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Origins: How it Began

Creating a Network of Support

Carolyn Callahan endured in silence the indignity of being pushed in a wheelchair through bustling Newark Airport. Fiercely independent and highly accomplished as  a  scholar,  she  was  not happy about being transported in this manner. But she knew she was simply not capable at that moment of getting from gate to taxi on her own power.

Just a few weeks earlier, she had undergone major surgery to resolve a potentially life threatening condition. Arguably, she should not have been traveling at all. But she had made it this far, from South Bend, Indiana where she was a rising star on the accounting faculty of Notre Dame, and she was determined to reach Montvale, New Jersey.

Montvale, about an hour from New York City, was where KPMG based many of its support functions, including the university recruiting and charitable foundation activities that Bernie Milano directed. It was March 24, 1994, about six months after the St. Louis meeting, and much had transpired since then. Throughout the late fall and early winter, ideas and suggestions had flown over the phone lines and fax machines of the St. Louis group and its widening circle. That January, about 20 of them had met in Montvale amid a brutal winter storm that stunned the attendees from Southern states into vowing they would never again set foot in New Jersey in winter. That session had led to the call for this larger meeting. The calendar declared it the third day of spring: January participants, Southerners included, returned— and with them nearly 20 more newcomers—to the emerging initiative.

On one hand, Dr. Callahan might have been inclined to dislike the KPMG Foundation’s decision to shut down its large scale funding of accounting research: she had been one of the beneficiaries of this mainstay program. But she was an African-American woman, risen from poverty to achieve a position in academia that few others of her background had. Upon hearing that a group convened by her benefactor wanted to examine the struggles of African-Americans in business academia, Carolyn Callahan dismissed any health concerns and booked a flight to New Jersey. When she arrived at the KPMG complex in Montvale, she walked directly to the front row and sat right in the middle of it. Looking around her, she could not believe that this many people cared enough about diversity in business school to be present. For years, as an African-American woman, she had felt utterly alone.

The January Montvale meeting had been noteworthy, and not only for the epic winter storm (which had stranded some participants, and which the New York Times labeled in a headline the  “Worst Possible Combination of Rain, Sleet and Snow”) The formal recap of that meeting said that the day “may well have generated more questions than it answered.” But, the report added, “Certainly, we all came away with a new awareness of the scope of the problems  confronting minority students at the doctoral level.”

This, in itself, was a milestone. Senior people in academia and business had not thought about and discussed such thoughts before to this extent.

By the March meeting, KPMG and its Foundation were moving toward two goals: creating a national organization for African- American doctoral students in accounting, and creating a “National Committee to Recruit African-Americans into Accounting Doctoral Programs.” At this meeting, similar concerns regarding all five business disciplines were on the table. In the conference agenda binder, on a chart captioned “What can you do?” was this entry: “Support formation of a national organization for African-American PhDs.”

Accompanying Dean Stith to Montvale was the fourth year doctoral student who had watched him stare down prejudice in his department, Mark Dawkins. Dawkins joined Clement, who had come in from California, and other doctoral students to help the larger group understand what made them tick: what had motivated them, what in their backgrounds had prepared them, what obstacles and challenges stood in their path and how they were handling them. The four students who had received the scholarships KPMG had created a few months earlier (a fifth was awarded to Clement on the day Milano met him in St. Louis) sat on a panel and told their stories.

Among them was the late Sandra Shelton, in the final year of her doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. For four years, until the day she was invited to join Dawkins, Clement and the others, she had believed that she must be the only African-American PhD candidate in accounting anywhere in the country.

Dr. Callahan and the African-American doctoral students present listened attentively as the mostly white academic crowd engaged in soul searching over what they could do differently, and additionally, to increase minority enrollment.

When Dr. Callahan finally rose to speak from the floor, she recounted her own story: born in poverty to a factory worker and a domestic, she had excelled with numbers and was driven to succeed in accounting. Deciding to become an accounting professor, her skills and talent clearly visible, she had nonetheless encountered skepticism and prejudice in academia—far more than she had in the business world. She spoke eloquently and in detail of the extraordinary isolation and alienation she had experienced as a doctoral student. Despite support from her business school, “it felt like the loneliest place in the world” for an African-American woman, she recounted. When something went against her, she could not tell if it was something typical of everyone’s doctoral experience or because of her identity. And which identity: as a female, a mother, an African-American?

It was clear, from what she and the doctoral  students recounted, that the rising desire to increase minority enrollment presented a serious dilemma: if the effort succeeded, it would drive minorities into an environment and career path that could traumatize some of them, if not lead them to failure.

This, Milano knew, could not be allowed to happen. When Dr. Callahan finished speaking, he declared, “We are going to fix that.” “How?” asked Dr. Callahan.

“I don’t know yet, but I promise you that we will,” Milano responded.

Although it wasn’t yet apparent, this was the moment when The PhD Project Doctoral Students Associations, a linchpin of the program’s component to prevent doctoral dropouts, were born.

