09 Oct 2020

The Plan for Racial Equity at HBS: In Their Own Words

Unvarnished, candid first-person voices on the process, the plan, and its ambitious goals

by Shona Simkin

Following the international reverberations and racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd, on July 1, Harvard Business School’s (HBS) Chief Information Officer Ron Chandler, Senior Associate Dean for Community and Culture Jan Hammond, and Senior Associate Dean and Chair of the MBA Program Jan Rivkin gathered with a group of 25 students, faculty, staff, and alumni. It was the first meeting of the Dean’s Anti-Racism Task Force to address racial equity at HBS.

In short order, the team identified seven workstreams (curriculum; research and dissemination; faculty and doctoral; students and participants; staff; business engagement; and organization and culture) tied to four broad areas of focus (advancing anti-racism education and research, supporting the Black community at HBS, engaging the broader business community, and changing our culture and organization). Forty-seven additional members of the HBS community also joined the task force, adding their expertise to the growing recommendations.

Less than three months later, on September 23, the team unveiled their ambitious plan, introduced by a letter from Dean Nohria. The plan is the work of the 73 members of the community; the result of research, conversations, soul-searching, difficult discussions, data investigation, drafts, meetings, outreach, and feedback from hundreds of HBS students, alumni, staff, and faculty.

To bring in more individual, personal voices, we sat down with the three co-chairs and Dilan Gomih (MBA 2019), who served as the project manager. Below are some of their first-person accounts of their experience on the task force, their collective and individual efforts, and what they hope for the future and continuation of this important work.

Jan Rivkin, Senior Associate Dean and Chair of the MBA Program; Co-Chair, Dean’s Anti-Racism Task Force

On the background

During the June 11 community conversation on race, I found myself frustrated at the school in a way that I rarely am. We should not have been so far behind on an issue that was so predictable. The fact that an unarmed black man would be killed in a US city should—tragically—come as a surprise to no one. In fact, one of the most sickening parts of it was that it was so unsurprising. I felt that we were caught without a plan on an issue, racial equity, that we really should have had a plan for long ago.

Inclusion has been a priority since Nitin became Dean in 2010, and there have been meaningful efforts on race at HBS—such as the AASU50 celebration in 2018, which was a massive lift and essential to what we were able to do this summer. So we weren’t starting from scratch. Still, it felt like we were starting from far behind. We came together on July 1 and sized up where we stood. We set an ambitious timeline for the work. On the other hand, the work was long overdue.

On the goals

In many ways this process exemplified the very benefits of diversity that we hope to embed in our educational programs widely. One of the priorities of the MBA Program has been to help our students become leaders who can make the most out of differences. We envision our students going out into a world full of human differences—in race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, politics, class, religion, nationality—you name it. We want to teach our students how to turn those differences into sources of insight and creativity. And that’s what happened during the Task Force’s work: a diverse team came up with a plan far better than anything a homogenous team could have delivered.

I started the work convinced that if we did the work well it would make meaningful differences for the Black members of our community. I believe that's true—it has to be true, and we have to make it happen. Over the course of the summer, I came to see that the work was actually an opportunity to make HBS better for everyone: to do better scholarship, to deliver a better education, to be a better employer. It turns out that when you make HBS a better place for the Black members of our community, you simply make HBS a better place.

Ron Chandler, Chief Information Officer; Co-Chair, Dean’s Anti-Racism Task Force

On his perspective

It was important to me to express my point of view as Black man and a relatively new member of the HBS community in addition to being one of the co-chairs of this effort. It was also important to me that we keep our authentic voice expressed in this work, even if it was on the edge of what our counsel would be comfortable with. I did not want a watered-down document. As painful as it may be, the need and desire to address racial equity in our community is strong. Having said that, it's also important that it's a balanced perspective. While we don’t want to avoid discomfort, it has to be at a tolerable level so that we can achieve maximum engagement from members of our community. I believe that we are accomplishing this.

On the plan

We do not assume that we have the moral authority to tell other organizations how to operate appropriately in this space, but we are committed to getting better so that we can one day feel comfortable with providing more leadership and guidance. In this work, we’re asking ourselves how we might take the generous resources that we have at HBS and use them to 1) train leaders who are sensitive to inclusion 2) demonstrate better corporate citizenship, and 3) become effective community partners.

We must regularly ask ourselves if we are doing the right things so that vendors in the Black community around the Boston region are able to provide for-fee services to HBS. Let me emphasize that this conversation is about doing and investing more in Black and other underrepresented minority groups. It is not about taking something away from one group to give to another; this is not a zero-sum game!

