After summer of protests over racism, students and faculty at Ross School of Business revisit DEI initiatives

Wednesday, September 23, 2020 - 10:05pm

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Keemya Esmael/Daily

During sophomore Eve Taylor’s orientation for the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, white students called her hair “unprofessional” for the workplace. Taylor, who is Black, said the white student with straight hair called her own hair more adequate. 

Taylor was shocked – she had spent a lot of time getting ready for the orientation session. 

Over the past several months, Black Business students have spoken to The Michigan Daily about a lack of transparency among diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the Business School. Black students are underrepresented in Ross, as well as the University as a whole. 

Complaints about diversity at the University and Ross in particular are not new. Previously, some Business students have said the lack of a race and ethnicity course requirement in Ross played a role in the Business School’s status as a predominately white institution

Business School Dean Scott DeRue said the Business administration recognizes the improvements it must make in regard to DEI, and it is working hard to achieve those goals.

“In no way do we claim that we are perfect or that we have solved all of these challenges and issues,” DeRue said. “But we are deeply committed and unwavering in our commitment to enhancing diversity on campus.” 

Microaggressions at the Business School

Created in June, the Instagram account @blackatmichigan has been a space for Black students, alumni, faculty and staff to share their experiences with race and racism on campus — anonymously or not — while at the University, according to the account. Similar accounts seeking to bring to light discriminatory behaviors have appeared at other universities.

While many of the respondents did not share which college they were in at the University in the early posts on the account, out of those who did, the Business School was a recurring subject. Out of the first 25 posts on the Instagram page, nine of them shared Black students’ negative racial experiences within the Business School. 

Business graduate student Tunde Osilaja, who is of Nigerian and American descent, wrote in a post on @blackatmichigan that his professor made a derogatory remark about Nigerian people to his 80-person section in September 2018. 

According to Osilaja’s post, the professor said, “I wouldn’t try to deceive you, I’m not like one of those Nigerians,” a comment that refers to a discriminatory stereotype about Nigerians. 

“I thought I misunderstood him, but I was shocked when he repeated the same comment later in the lesson,” Osilaja said.

DeRue told The Daily the Business administration is aware of this comment and has addressed it with the faculty member. 

“I’m aware of the matter, and certainly it’s unfortunate and disappointing, very disappointing that happened,” DeRue said. 

When asked by The Daily what specifically was said to the faculty member regarding the incident, a spokesperson for DeRue said they cannot comment on personnel matters.

The professor’s comments are not what hurt Osilaja the most, he said, but rather the response of his classmates. According to Osilaja, the majority of his classmates laughed along with the professor, while only a few of them approached him later to discuss the incident and share their misgivings.

DeRue said the administration encourages students and faculty to report any discrimination they may experience. 

“We take these matters very seriously and are very proactive ... and we do a follow-up on every single instance that is reported and take action as appropriate for that matter,” DeRue said.

Many Black Business students said their experiences with discrimination and racism were covert rather than overt, such as microaggressions — remarks or actions that communicate negative or demeaning attitudes toward marginalized groups.

Business junior Karla Bell, Black Business Undergraduate Society president, said she has experienced microaggressions when working in small groups in class where a majority of the other students were white.

“There have been experiences, especially working within teams, where I would say something and then I’m not heard, and then someone will say a similar thing and then they’ll be listened to,” Bell said. “A lot of times, it’s the lack of people believing that you have the skills that you obviously have because we’re all in the same place.”

An underrepresented Black community

In the Winter 2020 semester, 3.3 percent of students in the Business School were Black and 50.7 percent of students were white, according to the Office of the Registrar

Business alum Errington Bethel said the Business School’s racial demographics should be proportionate to the country’s. About 14 percent of people in Michigan and 13.4 percent of people in the U.S. are Black.

