Several factors may explain why The PhD Project succeeded despite the doubts of the supposed experts. First was the simple, in hindsight, recognition that the target audience was mid-career business professionals rather than recent graduates. Second was the decision to approach the diversity challenge as a marketing challenge needing a marketing solution.
The richness and completeness of the annual conference agenda was a critical factor. An event that tried simply to expand the warm and upbeat tone of the marketing would have failed. It would have excited all who came, but would not have explored and answered the doubts and questions they would have gone home with. The conference had to simultaneously sell the career choice of academia, openly examine the real challenges it posed and show possible paths to overcoming those challenges. This it has done, brilliantly, and continues to do each year.
Additionally, establishing the Doctoral Students Associations was critical to the high completion rate that Project participants achieve. Doctoral students consistently describe their summer DSA conference as an essential annual re-energizing experience. More than one has arrived at their meeting fully intending to announce they are quitting, only to be talked off the ledge by peers. Less dramatically, but more frequently, doctoral students not only learn what they will experience next on their journey, but meet the journal editors who will publish them and the faculty members who will collaborate with and work alongside them, for their entire career.
Much has been said over the years about the speed with which The PhD Project was put together: less than a year from formulation of the core idea to the first conference. The standard take is that businesspeople, being less consensus-driven, tend to move faster than academics. The full picture is more nuanced. The sheer enthusiasm and energy of the founding group and the excitement over creating something new and potentially significant propelled them forward and enabled them to disregard normal conventions and protocols. Additionally, Bob Elliott has noted, Bernie Milano’s role within KPMG placed him on the boards and committees of practically every organization in the country that could help in any way in the creation of The PhD Project, and he utilized those connections to accelerate the process. “You put practically anybody else in that slot, and Michael Clement’s estimate that it would take 10 years might even have been optimistic,” Elliott says.
This leads to one more factor. “The PhD Project has a million fingerprints on it,” Milano likes to say, and this is true. But it is also indisputable, as Elliott and every other person involved in the effort has readily said, that the driving force and guiding spirit of The PhD Project at every step has been one Bernard J. Milano.
Carolyn Callahan identified several characteristics that Milano brought to the table back in the early 1990s: “Bernie had the vision. He is, first of all, good at identifying what the issue is: How should we solve this problem? Who are the key people who can make it happen? How can I support them?”
“Bernie,” she added, “is one of those people who can identify what you can do, long before you think you can do it.”
Bob Elliott, in 2004, placed these characteristics in the context of Milano’s career arc and The PhD Project’s formation: “He foresaw a partial solution to a great national problem,” Elliott noted, “at a time when Milano was eligible for retirement from the KPMG partnership.
“But he didn’t retire; he entered into a mighty blaze of creativity, achievement and public service.
“Without Bernie, there would be no PhD Project, many fewer minority faculty members in American business schools and many fewer minority students with role models and mentors. Bernie is, quite simply, the soul of The PhD Project.”
Dr. Theresa Hammond, whose research into diversity and accounting provided one of the original scholarly sparks for The PhD Project, looked back at all that has followed and said, “Everything lasts a few years and disappears. Then everybody’s reinventing the wheel, acting like they’re the first person with a program to diversify the profession. These seem to just come and go, and unfortunately, not a lot have a lasting impact.
“The PhD Project has had such a lasting impact. It will continue to have a lasting impact, because it is taking the long run approach of putting faculty in place who will make a difference for decades for their students. There’s just nothing that makes me happier about what the profession has done than this.”
The PhD Project conference continues to take place every year, at the same airport hotel, in November. The same electricity and excitement that Dean Stith experienced on that first night, and the same cheering, applause and tears that filled the room when Dr. Shelton was capped, still occur at every conference. Every summer, doctoral students gather at their respective Doctoral Students Association meetings to reenergize and make new connections that will sustain them through decades of mentorship, support and collaboration as they take their places in the academy and change the face of business education.
Michael Clement is now the Accounting Doctoral Program Director, KPMG Centennial Professor of Accounting Education and Professor of Accounting at the University of Texas at Austin.
Theresa Hammond is now Professor of Accounting at San Francisco State University.
Carolyn Callahan is former dean, College of Business at the University of Louisville, and now Associate Provost and Brown- Forman Endowed Chair in Accounting there.
The late Sandra Shelton was KPMG Distinguished Professor of Accountancy at DePaul University.
Peter Johnson, the happily non-doctoral instructor from Hawaii who accidentally bumped into the Accounting Doctoral Students Association crowd at the 1994 AAA conference, was motivated by the encounter to attend the following year’s PhD Project conference. He became Dr. Peter Johnson, Ernst and Young Fellow and Assistant Professor of Accounting at the University of Alabama, having been attracted there by PhD Project Professor Dr. Thomas Lopez. Dr. Peter Johnson was recently named Director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives for the Culverhouse College of Commerce at University of Alabama.
Laura Trevino is now Associate Professor, Information Systems, University of Texas at El Paso. She won the state’s top teaching award for her exceptional work with undergraduates, and inspires every parent, single or married, with her story at every PhD Project conference.
Olenda Johnson is now Professor of Strategic Leadership and Leader Development at the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership, U.S. Naval War College.
Patricia Martinez del Sanchez is now Associate Professor with tenure at Loyola Marymount University.
Dean Craig retired in 2013 after 41 years as dean at North Carolina A&T. His farewell celebration spanned three days and attracted a thousand people. He stepped down having hired 15 PhD Project professors, mentored dozens more and inspired many of his own undergraduates to become professors. He serves to this day as a frequent source of insight for The PhD Project’s leaders.
Peter Thorp and Bob Elliott similarly retired with honors and kudos from business.
Dean Stith became dean of the business school at Syracuse University and is now retired.
Bernie Milano retired in 2019 as head of The PhD Project after 25 years. Tara Perino continue to head the team that operates The PhD Project and the KPMG Foundation. More than 40 graduates of the precursor MSI program, at first written off as a failure because its participants did not immediately enter doctoral programs, ultimately did—becoming professors through The PhD Project.
In Memoriam Sandra Shelton