“Lake Tahoe,” thought doctoral student Michael Clement. “That’s what I need. It’s what we all need right now.”
The bracing Sierra Nevada breezes of Tahoe, just a few hours’ drive from the pressure cooker that is Stanford University, seemed an ideal late summer cure for the grueling 1993-94 academic year he—and by extension his young family—had just endured.
Endured, but perhaps not survived.
A highly regarded rising executive at Citibank, Clement had dramatically shifted course a few years earlier. Gaining a glimpse at the pinnacles of investment banking, he had paused to reflect on the quality of life—and the impact on others— his father had as a college professor. Contrasting the two professions, Clement resigned from Citibank to enroll at Stanford in the demanding five-year doctoral program that would qualify him to become an accounting professor.
And, like countless other doctoral students before and after him, he was stunned to learn just how demanding the path was.
Nothing he had encountered in banking was as difficult. So tough that he and a fellow student had developed a private comedy routine to relieve the stress. Meeting by their mailboxes regularly, they would peer in to see if this was the day the dean had finally begun inquiring if they were ready to consider moving on to new endeavors.
“What were we thinking when we signed up for this?” Clement would ask his colleague.
“And what were they thinking when they let us in?” the friend would reply, as both men roared with laughter.
But alone, Clement wondered if this path was exceptionally difficult because he was a minority in a sea of white faces. It was a question he could not answer. There was no one to ask.
Clement didn’t realize it then, but he was one of a handful of African-American doctoral students in accounting in the entire country.
All of them, and likely their counterparts in all business discipline doctoral programs, were in the same boat—and struggling in it. Few people outside the inner circles of academe realized how difficult it was to earn a doctorate. The dropout rate was notoriously high. The lack of role models and mentors from a similar cultural background wasn’t helping matters: back in the early 1990s, if you counted all the African- Americans who were accounting professors, you’d be counting a handful.
And then, in the spring of 1993, Clement had failed his comprehensive exams.
“Comps” are the last hurdle a doctoral student must clear before tackling the dissertation that leads to completion of the degree. And Clement had missed it.
Suddenly, the doubts he had always eased with his comedy routine could not be dispelled so readily. Serious thoughts about dropping the program and returning to business entered his mind.
A Lake Tahoe vacation between semesters looked like the ideal way to break from the stress, do some thinking and catch up on family time. Clement and his wife booked the trip.
And then, about a week before the departure date, Clement received an unexpected phone call from New York.
“I need you to attend a meeting in St. Louis two weeks from now,” said Peter Thorp, an executive at Citibank whom Clement had worked with and admired.
Prepared to say no instantly, Clement listened further out of respect and loyalty. Thorp, who was heavily involved in Citi’s charitable foundation and university relations, took several minutes to explain the situation.
Clement hung up the phone, wondering how to tell his wife that she’d be spending a few days of their long-anticipated Tahoe break alone with their baby son
Dr. Theresa Hammond was dismayed by the consistency with which zeroes were appearing in the dozens of letters that filled her mailbox.
A white PhD in accounting who had once interned at a top global firm, Dr. Hammond had become interested in the relative absence of African-Americans in the accounting profession. Her interest filled first her 1990 dissertation and ultimately a book.
It had not been an easy road initially. Faculty and administrators at her university pressured her to abandon the topic. Puzzled at first—academia had historically supported equal opportunity—it took her a while to realize that major global accounting firms were significant funders of accounting education, and universities feared running any risk of offending them. Only one accounting professor had agreed to sit on the faculty committee to guide and judge her doctoral dissertation—a highly unusual state of affairs.
Undeterred, Dr. Hammond populated her committee with professors in other disciplines, even non-business ones. Their encouragement bolstered her resolve to continue on.
One of the scholarly works Dr. Hammond found in her research argued that students of color, in choosing a college major, were highly influenced by whether they knew a professor of color in that field—a potential role model and mentor.
With three degrees to her credit, Dr. Hammond had seen very few minorities standing in front of the classroom. Wondering if her experiences were unique, she wrote to 100 doctoral granting universities with three questions: How many African-American faculty do you have? How many African-American doctoral students? How many have you ever produced? This was when the letters full of zeroes began pouring in to her mailbox. Dr. Hammond had just found her next research topic.
It was 1991. Gathering a handful of names from her initial outreach, she wrote to each African-American doctoral student she had located and asked them to discuss their “unique concerns in attaining a doctorate.” One of the candidates who responded was a second year doctoral student at Stanford University, Michael Clement, who invited Dr. Hammond to call him anytime she wished—anytime before 8 A.M.