Also riveted by every word Dr. Callahan spoke was Sandra Shelton, the doctoral student from the University of Wisconsin – Madison who had been overwhelmed to learn she was not the only African-American in the country pursuing an accounting doctorate.

Now, a second revelation opened to her: not only were there others like her, but here was someone who had actually overcome the extreme challenges Shelton and the other doctoral students were currently experiencing. Moreover, Dr. Callahan had not merely survived, she was now an academic star!

The PhD Project did not yet exist, and it had not been named. But as Shelton listened with fascination to Dr. Callahan, it had just created its first moment—of many to come—in which a successful African-American business professor rose to inspire someone who would become one.

Like, Dr. Callahan, Shelton had grown up in the South  and was now ensconced at a Midwestern university. Here indeed was someone she could relate to. At the next meeting break, she approached Dr. Callahan, and the two women bonded on the spot. They would go on to advance the friendship by phone after returning home. The following year, when newly minted Professor Shelton needed help in preparing for her first formal scholarly presentation, she drove out to South Bend to gain Dr. Callahan’s insights. From then on, until this day, Dr. Shelton would reach out for counsel from Dr. Callahan at significant moments in her career.

The PhD Project did not exist, and its first meeting was nine months away, but it had just created its first lifelong mentoring relationship.

Shelton would recall the Montvale meeting more than two decades later as “a life-changing moment,” for her. The PhD Project, still just a concept without a name, was months from lifting off the ground. But it had already changed two lives: Michael Clement’s, at the St. Louis meeting, and at the time, Sandra Shelton’s.

At one point in the session, one of the white academics asked Shelton to explain why putting more African-American professors in front of classrooms would change things. The answer expected by those already steeped in the issues was that minority students needed role models and mentors. Shelton went in another direction: “Having an African-American professor benefits all students,” she said. “All students have to realize that we can all learn from someone who is of a different background. If students want to succeed in business, they will need to respect the opinion of others who are different from them.” The initiative they were developing, the group saw, would benefit all students.

While many ideas and possible directions swirled among the participants as they dispersed, Milano and Thorp began sharpening the focus and identifying the challenges: a national program was needed to draw more minority applicants to business doctoral programs. It would need a support component to ensure that those who took the leap would not succumb to the pressures and loneliness that awaited  them. An effort of this magnitude would need the buy-in of deans and doctoral programs, to make sure the new wave of minority applications would be considered seriously.

And, they realized, to gain buy-in at a high enough  level within the universities to have an impact, the effort would have to focus on all five business disciplines, not only accounting. There were isolated, overstressed doctoral students in management, marketing and the other disciplines. And they were from all three underrepresented groups. The new program would have to include Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans as well.

Finally, because they were businesspeople, they saw something else: the best way to attract more minority applicants to PhD programs was to launch a full scale marketing program, one that would target tens of thousands of early and mid-career minority professionals in the business world by direct mail and media advertising. One that would show them, Madison Avenue style, the many benefits of a career as a professor.

This was beginning to sound ambitious—and considerably more costly than KPMG and Citibank could cover alone. Probably more than could be accomplished even with AACSB and GMAC joining in generously. Milano tentatively committed KPMG to launch the still undefined program with $250,000; Thorp added $50,000 from Citibank.

The two by now each had an extensive Rolodex filled with their counterparts at other corporations. All were playing variations of the same game: networking in and around higher education, to simultaneously offer their company’s resources and enhance their college hiring programs. These were executives from the nation’s best- known businesses, and Milano and Thorp were seeing them at meetings where business education and diversity were Topic A. The two men started approaching them with an unusual proposition: would they consider investing in a new program to increase diversity in the work force, by increasing diversity of faculty to attract those future workers to business school and then mentor them through it?

It was a proposition initially hard to grasp: most in this group enthusiastically funded programs centered around MBA, undergraduate and even high school minority students. These investments usually produced direct return on investment in the form of student interns they could hire and develop for future employment. Hearing of this new idea, their immediate response was invariably the same: “Where’s the ROI? We don’t hire PhDs.”

Finding corporate partners for this initiative would not be a snap. Only companies truly interested in permanently altering the landscape, or far-sighted enough to look into the future, were likely to commit.

Nonetheless, Milano knew those companies existed.

It was also apparent that Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans were experiencing the same isolation and challenges that African-Americans were. An extreme example of this was a first-year student in Dean Stith’s information systems department at  Florida State, Laura Trevino (previously Laura Hall).

With three little girls aged one to five and a marriage that was ending, Laura Trevino was up to her eyeballs in debt and stress when she entered the doctoral program. She had been advised—by one of her favorite professors, at that—that she shouldn’t even try.

Supplementing her small teaching assistant stipend with tutoring for $15 an hour, she was finding the financial pressure alone to be “a total nightmare not counting working on a PhD and taking care of three girls.” She felt as if each day she was stuck on a treadmill running at full speed morning to night.

In Memoriam Sandra Shelton