“Michigan needs to look at Black Americans getting accepted into Ross and understand either why they’re not getting in, understand why they’re choosing to go elsewhere, and it’s always a play on, ‘Is it the chicken or the egg?’” Bethel said. “So, do we get more Black students, and then we need more Black professors, or do we get more Black professors and then more Black students come in?”

Business Professor Marcus Collins said there are not enough students of color attending the Business School or the University. However, he said these demographics are a result of a systemic issue larger than the University.

“I think as higher education becomes more financially out of reach for socially and economically deprived communities, marginalized communities, you’re going to see lack of representation,” Collins said. “It’s a major issue, and I think that it doesn’t fall at any one school’s feet.” 

DeRue said one reason behind the low number of students of color at the Business school is Proposal 2, which was approved by Michigan voters in 2006 and prohibits colleges in Michigan from taking race into account in the admissions process. 

But it is not clear if the demographics within the Business School have changed since the proposal. In the winter semester of 2005, prior to the approval of the proposal, Black students comprised 3.8 percent of Business students, nearly the same as the 3.3 percent of Black students in the Business school today. 

DeRue said the Business School has been working hard to increase diversity within the student body. Programs like Michigan Ross Enriching Academics in Collaboration with High Schools (MReach) and The Michigan Ross Summer Business Academy help high school students who are interested in business prepare for the college applications process and explore the business world. 

And this summer, DeRue announced new diversity initiatives at the Business School through a $6 million dollar gift from Stephen M. Ross and Jeff Blau. The new Blau Initiative for Diversity in Real Estate and Infrastructure is designed to offer high school students from underrepresented backgrounds internships and learning experiences in real estate and investing. The new Related Scholars Fund will provide scholarships to support students from diverse backgrounds who are underrepresented in business leadership.

Students like Donald Lindsay, an MBA student and co-president of the Black Business Students Association, have also called on the administration to hire more Black faculty members.

“If I see another Black person or Black faculty in the program, I feel a little bit more comfortable than if I didn’t, because I’m thinking, ‘Man, if I need to talk to somebody, I’d probably talk to that person,’” Lindsay said. “That’s something that’s undervalued.”

There were eight Black or African American faculty members and 141 white faculty members in the Business School as of November 2019, according to the University’s Office of Public Affairs.

Bell said in her experience, most Black faculty members are concentrated in the marketing track at the Business School.

“There are literally no Black faculty around,” Bell said. “ … If you’re not a marketing student or if you’re not interested in anything with the marketing focus, you can go through four years of Ross without having a Black professor, easily.”

DeRue said he recognizes there is much work to be done regarding increasing faculty of color within the Business School. 

“If you look at all the accredited business schools in the country, we’re slightly above average,” DeRue said. “That’s not good enough.” 

DeRue said the Business School wants to prioritize DEI in faculty hiring, especially with doctoral students. This year, the Business School’s doctoral program was awarded a Rackham Faculty Allies Diversity grant to support its diversity initiative. 

Disappointment with the Business School’s namesake

Black students in the Business School said they were disappointed that the school is named after Stephen Ross, a Michigan alum and founder and chairman of Related Companies, because of Ross’s political affiliations. In August 2019, Ross held a fundraiser for Donald Trump which raised $12 million. The move upset some students, who demanded the Business School be renamed. 

The backlash highlighted anger over racism stemming from the president’s office, such as Trump’s response to violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in which he blamed “both sides” for the conflict.

Naja Edwards, a Business School alum and former MBA Council President, said that her fellow Business students were angry after hearing the news of Ross’s fundraiser. 

“In my opinion, there was a lot of pushback from MBA students,” Edwards said. “They know the deal. Donald Trump is a polarizing figure.”

Lindsay said he is “painfully aware” the school is named after one of the largest Trump campaign supporters. 

“The fact that he’s a Republican is probably neither here nor there,” Lindsay said. “But (he is) someone who’s actively supported someone who represents a lot of what’s wrong in this country.”

DeRue said he appreciates Ross’s support and that he has been of great value to the Business School, specifically through programs like the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, which works to empower and educate the sports community to end racial discrimination.

