It is a challenging extra-curricular assignment that the University of Tennessee hands Professor Randy Bradley on Saturday mornings each spring.
He is asked to stand up and face a room full of anxious high school seniors from underrepresented minority groups, most with uncertain parents at their side. These teenagers, many of whom will be first generation college students, are among the talented young people who have been offered admission to the University of Tennessee to study business. They have been invited on campus for an overnight visit to introduce them to life at the university. The event includes opportunities to meet and speak with faculty and students. For many students and parents, one thought hovers silently in the air as they stroll past neo-Gothic academic buildings, walking toward the business school: How will a minority undergraduate fare in a majority-dominant institution of such imposing nature?
Ultimately it is up to each student, and the university, to answer that question. Tennessee has made diversity a significant priority—as evidenced by the role it asks Dr. Bradley to play. But the first hurdle takes place at the reception for these prospects, most of whom have other attractive options for their college education.
Dr. Bradley, who is also an ordained minister, has done this Saturday morning speech before, and he knows what many in his audience are thinking: “This man is the only African-American on a faculty of 130. He must have been brought up in an environment of privilege.” So he rises and tells them, “I lived in the projects. I understand what it is like to grow up in difficult circumstances.”
Ensured of their attention, he looks each parent directly in the eye as he delivers an extraordinary promise:
“When you release your children to the university, you will be releasing them to me. As a faculty member and a mentor, I will interact with them daily or weekly.
“I will treat them the way you would treat them. And I will challenge them the way you would want them to be challenged. So when they come back to you, they will be better students and better human beings.”
What makes the promise extraordinary is that Dr. Bradley finds a way to keep it. With open office doors and an open heart, he devotes significant chunks of time throughout the academic year to do what he told the parents he would do. Even the doors to his home open up. African-American business majors can usually expect to receive an invitation each year from Dr. and Mrs. Bradley to join them for one end-of-year dinner or cookout: around Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. Some years, the Bradley home overflows with upwards of 50 young guests, filling every available room and the back yard as well.
Another exceptional aspect of Dr. Bradley’s promise is that, while also teaching and doing research, he does not limit his mentoring to undergraduates. If hitting three is a trifecta and hitting four is a grand slam, there is no word for what and whom Dr. Bradley reaches each year. He mentors or collaborates with those on all six rungs on the scholastic ladder: elementary, high school, undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and faculty.
As the only African-American on the business school faculty (at press time[PC1] ), Dr. Bradley cannot avoid being a role model. He does not merely accept the role; he cherishes it and extends it. The reasons reside in his roots and in his convictions: “When students come to me struggling and having challenges, I can relate because that is the life I once lived. And when I share my story with them, they recognize that if I did it, so can they.”
The visible presence of a Black man in front of the classroom alters the perceptions of many majority students he teaches, Dr. Bradley adds. Some of them have never had a Black teacher at any point in their education.
And so holiday dinners at the Bradleys are even more than opportunities to break bread and build rapport with homesick students needing a mentor. Assessing what they have seen of him on campus and in the classroom, and now experiencing his generous spirit on a more personal level, many say as they depart, “You’ve inspired me to keep moving forward, because one day I want to be in a position to give back—as you have given back to us.”
The inspiration and encouragement take a different form when Dr. Bradley steps off campus to face another challenging assignment: explaining the principles of supply chain management to local elementary school students, some as young as third grade.
This is neither a fool’s mission nor an interaction with precocious 10-year-old business geniuses. It is, rather, his role in a university-community program to excite and entice schoolchildren in underserved communities to study business one day.
The children do not grasp business theory, but they do like sports. Dr. Bradley often begins by asking them to imagine it’s their job to get their beloved Tennessee Titans football team out West for a road game. “How are we going to get the players and the coaches there? What about the equipment? What happens to the families?” he asks. Ideas and lively discussion then typically fly around the classroom, and when all issues have been explored he tells them, “You just talked about logistics and transportation management. You covered operations management. And you discussed the value of supply chain management in today’s economy. We’ve been talking about what you learn when you study business.”
