This post was submitted as part of Forté’s Inclusive Leadership Blog Series spotlighting a unique course at New York University (Stern School of Business) covering diversity and inclusion and benefiting students. Read more about Forté’s work to reach campuses and men with gender diversity and inclusion efforts.
While I am a straight, Caucasian male, I still came into NYU’s Stern School of Business as a part-time student thinking quite a bit about these challenges. I have what would be considered a “nontraditional” business school background. When I started my degree in 2012, I was working for a large civil rights advocacy organization that not only had a long history of fighting for the rights of women and racial minorities, but also was constantly striving to ensure that the organization itself was both diverse and inclusive (and making a distinction between the two terms). Midway through my degree, I changed jobs and started working at a small nonprofit focused on giving agency to young people with learning difficulties.
My Stern Experience
My nonprofit friends and colleagues have gently teased me about being a business school student, claiming I have traded empathy and advocacy for cost-benefit analyses. However, I have to say that (as I expected), business school students and professors care very much about the same equality and equity issues as my peers in nonprofit careers. My classmates want to work with people with different backgrounds and opinions, and they want to use business to solve complex societal problems. In addition, numerous professors have discussed how we can use our education to better those who are less fortunate than we are.
But of course, there is room for improvement when it comes to inclusivity. I have never heard anyone at Stern make statements about underrepresented communities that they would want to be perceived as harmful. Instead, I’ve encountered a handful of examples of more subtle statements that prohibit inclusivity (these statements have many labels, one of the most common is “microaggression”). One professor warned us that when he gave examples of CEOs and board members, he would use the collective term “guys” because “that’s who I’ve been used to dealing with.” Another professor joked that he may accidentally call a female student “sweetheart” because he is a father of girls and “loves women so much.” In one class we discussed a case study where a woman was rising quickly in her company but ruffled her superior’s feathers when she complained about sexist treatment by colleagues from other countries. Nearly every male in the class felt that this type of treatment was, as one classmate said, “the cost of doing business in some countries.” As you can imagine, many of the women in the class emphatically disagreed.
And then there’s the issue of representation, with numerous studies showing the benefits of having a teacher who “looks like me.” So far I have had 21 professors in business school: four are racial minorities, five are women, and seven are originally from another country.
Insights from Stern Dean Peter Henry
I had all of this context in mind when on Nov. 30, 2015, Peter Henry, the Dean of Stern, sat down for over an hour with my Inclusive Leadership Class to discuss how Stern is facing these challenges around diversity and inclusion. Frankly, I was surprised that Dean Henry would come to our class. I have never heard of him speaking in a class, much less on such a topic that is filled with such debate and emotion. Plus, this talk came at a time when college administrators were being lambasted online and even resigned for insensitive statements.
It was even more surprising to hear Dean Henry’s opening remarks about his own life and why he cares so much about inclusivity, sharing: his immigration story from Jamaica, examples of strong women in his life, and how his family benefited from affirmative action in past decades. He then shifted to an even broader idea of diversity than what is typically discussed—that there is too much focus on the alpha male. He also said we need alternative models of what a leader looks like, adding that we must be inclusive of leaders and employees who are introverted and introspective.
Over the next 75 minutes—45 minutes of questions from the professor and 30 minutes from the students—Dean Henry spoke openly and honestly in a way that is rare for someone in such a leadership position. There were no canned talking points or political responses. He discussed his commitment to encouraging diversity conversations that some perceive as uncomfortable, because people will stay in their comfort zone in the absence of being pushed. He spoke of inclusivity in terms of both fairness and efficiencies, describing what is lost on a personal and an economic level when a worker is forced to leave due to an unsupportive work environment.
However, what made Dean Henry seem truly authentic is when he didn’t have an answer to a tough question. When asked why there wasn’t more scholarship money available for MBA programs (prohibiting many from attending), he described the lack of resources for students as his single biggest challenge. When asked about outreach to prospective students from minority communities, he acknowledged that we need to do better. But the question that he openly wrestled with the most focused on creating a safe space for difficult dialogues to take place—how does he promote safety while allowing for open and honest discussion? He wasn’t totally sure of the answer, but it was clear that the issue is very much on his mind.
Also touching on his work outside of Stern, Dean Henry spoke about his time serving on the boards of several companies, noting that he added value because he walked a different path and therefore brought different perspectives. Judging by his time with our class, it seems that he brings this mentality to leading a business school as well. He even reminded us that no other top-tier business school program had an Inclusive Leadership Class.
In the end, Dean Henry’s talk gave me a sense of hope that Stern is serious about addressing inclusivity issues because it’s both good for the school and fundamentally the right thing to do.
Micah Goldfus is a 2016 MBA candidate (Langone Program) enrolled in the Inclusive Leadership Class at NYU Stern. Professionally, he’s also Eye to Eye’s National Program Director. Micah’s post is the fourth in Forté’s Inclusive Leadership Blog Series.