As Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria nears the end of his ten-year stint in the job, he is publicly acknowledging one regret: the school’s failure to make more progress on racial equity.
In an interview with the university’s official news website, The Harvard Gazette, Nohria believes the school has made significant advances on gender equality during this deanship, placing more women in HBS leadership positions, recruiting more women to its faculty and student population, but little improvement in how Black Americans have been treated by the school.
He noted that two years ago in 2018 the school marked the 50th anniversary of the African American Student Union. “Even during that moment,” he says, “we recognized that we had made less progress on race than we should have. And certainly, the events of this last summer have made us recognize, as I think so many other organizations have, that we should have been more focused on trying to address these racial questions. If I had any do-over, my do-over would have been that maybe we should have started on the race journey simultaneously with the gender journey, as opposed to doing these things in sequence.”
‘WE NEED TO CATCH UP AND MAKE PROGRESS FASTER’ ON RACIAL EQUITY
He expressed the belief that his successor, Srikant M. Datar, who officially assumes the job on Jan. 1, will need to take up the “unfinished business” of racial and gender equity issues. “Even the gender work is unfinished business, but I think we’ve made progress,” says Nohria. “I would in no way declare victory on the gender work. That still has a long way to go. But I think the race work, we need to catch up and make progress faster and with more momentum. Now that we have a plan to achieve that, there is clarity on the work that needs to be done.”
This past year has been a challenging one for the departing dean. After he issued a public apology for the school’s lack of progress on racial equality, he was heavily criticized for his personal failure in not doing more despite repeated calls to address the issue by at least one Black faculty member who has since left the school (see Harvard Business School Case Study: Why Progress Stalled For African-Americans). Steven Rogers, who had taught at HBS as a senior lecturer for seven years, accused Norhia of being “the leader of anti-Black practices at Harvard Business School.”
Since the school’s founding in 1908, only four African-American professors have been awarded tenure by the school. The record is so bad that it took 19 years between the granting of tenure to Tsedal Neeley in 2018 and David Thomas, now president of Morehouse College, in 1999. HBS has never given tenure to an African American professor of accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, general management, or entrepreneurship. Not one of the 14 new assistant and associate professors recruited to Harvard Business School in 2019 is Black.
GAINS IN UPDATING THE MBA, EMBRACING ONLINE EDUCATION & INCREASING THE NUMBER OF WOMEN FACULTY AND STUDENTS
The school also has had a mediocre record in recruiting and admitting Black MBA students. The number of Black students in Harvard’s MBA program has largely remained stuck in the fifties for three decades even as Harvard University has made major strides toward Black enrollment. Some 14.3% of Harvard University’s undergraduate class of 2023 are African Americans. Yet, at the business school, Black enrollment is not much more than a third of that number, just above 5% for the next graduating class of 2021.
If not for Nohria’s acknowledged failure on racial equity, he would clearly have been one of the most successful leaders in the history of the school. In addition to the gains he led on gender issues, he led one of the most consequential updates to the school’s MBA curriculum, he invested heavily in online education, creating a portfolio of certificate programs delivered over the Internet, and he raised more money than any other business school dean in history. Most notably, Norhia led a capital campaign concluded in 2018 that raised nearly $1.4 billion, surpassing the school’s original goal by nearly $400 million. During his deanship, the HBS endowment grew from $2.1 to $3.8 billion as of June 30, 2019, and the school’s annual revenues have grown from $509 million to nearly $1 billion.
Nohria also led the school, long isolated from the university on the other side of the Charles River, to reach out in partnership with the university. He led the school’s launch of Harvard’s i-lab, the entrepreneurship and innovation center for the whole of the university, as well as the launch of two new dual degree programs with the university’s Engineering School in engineering and with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Medical School in life sciences and biotechnology.
Under his leadership, the school did less well in rankings, however. Earlier this year, Harvard Business School collapsed to its lowest U.S. News ranking ever, falling three places to rank sixth behind business schools that are rarely considered direct competitors with HBS for the best applicants. Instead, Harvard’s arch-rival, Stanford Graduate School of Business, shared first place with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. That also led HBS to tumble in Poets&Quants‘ recent composite ranking to its weakest showing in ten years in fourth place behind Stanford, Chicago Booth, and the Wharton School.
A 2010 LISTENING TOUR LED TO FIVE PRIORITIES FOR THE DEANSHIP
Nohria was to step down from the job on June 30 to take a year-long sabbatical but agreed in March to stay until the end of 2020 after the outbreak of COVID. “I was really looking forward to my sabbatical and, if I’m being honest, these have been a hard nine months,” he says. “These have not been easy times to lead the School through. And yet, if asked again, the answer would have always been yes. I love Harvard Business School. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the School. At the time, given everything that was going on, having someone who had experience and who enjoyed the trust of the place was important to the School.”