The seeds planted in these visits, which Dr. Bradley does periodically, will be long in gestating. The horizon is medium-range when, in another program on campus, he meets with select high school seniors at a summer boot camp that aims to attract them to study business, preferably at the University of Tennessee. One of his roles has been to lead them through a visit with a regional accounting firm that sponsors The PhD Project, Dixon Hughes Goodman. The low representation of African-Americans in accounting has been widely documented and is a source of great concern to the profession.
“It is amazing to see how many students walk away from the experience at least considering accounting as a viable profession,” he says. “It’s so important because many students, especially from underrepresented groups, say the reason they don’t choose accounting is because they don’t know what it is. They may have never interacted with an accounting professional. In their mind, it’s someone who works at a bank.”
At the upper reaches of the academic progression, doctoral prospects and students—and even junior faculty members—find mentorship and inspiration in Dr. Bradley just as do undergraduates and high school students. One of them was 2005 PhD Project conference attendee Martin Dias.
A successful IT professional in banking earning a six- figure salary, Dias was the father of four girls under age eight the year he received two mailers about The PhD Project. These facts comprised the “Don’t rock the boat” side of his mental ledger as he entertained the notion of becoming a professor. On the other side of the ledger was the excitement of pursuing new challenges and the opportunity to make a greater impact on others.
Thus conflicted, Dias attended the conference. His imbalanced mental ledger fell into place when Randy Bradley took the stage and told his story. “Here I see someone who looks like me,” Dias recalls. “He has a family like me. He is active in the ministry like me. He is focused and determined like me. He’s acknowledging this will be a challenge, but he’s saying the end result will be worth it.”
“He basically took all my excuses away.”
With that, Dias went home to tell his wife he had experienced a life-changing moment. After much prayer and consideration, the family decision was made to move forward.
Following two years of preparation and planning, Dias resigned his corporate position and entered a doctoral program at Bentley University.
Seeing a young woman approach his office and request a moment with him momentarily startled Randy Bradley. This particular student wasn’t one who participated heavily in class. She had not previously sought his mentorship, nor was she in danger of failing. What she said next was even more unexpected to him…
It wasn’t hearing that the student was pregnant and torn by the painful decisions she now faced that surprised Dr. Bradley: life, he well knew, does not unfold for most people in a tidy procession of happy and planned occasions. It was that she had come to him for advice, even before facing her parents.
The student saw her choices as stark. Some of them, she realized, would hurt people who loved her. Most of them, she told Dr. Bradley, would mean dropping out of school.
For the tangled swirl of moral, religious and personal issues in her situation, Dr. Bradley could help her think them through, but he was not about to judge, recommend or encourage. On the issue of school, however, he stood firm. This young woman was a first-generation college student, he knew, and he was quite sure that she would never return to the university if she left. “However you ultimately decide to resolve your situation,” he told her, “it would be a great mistake to drop out and never achieve all the things you have worked so hard to accomplish.”
The student took that advice and, after making the personal decisions she had to face, returned to her studies. She completed her degree.
Of the freshman class prospects whom Dr. Bradley addresses each spring, he estimates that 50 to 75% end up accepting the admissions offer. University-wide, the acceptance rate for all entering freshmen is below 50%.
The then IT professional whose life changed when Dr. Bradley spoke at the 2005 conference is now Dr. Martin Dias, Associate Teaching Professor, Supply Chain & Information Management at Northeastern University. He is an active, frequent mentor of current PhD Project doctoral students, and he devotes significant time to youth ministry work in his hometown near Boston.
The pregnant college student who turned to Dr. Bradley for support is today a successful professional who occasionally stops by on campus to thank him. “Not because I told her what to do,” says Dr. Bradley as he reflects on the importance of role models to minority undergraduates. “Just because I allowed her the opportunity to feel free to express her thoughts.”