This work continues to be a conversation that is baked in humanity and the knowledge that we can do better. We're committed to doing better, we're committed to being guided by truth in this work. The plan doesn’t just reflect my voice, or the single voice any other person, it represents the collection of the voices of the 73 people that were involved, and their conversations with many others. The fact that this plan was developed by a great representation of the HBS community provides me comfort and makes it easy to defend. It feels right! It is daunting to think about the all of the work that lies before us in this effort and we know that a multi-year roadmap will guide us with intention. This launch of the plan is only the beginning. The real work starts now. We need to make sure that we stay true to this work, even in the face of new leadership.

Jan Hammond, Senior Associate Dean for Community and Culture; Co-Chair, Dean’s Anti-Racism Task Force

On the task force

Ron, Jan and I had a previous experience that really influenced the way that we designed and ran this task force. In March when we had to go online, all three of us were part of the Virtual Teaching Task Force, which had to figure out how the heck to get all the students and faculty up and ready on Zoom, and how to ensure OLFs were trained and ready, how to get the hardware and put in place all the protocols that we needed. A tremendous amount of work needed to be done in a short amount of time. We quickly realized that the integration of faculty and staff at all levels led to much better decision making—everyone was contributing, everyone was equal, and we could see the full caliber of the capabilities of all of the individuals in the group. Similarly, in the Anti-Racism Task Force, we had faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and again I felt that everybody had a voice, and nobody's voice was more important than anyone else's. Although these two task forces had very different purposes, we could readily see the benefits that can arise from having working groups that have a broad range of people where the hierarchy almost disappears. It's not about who is in charge, it's about who has ideas, who has information, who knows how to get it done.

The main topics that we started with came out of our discussion with the AASU co-presidents. They have been amazing partners in this work. Over the past few years, through the students’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council, Jan Rivkin and I have developed deeper relationships with the students across different clubs and identity groups. In our conversations with AASU leadership this summer, it became clear that we all shared common goals. Our collective goals allowed us to create the overall action plan structure and to build the seven workstreams that flowed underneath it. That allowed us to be very specific and purposeful about who we asked to be in each workstream; who would be most in tune with the activities associated with the workstream.

On racism

In our early discussions we really had to talk about how institutional, systemic racism differs from intentional, individual racism. It’s been difficult for some people to talk about racism at HBS, because they didn't fully understand the difference between the two. No one was casting blame at any individuals. But to make change, we first had to develop a common understanding about what it means to have institutional or systemic racism.

On the importance of data

I think it is extremely important to collect and report data. We need to be out there and be transparent and say, “here are our numbers.” If we're going to make progress, we need to first measure and share where we are—what the baselines are for key metrics. Then we need to measure what programs or choices we make move the needle on those metrics. I’ve been very happy by the School’s willingness to be transparent about the data. Transparency really keeps us honest.

We have learned a lot about data collection and reporting through this process. For example, there are specific federal guidelines for student reporting that don’t allow for multiple ethnic identities. We thought those guidelines were distorting the true story. I wanted to be sure we could report all racial or ethnic identities. Chad Losee, director of Admissions and Financial Aid, has been very responsive to this request, and we now report the student data (see the report’s data section) in two different ways to provide additional transparency.

Dilan Gomih (MBA 2019), Project Manager, Dean’s Anti-Racism Task Force

On her role

One of the best parts of being the project manager was that I got to be the bee that's cross-pollinating—when I hear an idea in a meeting, I can connect that with what I heard in a different meeting and make sure that those two people talk separately about their similar ideas, so that work isn’t duplicated or at cross-purposes. I get the most satisfaction from helping people be efficient with their time while also making sure that we were all working toward the end goal.

I am very grateful that at no point did I feel reserved about sharing my experience as a Black woman at HBS. It was very much part of our process that nothing was going to get fixed unless everyone could be absolutely candid. And I felt that both for myself and for others who shared their own experiences. It helped me feel a lot better and more motivated to know that I was doing this from a place that was more than just doing a job, but in which my voice felt heard--as an alum, as someone who this directly impacts, so that other people who look like me will be impacted. In roles like this you get a front seat to how authentic it really is, and it meant a lot knowing that it was genuine.

On the project and plan

This project started in the midst of a lot of scrutiny, which will be ongoing, and I think the co-chairs and administrative team navigated it very gracefully. The iterations of this plan went through the workstreams, through meetings with different constituent groups, and along the way there was critique and pushback. There was a receptiveness to learning and to listening, and also to making space for doing so along the way. That represents very strong leadership, and I learned a lot from it.

One of the moments I appreciated the most was the recognition that it's not just about a plan that's for people of color but that it's a plan to educate our community as a whole and to make it so that anyone who comes to HBS leaves with a deeper understanding of what it means to be inclusive, what it means to really be a leader making a difference in the world. It has the full context and the full breadth of who in the world they are impacting as a business leader.

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