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Illustration by ka young lee

Sakariya Ahmed waited for someone—his classmates or the professor—to call out a racial “joke” during an undergraduate presentation at Ivey Business School in late 2018. The students had plotted house-price changes on a chart with coloured dots, using black to signify wealthy neighbourhoods.

“A student [team member] said, ‘As you can see, the black ones are the rich areas,’ and paused for dramatic effect, getting a couple of laughs,” recalls Ahmed, one of only a few Black students at Ivey. “The punchline being, ‘Ha, ha—Black people are poor and the big dots are the rich areas.’”

When no one else spoke up, Ahmed did. “I put up my hand, essentially reprimanding them that, Hey, this joke is not funny, nor is it appropriate for any time, never mind in an Ivey classroom,” he says. Later that day, Ahmed recalls, a student on campus rebuked him. “I heard you blew up on this kid,” was one of his comments. “Not only was I not screaming, and I did not blow up on him, but the whole part of saying something racist was ignored. It was a wholly uncomfortable experience.” Ahmed complained to Ivey administrators, initially to no effect.

By mid-2020, a global reckoning prompted by the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and the rise of Black Lives Matter led business students to take to social media and complain of often-ignored incidents of racism, sexism and exclusion at their schools. One of the Instagram accounts, Stolen by Smith, was founded by Kelly Weiling Zou, a Queen’s University fourth-year commerce student, for classmates to share their experiences of being queer, trans, Black, Indigenous and people of colour at the Smith School of Business.

Ka Young Lee/The Globe and Mail

Born in Singapore of Chinese descent and raised in Canada, Zou says one classmate told her, “You can’t be Chinese and Singaporean at the same time,” and then suggested she learn to take a joke. Students like Zou and Ahmed put Canadian business schools on the defensive over concerns surrounding equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI); after swift apologies, schools started to update their recruitment methods, curricula and hiring practices.

Now comes the hard part: moving beyond impressive checklists to create a school culture of inclusive teaching and learning. The reputation of business schools as pipelines of tomorrow’s leaders hangs in the balance.

“If we don’t start right now making changes, a decade from now, we will be exactly where we are now and we will have missed the opportunity,” warns Wanda Costen, the first female and African-American full-time dean at Smith. She took over in July, making her one of the three current Black business school deans in Canada, the most ever. “If we don’t produce the talent, people will stop recruiting here.”

Employers know what they want—”a meaningful supply of future talent and future leaders,” says Rashid Wasti, executive vice-president and chief talent officer at Weston Group of Cos., and chair of Ivey’s EDI Advisory Council. Through their business school experience, he adds, graduates “can have a deeper understanding, more empathy and more skills to build the foundation of being more inclusive leaders.”

Ka Young Lee/The Globe and Mail

Forced to confront their shortcomings, business schools have set up EDI oversight committees, revised curricula, and boosted scholarships and bias training. But missing, until recently, were race and gender data to measure progress. That’s changing.

Last spring, Ryerson University published information on equity groups for 2018 to 2019, broken down to the faculty level. At its Ted Rogers School of Management, for example, self-identified Indigenous students accounted for 0.3% of students, compared to the the Greater Toronto Area as a whole where Indigenous people represent 3% of the population.

This fall, the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business expects to release an EDI report card, including its progress in hiring qualified women and racial minorities for tenure-track faculty positions. “We are not just seeing what happens,” says Kate White, senior associate dean for EDI, on the subject of accountability indicators. “We are saying, ‘Here are our goals, and here are things we can do to meet those goals.’”

Privacy laws, often cited as the reason not to report data on race, are not an impediment, says Ann Cavoukian, the former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

“People hide behind privacy rules all the time when they don’t want to go the extra mile and do what they need to do,” says Cavoukian, who now leads the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers Leadership Centre. “Privacy applies to personally identifiable data, and if your data are not personally identifiable, then the privacy law doesn’t apply.”

One reason to gather data (through surveys and other means) is to “figure out where our points of pain are,” says Lisa Cohen, the first director of equity, diversity and inclusion at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Numbers alone are not enough, she adds. “The hard part is learning what people’s experiences are and what happens once they come into the organization.”

That emphasis on inclusion—a sense of belonging—underpins emerging school strategies.

This summer, Ivey conducted its first survey of students, faculty and staff that asked about race, gender, disability and, importantly, socio-economic and health status. The findings recommended expanding the use of gender-neutral pronouns (a symbol of inclusion), increasing flexibility on core work hours (recognizing pressure on caregivers) and financial aid workshops (for low-income students to better tap existing services).