Born and raised in India, he came to the U.S. for graduate school in the early 1980s, became a citizen and has lived in the U.S. ever since, becoming the first dean of the Harvard Business School from outside North America in 2010. He says the grueling nature of the job–often requiring him to hold 10 to 15 meetings a day along with student breakfasts, faculty lunches and alumni dinners–added 30 points to his weight.
During the interview, a retrospective on his deanship, Norhia recalled the goals he set when he assumed the leadership of the school and went on the typical listening tour as the new dean. “Very early on in my time as dean, I conducted a listening tour in which I ended up talking to about 500 people, where I asked the question, ‘What do you think the priorities should be as we begin the second century of the School’s history?’”
‘PEOPLE ARE ASKING US TO REIMAGINE CAPITALISM’
With those answers in hand, he set five priorities called the five I’s for Innovation in educational programs, the Intellectual ambition to pursue important problems in business and society, the continued Internationalization of the school, inclusion and integration with the university.
“I feel pretty good about the progress that we’ve made on every one of these priorities,” he added. “The work is never done, so you just do have to do your part to continue to advance the work knowing that it will not be finished ever. I hope that we’ve made progress, but there’s always more work to do.”
He noted that the school had begun to introduce more modern data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning into its curriculum in the last couple of years. “That work needs to be accelerated,” he believes. “And people are asking us to reimagine capitalism and make sure that business is seen as a productive and positive force in society, to increase trust in business. That work needs to continue, as well.”
One benefit of the pandemic, he noted, was the faculty’s embrace of technology to deliver its courses, a shift that will finally make the long-discussed notion of lifetime learning more likely. “We certainly have learned how to deliver all aspects of our mission, including our educational mission, using technology. Every one of our faculty, by the end of this year, is now capable of teaching online. We have developed technology infrastructure of various kinds. For many years, we have had the idea that an MBA education should not just be a two-year experience, but an opportunity to create lifelong education. I think we may be prepared for lifelong education in a way that we never were before. Because now our students will have learned how to interact with us digitally.
AFTER A YEAR-LONG SABBATICAL, NOHRIA SEEMS OPEN TO LEAVING HARVARD
“They used to think that the only way to stay engaged in lifelong education with the School was to come back for reunions or for one-week programs in the School. And that’s a very costly thing to do when you’ve begun your life and you’ve started your career or you have children and you start a family. Maybe this online engagement that we’ve created will make, for the first time, the opportunity for lifelong education a reality. We never thought that our executive education programs could be delivered virtually, and we’ve learned how to do that. So there’s flexibility and a lot of opportunity that has been created in terms of our educational mission.”
Asked if he planned to return to the school after his sabbatical, Nohria left open the possibility to going after a job outside Harvard. Nohria was disappointed when the university passed over him in choosing a new president in 2018. At the time, Harvard selected a successor who was 14 years older than Nohria, the then 68-year-old Lawrence Bacow who had been president of Tufts University for ten years from 2001 to 2011 and had been serving as the leader-in-residence at Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership.
“I haven’t made any decisions about what lies at the end of the year,” says Norhia who is 58 years old now. “I used to always say that being a professor at Harvard Business School was the best job in the world, before I got the opportunity to be dean. So returning to the faculty is certainly something that I will consider, and if that turns out to be what I do, I’d be very happy. But you only get these opportunities once in a lifetime to look and ask, “Is there anything else that I might do?” I spent 32 years at Harvard Business School. And if something else seems exciting, I think this is the moment to explore that. So I’m going to give that some thought too, but I haven’t made up my mind.
‘HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL HAS NOT JUST BEEN A PLACE OF WORK FOR ME’
“You know, I was 26 years old when I joined Harvard Business School. And so, in many ways, my entire adult life has been shaped by this school. When I joined, I was just hoping that I would make it through my first set of classes. This school has given me more opportunities to thrive and to grow and to develop and shape my life than I could have ever imagined. It’s been a place of work; it’s the place where I formed my friendships; it’s the place where I essentially developed a professional identity. And then, to become dean of Harvard Business School, it’s been an amazing privilege. And yet, I feel that the gratitude that I owe to the School remains in the School’s favor forever.”
Nohria also reflected on his personal investment in HBS over those many years. “Harvard Business School has not just been a place of work for me,” he said. “It’s been my home, because I live on the Harvard Business School campus. I think I’ll just miss the sense of, in every way, being a part of this place. It’s not just been my life; it has been the life of my wife, Monica, and our family. This is where we’ve lived for the last 10 years. So there’s a little bit of a sense of loss. We’re celebrating our last set of holidays in the Dean’s House. Over 10 years, you form extraordinarily close relationships with people. Yesterday, we had a retirement event. These are people who, in many cases, started at the school about the same time as me. I’ve been at this School 32 years, so many of these are people who I grew up with. You just realize the number of people I know and the number of people I’ve gotten to know even more closely in my time as dean. I’ll miss them. On the other hand, I was ready to leave in July, and I’m excited to begin this new phase of my life in January.”
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