“Stephen Ross has been a true champion of higher education,” DeRue said. “He’s been a true champion of fighting for social injustice and inequality … and we are very grateful to Stephen and all of his support.”

Concerns about transparency in DEI efforts

Many Black students have said there is a lack of transparency and accountability within the Business School administration’s DEI efforts. 

DeRue’s statement after the police killing of George Floyd sparked criticism from some students who took issue with the wording he used. 

“Like so many of you, I have watched in horror the recent events in Minneapolis where George Floyd died while in the custody of police officers,” DeRue wrote. “Mr. Floyd’s senseless and tragic death has motivated days of protests across our country, and I want to recognize the pain, fear, anger, and hopelessness that many are experiencing, especially those in our Black and African American community.”

According to Business junior Bolaji Gaba, BBUS vice president of corporate relations, some Black students said they were angered by the timing and content of DeRue’s statement. They specifically took issue with DeRue referring to Floyd’s murder as a “senseless and tragic death,” instead of acknowledging that white police officers killed Floyd.

DeRue later apologized for his choice of words through a follow-up email and town hall. 

DeRue said he did not intend in any way to discount the killing of Floyd, and hearing feedback from Business students was a moment of growth for him.

“I took full ownership of the choice of words, in terms of describing the killing of George Floyd as his death,” DeRue said. “I was truly heartbroken that my choice of words caused the pain that it did to our students. Also, it was a learning moment for me, and so I really appreciated the feedback that our students gave in terms of that word choice.”

Later that week, the Business School held a DEI Virtual Town Hall discussing the school’s approach to racial justice, where DeRue publicly apologized for his statement. There were 420 Business School faculty, staff and students in attendance, according to Bridget Vis, Business School public relations specialist.

Edwards said Business graduate students were initially disheartened by the DeRue’s first statement, which did not include a specific plan on how the school would reduce racial discrimination.

“That created this whole sentiment amongst the MBA students where everybody was just like, ‘There needs to be more here. People need to be held accountable, there needs to be concrete action, there needs to be an action plan,’” Edwards said.

After talking with the BBSA and other members of the Business School, DeRue released a second statement on June 10 that included a 14-step action plan to promote and improve DEI initiatives. DeRue listed steps to improve diversity within teaching and learning practices, leadership teams and human resources policies. 

The Black Business students The Daily spoke with had mixed feelings about the second statement. Some were hopeful that this plan would reduce racism and discrimination while others remained skeptical.

Collins said while he did appreciate having a specific action plan, he empathized with students’ frustration. 

“The frustration that students feel in regards to like, ‘Is this lip service, is this real, will this happen?’ is a completely fair, understandable and arguably, the right frustration that should be felt,” Collins said. “I feel it too, and I think that is the right frustration to have, and until there are receipts of actually realizing those promises, they should be frustrated, absolutely.” 

Taylor said she thinks the Business administration is making a genuine effort to improve its DEI initiatives, but she said she would not have this same view if she did not have close ties with the administration through programs like BBUS.

“If I didn’t have those relationships and actually hear from their mouth that they were trying to do stuff, on a regular day, even walking through the Winter Garden, I wouldn’t be able to tell a thing,” Taylor said. 

DeRue recognized that students might not be aware of the administration’s DEI initiatives.

“To any student who feels disconnected from our efforts or that we’re not engaging, we want to engage, and I would encourage those students to either reach out to me directly, reach out to our team, engage in the workshops and the events that we are holding so that we can work together to accomplish our shared goals,” DeRue said.

Bethel said he hopes the Business School continues to focus on combatting racial discrimination.

“I definitely think continuing to keep the conversation going is important, but I think what’s more important is following up and actions and not letting something distract us from what we’re trying to achieve,” Bethel said.

Daily Staff Reporters Parnia Mazhar and Ann Yu can be reached at parniam@umich.edu and anncyu@umich.edu


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