Without the health and income questions, “we would not have understood where the barriers were,” says Erin Huner, Ivey’s new director of culture and inclusion.

Equity and diversity are essential starting points for EDI, but many see inclusion as the measure of long-term success. “Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice,” says Eme Onuoha, managing director of international affairs for the Global Leadership Team at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and a member of the advisory board at the Smith School of Business. “You should be shooting for inclusion.”

That work begins early. In 2015, Dave McKenzie, a Black staff member of Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, developed a “young CEO” program that invited high school students from low-income neighbourhoods to campus. The week-long summer workshop, led by business faculty and others, included fun activities for students to learn about business and the university.

Ka Young Lee/The Globe and Mail

Present at the summer event was Isaiah Joyner, an 18-year-old Black community-centre chaperone for the students. Watching the proceedings, he came to see Molson as a plausible study destination. “It put me in the right place with the right people,” he says. “The stigma is that young Black youth don’t belong in university.”

After enrolling in a commerce program at John Molson, Joyner quickly emerged as a campus leader and, upon graduation this year, received the Quebec Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for community service. Schools should view EDI as oxygen, “necessary to breathe and function,” he says, not just a key performance indicator.

Over the past year, other schools moved to deepen the pool of applicants. Ivey, Smith and York University’s Schulich School of Business teamed up with the Toronto District School Board this summer to coach Black students on their post-secondary education options and potential business careers. Those workshops continue this fall.

Meanwhile, the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management added a suite of recruitment events this year, including a Future Black Business Leaders Conference that attracted more than 400 prospective Black applicants for the master of business administration program. The conference is credited, in part, with boosting the proportion of Black students in this year’s MBA class to 10%, up from 6% in 2020.

Such events make a “noticeable difference in terms of people thinking about Rotman as a diverse place to come and get an education,” says Rotman dean Susan Christoffersen, who took up her post in July. As well, the application process was recently modified to link students to clubs of interest, deepening their connection to Rotman.

Given the success of a past Rotman move to set enrolment goals (not quotas) for women in its MBA program—now 45% of the class—Christoffersen sees potential for similar “aspirational targets” for diversity.

As with student recruitment, schools aim to expand the pipeline of qualified diverse faculty. Many schools now require mandatory training on unconscious bias for hiring committees, set aside funds to hire EDI-focused researchers for tenure-track positions and create executive-in-residence positions (Rotman created four this year) for Black industry leaders to share their expertise with students.

Canada’s two recently appointed Black female deans prefer to discuss their incoming agendas for their respective schools but, when pressed, acknowledge the “lonely only” of working in largely white academic environments. At Smith, Costen is the only Black tenured professor in her faculty.

“My role at Smith is to create a collaborative academic environment where people are respected for bringing their authentic selves into this hall,” she says, which means recognizing diversity. “We have to change how we assess who we say has a right to learn and teach in our institution. “We can’t continue to rely on the old, traditional ways that were designed by people who look very different from me.”

When Jamaican-born Yolande Chan took over as dean of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in August, she became its first Black leader and one of two Black tenured professors. At Smith, where she was associate dean of research, she was the only Black faculty member, a number that remains unchanged with Costen’s arrival as dean.

“When you are Black…you are alone, and that has been the case for me at business schools,” Chan says “It prevents you from having a community there. You are isolated, and it’s even more challenging because there is no one looking out for you.”

As dean, she inherits a wide-ranging EDI strategy that responds, in part, to an open letter sent last year to the former dean from 610 current and past McGill students decrying “ingrained racism” at Desautels.

Desautels commerce student Mary Zhang, among those who signed the letter, is hopeful but cautious about the school’s EDI progress to date. But she is encouraged by Chan’s appointment. “A lot of us are very excited for her, and we want to see what she is going to do,” says Zhang. “We are hoping she brings positive change.”

Despite the school’s actions so far, it was business students who lit the fire for reform in 2020. An anonymous Instagram account, Sauder, Unspoken, recounted incidents of bias and harassment at the school. Separately, in its commitment to EDI, Sauder’s student-commerce undergraduate society announced funding for new scholarships for under-represented groups and named fourth-year commerce student Ky Sargeant to a new position of equity adviser.

Sargeant, who is openly transgender, advises student clubs on how to serve LGBTQ2+ students and others. Last fall, she was a teaching assistant for a new mandatory Sauder course for incoming students on values, ethics and community. “It was a huge first step to establishing cultural consciousness on these issues,” she says.

For student leaders at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management, the events of 2020 sparked a sobering discussion on discrimination against African-Canadians and Mi’kmaq.

