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May 2013

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The Alsop Perspective: Diversifying Leadership in Business Schools

Alsop PerspectiveBy Ron Alsop

When Carolyn Callahan moves into the dean’s office at the University of Louisville’s College of Business in August, it will mark a major advance toward diversifying the leadership ranks of US business schools with more African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

“Carolyn Callahan is huge for us,” declares Melvin Stith, an African American who has served as dean at the business schools at both Florida State University and Syracuse University. “You don’t see many African American women like her leading national business schools. This will send a signal to other people that it can happen.”

Callahan, currently director of the School of Accountancy at the University of Memphis, is pleased to serve as a role model, but hopes she won’t be so special for too long. “These are still historic appointments for faculty of color,” she says. “We need a larger, core group of minorities in leadership to attract more minority students and make them feel they are walking into a place that truly supports diversity.”

It was only recently that placing more minorities in administrative roles became a realistic goal—thanks in large part to the PhD Project’s efforts to attract more people of color to doctoral programs, and ultimately, to business school faculties. Although some deans are recruited directly from business careers, most are professors, often with prior administrative experience as, say, a department chair or MBA program director.

Since its founding in 1994, the PhD Project says, the number of minority business professors has quadrupled to 1,176 from fewer than 300. Now, with that critical mass of minority faculty, the organization has begun focusing on the dean’s office. Its Project AHEAD (Achieving Higher Education Administration Diversity) initiative offers webinars, mentors, and conference programs to help minorities understand what it’s like to be a dean and what recruiters and search committees look for in candidates.


The PhD Project, with support from GMAC, works to increase the diversity of corporate America by increasing the diversity of business school faculty and administrators.


“If you’re a minority faculty member and you’ve never even seen a minority department head or dean, it isn’t something you think you should even consider,” says Bernard Milano, president of the PhD Project. That thinking may change with Project AHEAD, as well as through other leadership programs. For example, three PhD Project professors were awarded leadership development fellowships from the American Council on Education for the 2013-14 academic year. 

The PhD Project’s count of minority business school deans shows about 35 African Americans, about 10 Hispanics, and one Native American. Most of the Hispanic deans are at schools in Texas, while about 15 of the African American deans are at historically black colleges and universities. A few minorities, though, have taken the top spot at high-profile business schools, including Georgetown University and New York University.

“There’s power and influence in the dean’s office,” says Stith, who notes that he actively recruited more than 50 minorities to the doctoral program in business at Florida State. “My presence gave minority students the belief that they could do it, too. Most importantly, they had someone who could be their coach and mentor—or just someone they could come to when they weren’t having a good day.”

All students, regardless of race or ethnicity, can benefit from seeing minorities in positions of authority in academia because it helps prepare them for the increasingly multicultural workplace. “If people see us working in leadership positions, it dispels negative impressions and broadens their perspective of what a minority professional can contribute,” says Michael Clement, an accounting professor and director of the accounting department’s doctoral program at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin.


“We need a larger, core group of minorities in leadership to attract more minority students and make them feel they are walking into a place that truly supports diversity.”


Recruiting firms clearly are on the lookout for prospects like Clement. Diversity has become a priority in virtually every business school dean search, says Gale Merseth, vice president and director at the executive search firm Isaacson Miller. “Of about seven business school dean searches I’ve done in the past year, two African Americans were chosen.

While that’s notable, Merseth and other recruiters still see relatively few minority professors with leadership experience in either academia or the corporate world. There is some concern that minority faculty members may not be moving as quickly as they could into tenured positions and department chairmanships. Because schools want diversity on committees and other projects, some minority faculty are frequently being pulled away from research, teaching, and the other academic achievements that lead to promotions and tenure. “People want to be good citizens and serve on committees, but it absorbs their time,” Merseth says. “Schools say they give credit for service, but they’re really looking for publications and how well you’re doing in the classroom.”

Indeed, Carolyn Callahan remembers turning down some committee and advisory assignments to stay focused on her work and career objectives. “If there was a club for minority students, they, of course, wanted to give that to me,” she says. “But I said that all it takes is a compassionate professor to help with the club.”

Personal needs and preferences also limit recruitment of minority administrators. Some professors won’t relocate to another school for personal reasons, while others don’t want to give up the faculty lifestyle. Thomas Lopez, for one, enjoys being a professor at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce far too much to move into administration. “I can pick and choose the projects I want and people I work with,” he explains. “I like flexibility and don’t want to be bound to a job where I have to be in the office at 8 am.”

Lopez has been asked to consider administrative positions, and even interviewed for a department chairmanship once. “It was a good job, but luckily I didn’t get it,” he says. He cheers other minorities on, though, and hopes they use the business school dean’s office as a path to even greater glory as a university provost or president. “I hope minority status becomes a non-issue, and the only issue becomes merit,” he says. “I know I’ll be dead before that happens, but things are definitely getting better.”    

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