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At Harvard Business School, diversity remains elusive

Frustrated, Harvard business professor Steven Rogers is retiring.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

For seven years, Steven Rogers has been unrelenting in his push to include more diverse voices in Harvard Business School’s celebrated case studies, its primary tool for helping students understand how real-life business executives tackle crucial decisions.

But this past year, Rogers, one of a handful of black professors at the business school, faced an executive dilemma of his own: What do you do if you are frustrated by your employer’s lack of African-Americans in its faculty, leadership, student body, and featured in its curriculum?

For Rogers, 62, the answer was retirement. The senior lecturer, who has been featured in Harvard’s internal publications for his efforts to excavate and study the stories of overlooked African-American business leaders, said he will step down from teaching at the country’s premier business school, discouraged that the institution has given short shrift to the black experience.


“I love the place, but I’m disappointed,” Rogers said during a recent interview in his corner office above the business school’s Baker Library. “After complaining and making a statement about that, it’s time for me to go.”

The numbers tell the story, Rogers said.

Just nine of the business school’s 270 faculty members are black, about 3 percent. Business school Dean Nitin Nohria’s academic leadership team includes several women and South Asians, but there are no black members. Less than 5 percent of the 500 active business case studies feature black business leaders, many of them written by Rogers. And the percentage of black students at the business school remained unchanged for a decade: It was 5 percent last fall, the same as in 2008.

Rogers acknowledges he was also denied a promotion last year, in part fueling his frustration.

Still, he said, the issues go beyond him, and he took the unusual step in August of e-mailing his concerns to Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow. He is also speaking publicly about the racial disparities, what he calls an “anti-black bias,” and the university’s slow progress in addressing the problem.


Harvard Business School, with 2,000 students, is among the most competitive programs in the world, educating influential corporate and government leaders, including billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg; banking giant JP Morgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon; and Elaine Chao, the US transportation secretary.

It matters if black people and the black experience are left out at Harvard, Rogers said, because that can have reverberations across corporate and Main Street America.

“We are training people who are going to be leaders,” said Rogers, a former lampshade manufacturing company owner who has taught for more than two decades. “And if they don’t have an appreciation for the inclusion of black people, then black America gets hurt. . . . All this stuff trickles down.”

Harvard officials acknowledge African-Americans are under-represented at the business school. But the university’s administrators and officials at the school said expanding diversity is a priority.

The business school has created two new positions to work on diversity and inclusion issues and recruit more black, Latino, and other under-represented minority students. The school is also developing more case studies with black protagonists, officials said.

“Based on the current dip in some areas of faculty diversity, it appears the business school is at a lull right now,” said John Wilson, a senior adviser to Harvard’s president on diversity initiatives. “They are looking to strengthen both diversity and the campus culture. . . . I believe that the lull is not going to last long.”


But Wilson, a former president of the historically black Morehouse College, said he understands that some at Harvard may be frustrated by how slowly change is coming.

Hiring more African-American faculty can be a challenge, Harvard officials said.

Few tenured faculty leave Harvard, meaning that a limited number of positions open up every year, officials said.

Nationwide, the number of African-Americans receiving doctoral degrees, which is generally a step toward a long-term position in academia, also remains low. Just 9 percent of students earning doctorates in 2016 were black, up from 7 percent in 2001. White students make up 68 percent of doctoral degree earners, according to the US Department of Education.

“There are not that many candidates that are fantastic and at the level the HBS hires,” said Kathleen McGinn, a senior associate dean for faculty strategy and recruiting at the business school. “We want to grow the faculty and diversify the faculty.”

McGinn and others at the business school said Harvard has also lost candidates because their partners couldn’t find positions in the area, or were lured by the warm weather and smaller program at Stanford University.

And Boston’s fraught history with desegregation and race can make Harvard a tough sell for African-American academics, current and former professors said.

McGinn said the business school created summer programs for undergraduate minority students to work with faculty in hopes of encouraging budding academics.


The school has also expanded its teaching staff and this fall will have 25 new faculty, including four African-Americans, McGinn said.

But top business schools also continue to recruit faculty with degrees from a handful of other elite schools, and networking and connections remain key to landing a job at Harvard, said Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor of management at Georgetown University and a former Harvard faculty member.

Morgan Roberts said she had professors in graduate school who helped mentor her and connect her to academics at Harvard. At Harvard she received support from faculty and the business school dean, but she said not all black academics have as fortunate a path.

“The data tells me it is brutal,” Morgan Roberts said. “It’s still incredibly difficult for an African-American PhD to be hired at one of the top business schools.”

Morgan Roberts cowrote “Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience,” which will be released this fall and grew out of a study of African-Americans at Harvard’s business school. She found that while the school is making gains in diversity, the number of black faculty members is so small that even the loss of one or two can be disruptive.

Discussions about race also remain difficult at business schools and may explain the shortage of case studies with black protagonists, she said.

Commerce isn’t just about great ideas and well-managed companies, but also who provides the labor and whether the workers are enslaved or paid equitably, and whether some businesses struggle because of racial obstacles, Morgan Roberts said.


“There are dozens of business school faculty who are afraid when race or even gender comes up in the classroom,” she said. “They won’t know what to do.”

Linda A. Hill, one of two black tenured professors at Harvard’s business school, said that while the university should improve its diversity, she doesn’t believe it’s for a lack of trying that problems persist. She has been given leadership opportunities throughout her career.

But she knows that some Harvard business alumni have been concerned that diversity efforts at the school have only focused on gender.

The school faced pressure to make changes from female alumni who complained about being excluded. In 2014, Nohria, the business school dean, apologized for the school’s historic treatment of women and promised to increase the percentage of women in the case studies to 20 percent by 2019, from 9 percent. That goal has been exceeded for the studies used by first-year business students, Harvard officials said.

Rogers said the school must make similar efforts for blacks. As an alumnus of the business school, he’ll be watching for progress.

“Change has to happen intentionally,” Rogers said. “I’ve done my job in surfacing this issue.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.