“We came to realize that if you are not taking actionable measures against racism and the system that allows it to exist, then you are not helping,” says Jeffrey Arkin, who was president of the Dalhousie MBA Society until he graduated earlier this year.

Last year, he and his fellow students asked Faculty of Management dean Kimberley Brooks to consider new scholarships for Black and Indigenous business students.

She did that, and more. In 2020, her faculty announced the Promise Scholars program to recruit and graduate Black and Indigenous business students who are under-represented at the school. Three scholarships were awarded this year. Brooks then approached her counterparts in Atlantic Canada and, last spring, 10 business schools created their own versions of the program with industry partners.

“Financial constraints are a barrier, but it is so much more than that,” says Brooks. “[Some minority] students arrive without the education endowments of middle-class privileged students and lack a whole cluster of soft supports. They don’t have the academic mentors and peer networks that are helpful.”

Ivey’s Ahmed selected the school having never visited the largely white campus. Being Black in a predominantly white space led to racial incidents, says Ahmed, who graduated in 2019. “One of my friends would have people on campus call him the N-word, as in, ‘Hey friend, my n....”

After the incident in his classroom, Ahmed recruited other Black students to establish the Black Students at Ivey Collective. In March 2019, the group sent a nine-page PowerPoint to administrators about the lack of inclusive practices at Ivey and made recommendations for reform. The presentation went nowhere, possibly because the school was awaiting a new dean.

Fast-forward to May 2020, when the Floyd murder fuelled a charged global discussion on race. At Ivey, new dean Sharon Hodgson kicked off a school-wide assessment of recruitment methods, curricula and hiring practices. She also asked Ahmed and the collective to resubmit their 2019 presentation.

“What it took for Ivey to take racism of their own students seriously was a Black man dying in Minnesota,” says Ahmed, a member of an external EDI advisory council named by Hodgson last fall.

“The school’s intentions look great,” he says, while cautioning that culture change takes time. “Whatever boxes you check to do that, fine, but until students at Ivey feel good about being at Ivey and feel comfortable in this space, I don’t think anything will change.”

Hodgson, who came to Ivey after a career in global consulting, praised the “enormous amount of courage” of Ahmed and his fellow Black students. “They raised a lot of areas that were opportunities for us, and they did it in such a professional way,” she says. “They didn’t just come and say, ‘Look at all these problems.’”

But getting all students to talk about equity, diversity and inclusion can be a challenge. Last fall, Ivey introduced a new assignment for its 624 incoming undergraduate students to reflect on the role of race at the school, how race affects them personally and how they imagine it affects others.

Students who identified as Black and Asian recounted personal stories from their youth of being the butt of derogatory racial jokes, sometimes confessing to loathing their own identity, says Nadine de Gannes, associate faculty director of the undergrad business program. Trinidadian-born de Gannes, who read all the essays, says that from white students, “the most common sentence I read was, ‘Before this year, I had never thought about race.’”

Hodgson, acknowledging the EDI work that remains, says, “The process is about patience and persistence.”

Determination brought Zou, the creator of Stolen by Smith, to the school in 2017. Zou says her “stubbornness” helped her deal with racial put-downs from classmates and “jokes” about non-white professors with accents.

“I chose Queen’s commerce because of the financial promise it held, the good education it offered and its very good career placement rate,” says Zou, who identifies as queer, a person of colour and someone with a disability. “I am not going to let people who make my experience negative determine the outcome of my education.”

In 2019, prior to Stolen by Smith, then interim dean Brenda Brouwer led an overhaul of EDI policies that included mandatory equity training for faculty hiring committees, enriched course content and new resources for Indigenous student recruitment.

“The real hit over the head was Stolen by Smith,” says Brouwer, a condemnation that she says forced students, staff and faculty to ask: “How can we rethink how we interact, present ourselves and do our jobs in a way that is going to be more inclusive?”

Still, biases run deep.

Last summer, the new student-led Smith Black Business Association (SBBA) opened an account on Instagram. Almost immediately, Smith White Business opened an anonymous account, promising a “safe space for white students in the commerce program.” The account attracted 1,400 followers before Instagram took it down the next day for violating its guidelines.

“I was shaking; someone in Smith created this [account] to mock us,” recalls SBBA founder Victoria Chukwuma, a third-year commerce student. Neutralizing the negative experience, she says, was the immediate support she and her club members received from school administrators and student leaders.

Zou, who graduated from Smith this year, has a simple message for deans: “Marginalized students, no matter their background, no matter their identity, no matter who they are, deserve access to a safe and enjoyable learning environment.”

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