Diversity matters: Why change is vital in university business leadership

The PhD Project's Blane Ruschak says it's time to start promoting 'business disciplines as a normal career path.'
By: | September 7, 2021
Taylor Grote/Unsplash

For more than 25 years, The PhD Project has been providing a pathway for hopeful doctoral students to become leaders and mentors at universities in areas such as accounting, finance, management, marketing and information systems.

Partnered with hundreds of programs at top institutions—Harvard, MIT, New York University, the University of Chicago and scores of state university systems—its goal is to help drive diversity in faculty and high-ranking positions, thus providing a fluid pipeline that leads to more equitable representation on campuses and in industry.

The PhD Project has done a standout job increasing, retaining and getting to completion the number of doctoral recipients through the years—from mentorship to training to its national conference (this year slated for Nov. 17-19)—but challenges persist. Underrepresented students, for example, are far less likely to pursue careers in business to begin with because of a lack of resources and the lean of many K-12 schools to promote other fields.

“We’re fighting the battle against STEM,” says Blane Ruschak, president of the KPMG Foundation and The PhD Project. “STEM is all over every high school curriculum. You have AP courses in almost every major STEM discipline. But there’s no AP credit for any of the business disciplines. We’re basically starting behind with high schools. We’re not promoting business disciplines as a normal career path.”

Blane Ruschak

The result is that building a truly diverse network of business-driven leaders in higher education—where tenured faculty, deans and even presidents do look like the general population—has been steady but slow. Organizations such as The PhD Project are doing their part, but as Ruschak points out, it takes a multi-stakeholder approach to drive change. University Business sat down with Ruschak to find out more about The PhD Project and what the future holds in terms of diversity in higher ed:

Diversity, equity and inclusion have been high priorities for institutions. Why have we not already seen far more diverse leaders?

It’s a slow process. In the academic world, things don’t move fast. There’s been a lot of talk around that needs to change. But you’ve got a system with tenure that is very unusual. In terms of DEI, it’s going to take time. The way you change a university is, you’ve got to change the face of the classroom. That’s what the PhD Project is all about. You’ve got to hire faculty that are not like the faculty that are there today. They look different. They’re Black, they’re Hispanic, they’re Native American.

What sorts of barriers are persons of color facing when seeking tenure or higher positions at institutions?

Once you have them as faculty, you’ve got seven years to get that person to tenure. That’s where there’s a big gap right now. A university hires its first Black professor for that department, but every time there’s any committee that has the word diversity in it, they want that professor of color to be on it. They want to show that they have a diverse search committee, so they ask that professor to be on every search committee. They also want that professor involved in any of the student organizations as the faculty advisor. So the seven years tick by and the professor has been so pulled in so many directions that they haven’t done the research. They haven’t been published. They can’t get tenure. That’s a cycle that has to change.

What about the committees themselves? Are institutions ensuring they are representative?

They need to do a better job of making sure search committees are truly embracing diversity, not just lip service. It’s one thing for the search committee to say, we want to look at a diverse slate of candidates. When the diverse slate comes in, and there is one African-American, one Hispanic and five White males or females … if the search committee keeps diverting to that White male or female, then they haven’t accomplished the mission. Yes, they had a diverse slate, but they didn’t choose a diverse candidate. I’ve talked specifically to universities who say that they’re trying to change that, but it’s hard when the lead for the search committee is a White male who is what I call the ‘mini me’—the person who looks like me and sounds like me.

Do you see a groundswell of support for change happening?

They’re making commitments, but it’s a long process to show [candidates] the way to get tenure without blocking it with all these barriers. We have a program at the PhD Project to develop leaders who want to become department chair, dean, provost or president. But it’s up to the universities to make the move and say, ‘I’m going to name our first African-American dean, or I’m going to have the first Hispanic dean.’ We are seeing that start to happen. There are 52 deans that are members, that are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, and a couple of college presidents, which means we made it to the top of the ranks. That’s where they can make an impact. They are guiding the steering committee or the selection of new faculty or bringing in training and workshops to get rid of unconscious bias.

What can institutions do to help promote their programs and drive interest among younger students?

Every university should have programs that have their faculty, at a minimum, visiting the local high schools in their own area to talk about careers in business. They should be partnering with firms. So when they go to that 10th- or 11th-grade class and talk about careers, they can make business careers look and sound as interesting as they really are. Students, especially underrepresented students, don’t have someone typically in their immediate household who is a comptroller or a CFO or CEO. They may know somebody who was in the sciences, because that’s what high schools are hitting hard. On the accounting side, it’s happening. Organizations such as the American Accounting Association and the American Institute of CPAs are putting together very in-depth programs about how they market to high school and younger students. But it needs to be in every business discipline. We should be targeting students in FBLA and DECA and saying, ‘Think about going to a four-year college and getting a degree in business.’ Not enough is being done to help the underserved population understand that option.

What role can two-year institutions play in facilitating these career paths?

A huge percentage of underrepresented students are attending community colleges. But when the job market is great, they off-ramp after two years. No one’s saying to them, if you transfer to a four-year school, here’s what you could be doing in two more years. I am seeing a trend for more colleges to look at the community college system as a way to attract students. I’m on the advisory board for Arizona State University’s School of Business and accounting program. They started a program working with firms in the Phoenix area to provide scholarships specifically to community college students who want to go to Arizona State for a four-year degree. It’s targeting students that may not have had the opportunity because of the inability to pay. But it can’t be just one school doing it. It can’t be one firm doing it. It’s got to be a concerted effort across the board by the industry, organizations, the schools, PhD Project and Corporate America.