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Origins: How it Began

A Meeting of the Minds

Supporting current doctoral students in accounting would help those individuals and align with KPMG’s interests.  But it was a small dent in the larger challenge of attracting a vastly bigger pool of underrepresented minorities to become professors in all business disciplines. Only four African-Americans surfaced to qualify for the new KPMG scholarships. (Milano would soon meet a fifth, a doctoral student at Stanford named Michael Clement.) This paucity distressed him and the KPMG Foundation trustees, who stood ready to grant more scholarships—but had no takers.

A momentous decision resulted. The trustees authorized Milano to close their multimillion dollar spigot of support for research and divert the resources toward increasing faculty diversity. All of them accountants, and few of them with extensive experience in human resources or academia, they made one more decision: they entrusted Bernie Milano to figure out how to do it.

By now Milano had been on the circuit of academic meetings long enough and had met enough deans and department heads to grasp the landscape. Much of what he saw puzzled him. He observed that deans and department chairs largely stepped back from their doctoral programs, and especially from doctoral admissions, deferring to faculty groups to run these. As a result, if an institution had  a  strategic direction or priority, that institution had no high level leader to impart it to the doctoral program. Additionally, despite the increasingly apparent need to diversify their faculties, few university doctoral programs actively recruited students of any color: applicants were already plentiful. PhD programs were a small slice of a university’s structure; they lacked meaningful marketing budgets. Anyway, universities  did not seem to view the absence of doctoral student  diversity  with concern. Doctoral students were not a pipeline to diversifying their faculties: universities almost never hire their own graduating doctoral students. All in all, the dean had other things to care about.

This was the climate into which Milano had been thrust by his trustees with a mandate to create change. He may not have been a member of the academic club, but he had three other strengths: an outsider’s ability to see things with a fresh eye, a businessperson’s style of problem-solving and a good amount of KPMG money.

Milano did what any businessperson would do. He called a meeting.

St. Louis was, in September 1993, home to AACSB, one of the 1989-92 MSI program’s sponsors. That connection, plus its central location, made it a logical choice to host what was in essence a summit meeting on diversity in business doctoral program admissions. With $5,000 supplied by KPMG and $5,000 from Citibank, Milano and Thorp rented a hotel conference room and invited many of the people they had been talking to over the past two years: deans, doctoral program heads, any African-American business professors they could locate, the former director of the MSI program, representatives of GMAC and other members of organizations concerned with the issue. There had not previously been such a group; the two men simply called people they respected. “It wasn’t scientific,” Thorp would later recount. “We just went and did it.”

About two weeks before the meeting, Milano and Thorp realized they had forgotten something: an actual, live PhD student who was African-American living the life the meeting would address: someone who could relate the highs and lows of the experience and hopefully inform the group’s thinking.

“There’s a fellow who used to work at the bank with me,” Thorp remembered. “Bright as anything. MBA from the University of Chicago. On track to go far. And then he left us to enroll in the accounting doctorate program at Stanford. Let’s ask him.”

Thorp picked up his phone and dialed his ex-colleague, Michael Clement. “Michael,” he said, “I need you to attend a meeting in St. Louis.”

Clement had not hesitated much in acceding to Thorp’s request. Breaking away from his wife, son and their long-awaited Lake Tahoe vacation would not be fun for anyone. But he was excited by the thought that an influential group of people wanted to address the absence of African-Americans in the field in which he was, unbeknownst to them, now floundering.

Moreover, they wanted to hear what he had to say. And he was thinking about something that had troubled him all his adult life. Through his formative and early working years, he had known many

smart, capable African-Americans failing to reach their career potential. One of the primary factors, he had noticed, was that they had no role models—an adult in their family or circle of friends—to encourage them to reach higher.

Clement needed to interrupt his vacation to fly  to  St. Louis and tell this group about… his father.

About a dozen representatives of various organizations had assembled in the meeting room of an airport hotel. After all the introductions had been made, and participant after participant shared their views on the diversity challenge, Milano turned to Clement and asked him to tell the group what it was like to be an African-American doctoral student.

Clement told them first about his father, who was a professor and the leading role model in his life. His dad, he explained, had motivated him more than anyone he had ever known, had emphasized the importance of education ever since he could remember and was one of the primary reasons for his success. He explained the difference between himself and other talented minorities he knew, whom he thought capable of becoming professors but wouldn’t. He had a role model and they didn’t. He told why he was entering academia: “I’ve seen my dad do things I thought were meaningful. I want to do something meaningful too.”

He told them of his 80-year test: “When I get to be 80 years old and I look back on my career, what will I have done? Will I feel good about what I have accomplished?”

He spoke, too, about the challenges and loneliness facing an African-American student in an overwhelmingly white environment. One detail he did not mention was his recent failure at the comprehensive exams. This was because in reciting his 80-year test to this group, he felt his inner spark re-ignite. He knew then that he would return to Stanford, do whatever it might take to pass his “comps” and earn the degree. Therefore, there was no need to share this momentary setback with the group.

The group discussed, analyzed and debated all the issues all day, and into the next. It was clear that something had to be done, and there was enough energy and commitment in the room to make it likely that something would be done. Exactly what form that might take had not yet emerged. But having heard Clement tell his story, from a perspective they had not fully encountered before, they understood in a way they had not before, that creating role models was crucial to creating more minority graduates in business. “To increase minority representation among business school graduates, it is necessary to increase minority representation in the front of the classroom—the faculty,” a written recap of the meeting later reported.

The group agreed to continue their discussions, reach out to others who might add new insights and ideas and reconvene in a few months.

Re-energized, Clement returned to his vacationing wife and son, and then back for the semester to Stanford, where he signed up for supplemental math classes. These would enable him to pass his exams the following spring, go on to earn his PhD and become a respected professor at the University of Texas, Austin (see For Everyone Who Comes After You).

Leaving the St. Louis hotel he thought, “Whatever this group decides to do, it will probably happen five or 10 years from now.”

Being businesspeople, Milano and Thorp did not understand the concept of something taking 10 years. And Milano left the meeting with a different takeaway after hearing Clement’s story. “Here’s someone who gave up a nice home and a great job at Citibank,” he mused. “He was appointed by the CEO to sit on company task forces. He gave that up to become a professor—and his wife was pregnant.

“If someone like Michael Clement would give up all that for this…there must be others.”