Do The Right Thing For Students – Decolonise The Business School

By Alessia Contu.

“We hardly get a chance to talk about race in class. So the discussion we just had on racial colour blindness was refreshing,” a management student recently remarked to me.

She was spot on.

Business schools don’t offer many opportunities for addressing and re-dressing race, diversity and inequities. Diversity tends to be “mere decoration” while the focus stays on the “bottom line”.

Indeed, research suggests that in management education diversity is more prevalent in the glossy pictures of websites and brochures than in the curriculum.

This is perverse since UK and US business schools have the most popular (and lucrative) university courses with highly diverse students.

A total of 326,000 students enrolled in management courses in the UK in 2015/16 [Universities UK, 2017] – and with the third highest proportion of students of colour, after medicine and law.

However, Left of Brown pointedly reminds us that British business management undergraduates of colour are significantly less likely to gain a 2:1 or a First class degree. This is despite them having the same prior attainment as white counterparts.

One might think that this discrepancy resides in some student “deficit” – socio-economic disadvantage or poor schooling, for example. However, adjusting for other factors (including prior attainment) there remains a 15-point attainment gap between white and BME students that remains unexplained (HEFCE 2015a).

So what must business schools do to reduce the attainment gap? How do we provide BME students with a fair deal?   Much of the answer to this problem lies in decolonizing the business schools.

Lucrative business schools are university ‘cash-cows’ with their courses paid by such a diverse mix of students that they have more of a responsibility than other university departments to stand up and take a lead on de-colonialisation.

The business school curriculum is largely based on knowledge produced by white men from North America and other Anglophone countries of the Global North.

Issues of diversity, racial prejudice, historically-entrenched inequities, underrepresentation are barely considered in the curriculum.

For example, the business school leadership curriculum celebrates ‘charismatic’ or ‘authentic’ business leaders. ‘Charisma’ and ‘authenticity’ in such leadership studies are universalist categories perpetuating the myth that skin colour makes no difference to one’s possibility of being a successful corporate leader. Race is erased from the bulk of management knowledge.

In fact, the business school management curriculum and its faculty are imbued in racial colorblindness, the ideology whereby power relations that position the penalties and opportunities of BMEs and their white counterparts become invisible.

So, business schools’ predominantly white scholars and administrators, reflecting our society, don’t ‘see’ race and don’t talk about race. Yet even in basic interactions racial colour blindness ‘creates more problems than it solves.

We need to decolonise the curriculum. Starting by putting race and ethnicity at the centre of learning organizational behaviour, leadership and decision-making thereby providing students with a management knowledge that is realistic and relevant. For example, in my undergraduate course on ‘Business Environment and Public Policy’ I include racial colour blindness as a concept students can use to understand the social environment of business. I also engage students in discussing what racial colour blindness means for them. Such discussions, which touch on the reality of management life that awaits them, are hardly available to business school students.

Decolonizing the curriculum is, however, just one step – we also need to address the everyday experiences of BME students combined with supportive networks and resources.

There are no easy steps. But studies provide pointers.

Steeped in the ideology of racial colour blindness few of the white majority business schools’ faculty and leaders are aware of their privileges, the experiences of their BME colleagues and students, and entrenched racial disparities.

For example, in an internal report colleagues of color in my university, the University of Massachusetts, are disproportionately doing large amounts of service, teaching-intensive work, and student advising, especially women.

We need to challenge colorblindness and unconscious biases of the white majority (check your own biases here) since these shape behavior that negatively impact BME faculty and students by reproducing inequality through everyday practices such as recruitment, retention and promotion of faculty of color, to students’ assessment, support and mentoring (Equality Challenge Unit, 2013).

Vice-chancellors, business school deans and senior administrators must become racially and culturally literate and invested in transforming business schools. This requires moving beyond cool brochures, collecting diversity ‘data’ and writing policy documents.

To make inclusion an organizing principle means developing a deep understanding of one’s business school in order to foster practices where race, ethnicity and differences are collectively addressed. For example, by engaging students in diversification of the business school curriculum, in ways that acknowledge the erasures and silencing of the past (e.g. colonial direct rule) and of the present (e.g. structural inequities and racial colour blindness).

We need to train administrators and faculty to counter their bias in students’ assessment, mentoring and support.

Such efforts need to be combined with hiring, nurturing and promoting of BME faculty who in the UK suffer abysmal underrepresentation.

Business degrees are the most popular – and profitable – in the higher education sector and yet they still perpetuate racial/ethnic inequities.

We cannot continue to shortchange our BME students. It is time we offer a better deal to all business schools students.

Dr Alessia Contu is Chair of the Management Department at the College of Management, University of Massachusetts Boston.  She was Reader at Warwick Business School, UK until December 2013. Prior to that she was a tenured faculty at Lancaster University Management School (from 2001-2006).  See details here:

This is the unedited version of the Guardian article “Why is the curriculum so white in business schools?” (Sept 6 2018) based on pitch originally submitted on December 12, 2017: 

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