Almost every time Business senior Mia Heard walks into class, she is the only Black person in the room.

“When I walk in a room, I don’t get the luxury of being like, ‘Oh, I’m just a person walking to class,’” Heard said. “It’s like, I’m the Black girl walking into this class, and I can just feel the pressure of just being that Black girl; the black dot that always has to be there or they know I’m gone.”

According to the Office of the Registrar, for the winter semester of 2019, 2 percent of students in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan were Black, 6 percent were hispanic and 57 percent were white. In addition, 62 percent of students were male and 38 percent were female. 

These demographics are not unnoticed by the entirety of the Business School. To improve diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, students and faculty developed the DEI Task Force during the winter of 2018. Part of the Bachelor of Business Administration Council, the Business School’s student government, the taskforce hosts events and initiatives to develop an inclusive environment for students. 

Though parts of the Business School have been working to improve DEI efforts, some say the lack of a race and ethnicity course requirement in the Business School, paired with the lack of communication between administration and students, has impeded the growth of diversity in the Business school. Opposing views from students on the Identity and Diversity in Organizations workshops in the school has also been an obstacle, according to some students. 

Personal experiences within the Business school

In one of her group projects for class, Business senior Elsa Ramesh, head of the Inclusive Classroom Committee for the DEI taskforce, said a student made transphobic and racist comments while other students laughed along. She said the students present, including herself, did not speak up about the incident to avoid upsetting their peers. They worried it could impact their grades, Ramesh said.

“You kind of just want to go with the flow to get things over with,” Ramesh said. “So, when these problematic things happen, you just kind of have to sweep them under the rug. And unless your professor makes it intentional that they’re open to talk about things like that, you’re not going to trust them with that information.”

In one instance, Heard, head of the Communications Committee for the DEI Task Force in the Business School, said she was the only Black woman in a class of 60 or 70 people. She said one day, the professor told students to promote themselves in an elevator pitch, and then after, had students go around and select groups. Heard described the immense discomfort she felt from this exercise after having to convince people why she deserved to be in their group, especially because she was the only Black person in the room. 

“I literally felt like a slave in that instance, because I felt like I was begging people to buy me. I feel like the professor didn’t realize that’s how that experience would impact me, because there were plenty of groups that looked at me and were like, ‘we don’t want you, we just don’t want you’ for 30 minutes.”

According to Heard, her experience shows the significance of the activities and general teaching approaches used by professors. 

“I remember, I went home and I cried and I wanted to drop the class,” Heard said. “I didn’t end up dropping the class, because I had to remember who I was, but there’s been a lot of times where I feel like teachers don’t realize that or don’t take into consideration that how you teach or the examples you give in class or anything that makes up the class experience can impact someone with a different identity.”

Ramesh, who is an international student herself, took issue with the case studies her professors used and had students work on in class. Often times, these studies were US-centric, focusing on American brands and companies, which made it difficult for international students to relate. Another issue was with students and professors having trouble pronouncing certain students’ names in class, according to Ramesh.

Working towards a Race and Ethnicity class requirement in the Business School

Unlike the University’s College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts, the Business School does not have a race and ethnicity requirement for students. In LSA, all students must take a minimum of one course of at least three credits which discusses the meaning and effects of race, ethnicity and racism in the U.S. or across the globe in some form. Classes also promote discussion on social class, gender and/or religion.

According to Taryn Petryk, director of diversity and inclusion for the Business School, the school is working to have this requirement in the future. They also want to ensure that, if and when the course does come, students truly feel as though it will be beneficial to them, rather than just being an add-on class.

Business sophomore Matt Person believes the Business School has provided students with sufficient exposure to different backgrounds and identities thus far, despite not having a race and ethnicity requirement.

“At least from my perspective, I think we’re doing a lot of that within Ross without having a specific three credit course solely dedicated to it,” Person said. “So, I feel as if I have been getting exposure.”

“I think that before I was part of taskforce, I had a very bleak and probably just general lack of understanding of how much Michigan cared about DEI”

According to Heard, many students and faculty alike feel there has been a communication gap between the Business School administration and the rest of the community. While the small percentage of people working directly with administration recognize the DEI work it has been putting in over the past several years, Heard said those not involved with the administration are unaware of these efforts. 

“I think that before I was part of taskforce, I had a very bleak and probably just general lack of understanding of how much Michigan cared about DEI, but in having these conversations through taskforce and just being on the administration level and talking to them about it, they really actually genuinely care, and that was very surprising for me,” Heard said. “But I feel like they’re struggling with connecting to students as well as communicating with students.”

As a Black woman, Heard said if she had understood the DEI-related actions the administration took as an underclassman, she would have had an overall better experience. 

This year, the Business School has focused largely on the development of the school’s culture and betterment of DEI efforts, according to Petryk. She said Business Dean Scott DeRue’s 2019 Dean’s Report highlighted these efforts.

“(The report) really talked about diversity and inclusion at the center of our values,” Petryk said. “I do think that there’s probably been some messaging gaps or communication gaps around what our values are and what we aspire to be, and that’s changing this year. We’re really focusing on the culture that we want to create and the values that we hold that really do stem from our deans.”

While the administration may be putting in effort to promote diversity this year, Ramesh described how its current methods are not effective in connecting with the student body.

“It’s like what would be the best medium to communicate (administration’s efforts) through, because no one is going to read the emails. They put together a dean’s report, but no one is going to read (the) report,” Ramesh said. “So, I think there’s no good medium, there’s no good way to communicate it in terms of what to say … I think that’s what we need to focus on.”

