatives—students and faculty will be working together and be able to predict what's next; what HBS can do to inform and educate students and what students want out of their educational experience.

There was mention of a ‘scaffolding of success’ earlier—can you elaborate on that?

JR: After the pledge was completed, the Dean’s Office moved to make sure that faculty could fulfill the pledge effectively. We've created a one-step shop headed by Carin Knoop, executive director of the Case Research and Writing Group, that is kind of a clearinghouse for case needs, leads, writing resources, and ways for students to assist. If, say, our students have a set of potential protagonists who they think would be great for cases, they can go to Carin. She can also help a faculty member find a protagonist for a particular case. For our efforts to diversify protagonists to endure, we have to create the supporting infrastructure.

In our effort to be an institution that is actively anti-racist, case protagonists are just the tip of a very large iceberg. The Dean has launched an anti-racism task force, which is looking at a full spectrum of things we need to do to become the school that we want to be.

Annie and Caleb, how does it feel to have led the charge with the Juneteenth Case Pledge?

CB: It's an honor for us to do our little part to push this issue over the goal line and see change. It’s awesome to see it come to fruition in a coordinated and sticky, enduring way—though while this shiny North Star is there, we have to hold ourselves accountable to achieve it. Annie and I are so happy that this is underway. We are really dedicated to continuing to work toward realizing diversity across many dimensions including, but not limited to, African American protagonists. The key is to make sure that everyone is being represented in the cases that we teach here on campus and globally. It feels incredible to do our part in advancing education at business schools around the world.

AP: It's amazing to have been able to use our roles to represent the student body and push an initiative that has been desired for so long. I think it's really important to emphasize that diversifying case protagonists is not our own unique idea, but we're excited that we were in the position to help move it forward and start a larger conversation. We're cautiously optimistic. The Pledge was a great catalyst to help shake up the way things have been for so long, but there is still so much work to be done, and we don't want to ignore that. We're looking forward to what the next year will bring!

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