The audit engagement had gone well, but an unsettling undertone emerged in the post-audit debriefing. The CEO of the public company, a prominent retailer with a heavily female customer base, looked over the conference table at the all-male team from KPMG and declared to them, “To understand our business, you need to understand our customer base.”
KPMG immediately dispatched a star female audit leader from another state to join the team, and the engagement was saved. Word of the close call eventually reached the ears of the KPMG partner who headed KPMG’s university recruiting program, Bernard Milano.
A KPMG lifer out of the Philadelphia office, Milano had been recognized by firm leaders for a combination, rare in the profession, of strong people skills and managerial strengths. They transferred him to run KPMG’s far-flung nationwide campus recruiting system, which hired more than a thousand new graduates yearly. Ultimately, he rose to head all human resources functions for the firm.
His was a critical mission: in public accounting, where turnover of young employees is historically high, new hires are the lifeblood of a major firm’s staffing function. Inside a firm like KPMG, the head of university hiring was one of the people considered most accountable for the ultimate success or failure of its junior associates.
Closely attuned to the social and business trends that drove corporate human resources, Milano was keenly aware in the early 1990s—a quarter century after the civil rights movement—that hiring a diverse work force was no longer a matter of affirmative action. With the U.S. population growing more diverse and business increasingly global, it was now a business imperative. The story of the unhappy CEO facing an all-male audit team was no great surprise to Milano. He had already been exploring ways to hire more women and underrepresented minorities, and had begun thinking deeply about why more African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans did not enter the profession. But the anecdote was the incident that snapped the firm to attention on the issue of diversity hiring. Milano noted that a tipping point had occurred. He foresaw that it might alter his priorities, not for firm hiring operations, but for his other responsibility: running the firm’s charitable foundation.
A strategic leader and master networker, Milano understood that building deeper ties with business school academics would enhance his undergraduate recruitment efforts. As head of the KPMG Foundation, Milano oversaw a grant-awarding machine that generously supported academic research in accounting. Given the twin roles, he sat on numerous committees and boards of organizations connected with accounting and business education. Virtually any time that higher education and the accounting profession intersected, Milano was likely to be in the room. Traveling extensively to attend these meetings, he frequently saw the same faces seated around each table: corporate executives like him who hired college students, and representatives of the academic institutions that supplied them. Among this group, camaraderie and friendships developed amid the business meetings.
In coffee breaks and hallway chatter—and even occasionally on the formal agenda—talk sometimes turned to the dismally low rate of minority enrollment in business education. Many in the room, though deeply sympathetic to the goal, would throw up their hands in resignation and say they had tried everything they could think of.
Others would join Milano, shaking their heads in disbelief and disagreement. Among them was Theresa Hammond, now a professor at Boston College, who showed her emerging research on minorities in accounting education to Milano. Also in that camp was Dr. Melvin Stith, the energetic new dean of the business school at Florida State University, and a rarity as the African-American head of a prominent majority-serving business school. Another in that group was Milano’s counterpart at KPMG client Citibank: an iconoclastic, bowtie-clad, blunt-speaking executive named Peter Thorp.
As many in this community were discovering, a growing body of research into the reasons for the scarcity of minorities completing higher education was emerging. From scholars like James Blackwell and Claude Steele, evidence was building that minority students were disadvantaged by stereotyping and the absence of role models and mentors who looked like them. This was especially so in business education: in the early 1990s, there were fewer than 300 doctorally qualified African-American, Hispanic-American or Native American professors in accounting, finance, information systems, management and marketing combined, in the entire United States.
So there were scant few role models for minority high school seniors to emulate and therefore few reasons to enroll in business school. Those who did enroll usually found no culturally attuned, simpatico minority professors to mentor them through the rigors of a Bachelor’s program.
A change in thinking gradually took form. Until then, the academic establishment had shown little active interest in the racial makeup of its doctoral student bodies. “Affirmative action” and “equal opportunity” had been the bywords of diversity hiring for decades. Now, a new thought took hold: today’s doctoral students are tomorrow’s professors, role models, inspirations and mentors for generations of young people. If we can attract more minorities to become business professors, we can attract more minorities to become business undergraduates.
Diversify the front of the classroom, and you can diversify the rest of the classroom.
One early approach had emerged in 1989. Focusing on all five business disciplines, a group of academics and supporting organizations launched a Minority Summer Institute (MSI) at the University of Michigan.
Their plan was to attract a high-potential cohort of business undergraduates—minorities who were juniors and seniors—and offer them a content-rich summer exposure to a career in academia. The hope was that they would then pursue the career path to the professorate. Typically, this entailed a four to five year apprenticeship—the doctoral program—that provided the credentials needed to become a professor.