According to Heard, students should be apart of the administration’s messaging efforts. 

“I think (the) administration is just now realizing that, ‘Hey, we’re discussing amongst ourselves about how to communicate to the students; let’s involve students in a conversation to figure out how we should communicate to the students,’” Heard said. “I feel like once they get more students involved with that, things are going to just start rolling.”

“I am an IDO peer facilitator, and, even within that, I would say that that’s not enough”

Currently, the Business School provides students with mandatory Identity and Diversity in Organizations workshops, which “prepare students to interact with people from different backgrounds who have had different experiences from their own.” Workshops occur once a year and are 90 minutes long. According to Petryk, they are run by about 25 peer facilitators, who are Business upperclassmen trained in diversity and inclusion facilitation.

Though she sees the workshops as a value to students at the Business School, as a peer facilitator, Ramesh said they are not sufficient enough to fully educate students on the necessity of cultural sensitivity.

“I am an IDO peer facilitator, and, even within that, I would say that that’s not enough, because I engage with these students in a one and a half hour workshop,” Ramesh said. “There’s not enough time to build that relationship, build that trust, have those important conversations. We need a race and ethnicity requirement.”

The IDO workshops are solely offered to sophomores, juniors and seniors in the Business school, though certain students have explained the beginning years in the Business School are crucial for the students’ development. 

“I feel like once you’re a junior and senior, you’re kind of set or don’t care anymore,” Heard said. “If we refocused a lot of this work for freshman year, the culture would completely shift.”

According to marketing professor Carolyn Yoon, faculty director of diversity and inclusion, professors are moving beyond the IDO workshops this year by integrating curriculum regarding identity and diversity. For example, in Business Administration 100 and 200 courses, professors are incorporating surveys and guest lecture events to educate students on how their identities affect their opportunities in business.

Both faculty and students are aware of pushback from Business students who do not see the value in taking the IDO workshops, Petryk said.

“We are also working with some resistance which is with students especially within the BBA population around, ‘Why do I need to do this? Why is it important? How is this going to help me in my career?’” Petryk said. “So, we are working in multiple different ways to make that connection for folks who don’t necessarily see themselves in the problem of diversity and inclusion.”

According to Ramesh, the polarizing views of Business students regarding these IDO workshops have stemmed from their different socioeconomic backgrounds. On the one hand, Ramesh said white students from privileged backgrounds might feel uneasy having these discussions.

“I think it’s that students who come from very white, upper class communities are not comfortable talking about these things, don’t want to say the wrong thing, don’t know how to be in that environment because they’ve never really been in an uncomfortable space like that,” Ramesh said. 

Ramesh said that on the flip side, minority students are tired of having to have the same conversations regarding diversity. 

“They’re one of two of their identity in the entire class, and they have to sit in this workshop where they’re the only ones speaking for their whole community again, having to learn this information that they already know, having to teach their peers,” Ramesh said. “So, I think on both sides it’s very uncomfortable.”

The presence of wealth is especially noticeable in the Business School, even outside of the IDO workshops, according to Ramesh. While many people are financially comfortable, others without the same financial capabilities can be at a disadvantage in regards to certain elements of the school’s culture.

“I think SES is very noticeable in the way people dress and the way people show up,” Ramesh said. “Even I think just small things, like we do a lot of team projects and they encourage team bonding, and people tend to want to eat out, etc. and that’s not always accessible to a lot of people. Even recruiting, I know someone was talking about having to fly out for an interview, and you have to pay for your flight and they’ll reimburse you, but if you don’t have that money in the first place, it’s an obstacle.”

“The burden is always falling on the same people to do the work”

The taskforce, BBA Council and certain faculty members have worked to further improve the culture of Ross by trying to make it a more inclusive environment for international students and minorities as a whole.

Business senior and BBA Council President Liza Hochberg said the DEI taskforce has worked with faculty to expand the conversation on case studies to include a more diverse range of topics. Business senior Robbert Massie, BBA Council vice president of leadership and ethics,  said in one of his courses, his professor now encourages student feedback on the cases he chooses and asks whether students feel they are inclusive for everyone. 

The taskforce also encouraged the introduction of name tags with phonetic pronunciations, which the Business School implemented schoolwide this semester.

People like Petryk and Yoon have led initiatives with the faculty to raise awareness around unconscious biases and how to promote more of an inclusive classroom environment. For instance, they run several workshops per year for faculty within the Business School. Within the past two years, faculty evaluations also explicitly ask professors questions about what they are doing in terms of inclusive teaching practices and promoting DEI. 

“That signals and lets the faculty know that this is an important part of their professional development and it matters,” Yoon said. “And the vast majority of faculty really care and they do show up to these workshops, and many have thought very carefully about how to incorporate that into their own teaching or pedagogy.”

Ramesh said though great work is being done, more people need to be involved in efforts to better DEI at the Business School. Plus, those who are currently involved should get the recognition they deserve. 

“The burden is always falling on the same people to do the work, and there is so much work to do that it cannot just be them anymore, and it cannot be them doing this work and then upper administration getting credit,” Ramesh said. “I mean, if our diversity numbers go up, or students of color are landing these amazing job offers and things like that, it doesn’t fall on the programs that put them through this. It’s not often that those programs and the amazing people that lead them will get credit.”

Upon publication, Heard and Ramesh wanted to clarify that the DEI taskforce has been working hard to better diversity in the Business School and have noticed an improvement over the past several years. According to Heard, one of the ways they have been doing so is by making the concept of DEI more accessible and consumable for students through various events.  

Correction: Heard clarified that she is not always the only Black student in her Business classes, but almost always.

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