Racial Equity@Haas: Dean – Richard Lyons

This Racial Equity@Haas blog series written by three Haas students (Charlie James, Alankrita Dayal, and Naayl Kazmi) is providing the space for us to meet our core principles of being Students Always, going Beyond Ourselves, and Questioning the Status Quo by advancing the conversation on race, how it manifests in business, and its broader implications. We’re asking Four questions to members of the Haas community to illuminate how racial equity in business and Haas is conceived and to stir an open conversation.

Q1) What is Racial Equity to You?

“When we think about all people being created equal, which in this country is sort of line one, what does that mean in terms of justice societally, how we think about, and how we organize the society? When I first read your question, the actual thought that came to mind was from a Bob Marley song where he sings, ‘Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.’ Phrases like that I think help us to understand what racial equity is, which is recognizing that all people are created equal; it’s actually hard to find somebody who disagrees with that phrase. Racial equity is also about recognizing that implicit bias is all around us, which it is if we’re going to be honest. The ideal of the color of one’s skin having no more significance than the color of one’s eyes is what we’re shooting for.”

Q2) How do you find Racial Equity Important to Business?

“This is a really big question. I’m going to take this one back to first principles in asking, ‘What problem is business trying to solve?’ Organizations, companies succeed in this economy not by being the same as other organizations. They succeed by being usefully different. When they are the same, they don’t last very long; so if you are a leader of an organization, or designing one, or just thinking about what fit organizations look like in an evolutionary sense, you need them to produce this useful differentness faster. How do they become usefully different faster? You don’t become usefully different faster by hiring a bunch of like-minded people and putting them in a room and hoping that you’ll get a different, creative solution. That’s not the right way to do it. This isn’t about race per se; it’s about making sure that different perspectives — that people coming at different opportunities or challenges from different angles — is the way you get great solutions. It’s really non-discretionary. You have to do those things and there’s research that backs that. The most fundamental value-creating thing that groups, organizations, people in the business world do is to become usefully different faster, and race plays — as other elements of difference do — a fundamental role. Another element of that is people: if consumers can’t see representations of themselves in the organizations they do business with, they’re going to be less likely to do business with them. We’re getting more and more of that sentiment, and that’s a trend I believe will continue. The economic pain of not running business this way is going up, and that’s a good thing.”

Q3) In Your Perception, How is Haas on Racial Equity?

“I think modern institutions of all kinds have a long way to go if we’re going to be honest. That’s a very general statement, but I believe it to be true. To give you a small example, we were talking about a case that one of our faculty teaches; we actually got together, the tenured faculty at Berkeley-Haas got together for an hour and a half about three weeks ago, and the topic was race and gender in the classroom. How do we manage those discussions and how do we get better at having those conversations? Because students want it, they deserve it, and it’s hard. So it was peer-to-peer, tough topic, let’s have the conversation. One of the examples that was used in that session – one of the faculty members in the discussion said, ‘I teach a case where one of the protagonists is African American,’ and for that protagonist there was a little section, like three sentences, where there is a group or club or an affinity group of black Americans in that company that would get together for various things. The case has this protagonist going to another meeting with some of these other folks who they just had a prior meeting with, but they felt uncomfortable walking through the lobbies as a group of black men and women. Some took the elevator, some took the staircase, they distributed themselves. If you are white, that idea never crosses your mind. The faculty member said, ‘The first time I taught it, I didn’t discuss that, and the next time I taught it, I raised it, and somebody said I feel that way in my company today.’ (This was a case that might’ve been ten years ago.) Then somebody else in the class said, ‘I feel that way at Haas.’ You have a conversation like that and the scales come down off your eyes; you hear people say that, chills down your spine, and you say, ‘thank you for saying that ‘cause I don’t see that.’ The person wasn’t saying that Haas is a massively discriminatory place. It was just a thought that enters your mind if you’re from one of those identity groups and people not from one of those identity groups don’t ever have to think that way; but we need to know that other people do and that it’s natural.

Long answer to a good question, but if you asked me about specific improvements, I’d add that we joined the Consortium for graduate management education, which basically doubled the percentage of people of color in our full-time MBA program. In the time of my deanship, we added about a million and a half dollars a year for fellowships that went into the Consortium, but that’s just money; there are many other things you have to do. We launched for undergraduates something called SIEML (Summer Institute for Emerging Managers and Leaders) with five other UC business schools (UC has 10 campuses but 6 business schools), and all of the students in the first class or two in the program were all from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Now there are HSIs (Hispanic Serving Institution) and others involved, but the focus was HBCUs initially. The idea was that these were undergrads at HBCUs, Freshmen and Sophomores who were not business majors, and we were introducing them both to business and the UC system, hopefully to get them to choose to come to California to get an MBA. It was valuable in its own right, but part of what we hoped to do was to open the pool even wider for our own schools. Anyways, that’s one initiative, and joining the Consortium is one initiative. When you add it all up, I believe that we’re very clearly more intentional now than we were, 10, 15, 20 years ago, and we still have further to go.”

Q4) Please Add a Personal Anecdote on Racial Equity.

“There are two quick ones that I’ll offer. One is of when I first became acting Dean for one year before becoming the Dean officially. The prior Dean — absolutely terrific person and Dean — he and I had different views on Proposition 209 (amended to the California Constitution in 1996 to prohibit public institutions from showing any preference for anybody based on race, sex, or ethnicity) in a particular way, on what we call Affinity Calling Programs. If we’ve admitted an African American to our undergraduate program or to our MBA program, or anyone from an under-represented group, we would have somebody from that same identity group who’s a current student call that person and say, ‘you’ve got to come,’ if there’s still a choice on the table. That’s part of our recruiting effort. My predecessor again, outstanding man, he felt that the Affinity Calling Program was inconsistent with Proposition 209 and he didn’t feel comfortable doing it. When I became acting Dean, I looked at that and said at worst, that’s in a grey area, but it’s a very light shade of grey, so I said, ‘I’m re-instituting the Affinity Calling Program.’ I felt it was in this institution’s and in California’s best interest  — you’ve got to make the call; if you have a point-of-view, you’re the Dean, what are you going to do? I came in, I changed it. Anyways, that’s anecdote number one.

Number two, I grew up in the Bay Area, Los Altos, and I came to Berkeley as an undergrad. The high school that I went to, Los Altos High School, was a public high school, but suburban in a relatively affluent community. There was one African American in my class of four hundred. I grew up in that environment; I didn’t know how skewed that was. She, Joanne, was a friend of mine; we did stuff together, but you don’t realize until your world widens sometimes just how narrow your prior world was; and then you come to Berkeley and then your world widens and you start to realize, ‘Wow, in some dimensions I had it about right, but in this dimension there was a lot of stuff I didn’t see.’ That’s one of those moments when you kind of reflect on, ‘Alright, I have some updating to do; I have some seeing to do,’ and so that was one of the things I sometimes mention when people talk about having honest conversations about race. I realized that I come from a history where this is not a natural conversation, and I completely agree that we need to have the conversation.”

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