By all accounts, MSI was a well-designed and well-run program. But after four cycles, MSI had graduated 131 participants, yet produced just one doctoral program enrollee. Its disappointed organizers declared the effort a failure and shut it down.
It was the residue of this disappointment that infused much of the nay-saying Milano and Thorp were encountering in the early 1990s as they attended meetings with their academic cousins.
But there was no such defeatism in Tallahassee, Florida, where Mel Stith had become dean of the Florida State business school in 1991. On Dean Stith’s agenda were to establish the four decade old undergraduate program as one of the nation’s best and largest, build new facilities and multiply its endowment several fold. He would go on to accomplish all that and more, to the great satisfaction of his university. But he had another goal which did not at all initially please some. Dr. Stith intended to significantly increase the representation of minorities in the doctoral program.
The faculty meeting actually grew heated. Doctoral student Mark Dawkins, permitted to sit in, was surprised by what he was hearing more than a quarter century after the civil rights era. Angry faculty members accused his mentor, Dean Stith, of lowering academic standards by admitting so many minority PhD students. “Do they mean me?” he wondered. “Do they mean my friends?”
The doctoral student’s concern turned to admiration and respect for his mentor, as he watched Dean Stith disarm the opposition. Citing statistics and facts, he demonstrated that the overall performance on admissions exams of the school’s minority doctoral students had been higher than those of the majority entrants. The issue was settled, and Florida State went on to become a national leader in attracting minority doctoral students. (Once when questioned by the university provost about his ambitious agenda in this regard, Stith had coolly replied, “If the football coach can recruit nationally, so can I.”
Dean Stith’s commitment to minority enrollment—and his success in meeting it—did not go unnoticed by Milano and Thorp. It was also duly noted and applauded by another African-American dean the businessmen had befriended: Dr. Quiester Craig, longtime head of the business program at North Carolina A&T University, one of the nation’s leading historically Black universities (HBCUs).
A veteran of the early civil rights marches, Dr. Craig presented a genial country manner, sharp business acumen and a rock– solid determination to advance the cause of diversity in business education. His program did not grant doctorates in business, but he did hire faculty. The discovery that people in the business community were asking questions about faculty diversity was a thrilling one. If they succeeded, he could hire more African-American professors to teach his African-American students.
For years, Dr. Craig had been making the case among fellow deans for expanded minority representation at the doctorate and faculty levels at their predominantly white institutions. Most of the responses had consisted of platitudes, promises and excuses. The collapse of the MSI program had been a serious setback. Two businessmen suggesting to try something new? Dean Craig realized immediately that this time, his fellow deans would have to listen: Big companies were a business school’s customers.
Craig saw the power of aligning with these men. From the start, he would be one of the strongest, most reliable sources of encouragement and information for not only the people who created The PhD Project but all of its doctoral students and professors.
And now, Mel Stith was demonstrating that increasing doctoral diversity was not Mission Impossible after all.
The two deans and the two businessmen also detected what they considered a potentially significant flaw in the MSI model. That program had targeted recent Bachelor’s graduates—the cohort that historically populated business doctoral programs. Anyone much past their mid-20s was too old to become a professor, according to prevailing wisdom.
But the minority population was different.
In late 20th century America, business undergraduates from underrepresented minorities were typically first-generation college students. Inspired at some point in their youth to pursue a degree in business, they had enrolled in business school aiming to secure their slice of the American Dream—a position in Corporate America. Many came from underprivileged backgrounds in which no family member had ever gone to work in a corporate office. Virtually none had a parent, uncle or neighbor with a PhD in business to present the model of a career in academia. Many had overcome significant hardship and amassed considerable student loan debt in arriving at their senior year. And with the dream goal of a business career tantalizingly close, along came MSI to suggest an entirely different path.
So, Milano and his colleagues thought. They’ve overcome obstacles and taken on debt to finally arrive at the cusp of the job they’ve dreamed of. Now someone proposes they stay in school five more years to get a degree they never heard of. No surprise that didn’t work.
Was there then no hope, they wondered at first.
And then Milano and Thorp thought of the countless enthusiastic young people entering their companies every year with high hopes, only to abandon the dream a few years later. For any one of numerous reasons, significant numbers of new recruits were growing dissatisfied with corporate life before mid-career. Moreover, women and minorities seemed especially vulnerable to this. For females, it was often the need for a family-friendly career that sent them looking for employment in other sectors. For minorities, it was frequently a growing desire to define satisfaction more broadly than by income— they yearned for the opportunity to serve their communities and impact more than a corporate bottom line.
That’s the crowd that might want to become business professors, Milano and his colleagues realized.
But how? someone asked. How do we reach them?