A Conversation with the AACSB’s New Diversity Advocate

This summer, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) International appointed Christine Clements as its first chief diversity and inclusion advocate. Her appointment followed a meeting between INSIGHT Into Diversity publishers and Dr. Linda Livingstone, former AACSB chair and dean of the George Washington University School of Business, to discuss ways to increase diversity and inclusion at AACSB-accredited schools.

INSIGHT Into Diversity recently spoke with Clements about this new role and her plans for increasing and supporting diversity at business schools.

Clements joined the AACSB in September 2014 as senior vice president of accreditation and member services. Before this, she served as dean of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater for 13 years, including two years as provost and interim vice chancellor for academic affairs. While there, she was co-chair of the Chancellor’s Committee on Inclusive Excellence and was involved in campus diversity initiatives. In addition to her current responsibilities, Clements will now oversee and promote diversity efforts at AACSB-accredited business schools and within the organization at large.

Q: As the AACSB’s first chief diversity and inclusion advocate, where will you focus your efforts in order to support and encourage diversity and inclusion at business schools? Also, what does diversity look like to the AACSB, and what value do you believe diverse groups bring to both academia and the workplace?

A: The AACSB is a global organization, and our membership comes from all over the world. Our understanding of diversity is from a global perspective. It’s complex; it’s a culturally embedded concept that’s tied into historical traditions, environments in particular regions of the world, and economic conditions, so diversity looks a bit different for all of our schools, depending on where they are.

From a value perspective, diversity.… fosters sensitivity for and flexibility toward cultural differences — which is critical. It offers opportunity to underserved groups, and relative to all of those, I would say that it really enhances the quality of the educational experience. That’s a commitment we have — a capacity to flourish and make a positive impact in a diverse world.

From an initiative standpoint, there are really two different time frames: There’s what we can do right away and what initiatives may emerge over the longer term. More quickly, we’ve created a Web page that shares best practices that were developed by a group convened as part of the White House [diversity initiative], and [it] will share research and additional best practices as they develop. We’ve always made an effort to encompass diversity issues in our programming, but we are planning to be much more intentional. We will maintain, and probably expand, our collaboration with organizations like the PhD Project. We also worked with the PRME Working Group on Gender Equality, and we provided data and context to support their recent book on the subject. I would expect those kinds of commitments to continue and expand.

I am in the process of engaging in conversations with individuals and groups who really want to be part of this discussion and the evolving work that we are doing in this area. For example, we have an affinity group at the AACSB called Women Administrators in Management Education; it’s been around for some time. I will be working with the committee … to talk about how we might use that affinity group to jumpstart conversations, talk about issues, and generate ideas. I think longer term, it is really going to involve us having conversations with all of our stakeholders.

Q: The White House recently called upon the AACSB to lead an effort to create more opportunities for women in business, as well as advance a series of best practices for business schools. In the academic year 2013-2014, 42.6 percent of undergraduate business degrees in the U.S. were conferred to women. At the master’s and doctoral levels, these percentages were 35.5 and 36.8, respectively. With these figures in mind, how will you work to increase opportunities for women?

A: Addressing this is really going to require the engagement of all of our stakeholders. I think we’ll continue to have these conversations so that we can understand from schools what kinds of actions they’re going to take given the different contexts in which they operate. Again, because we’re global, [how we address] all of these issues is going to vary. … We need to engage all the stakeholders, we need to talk about accreditation as a mission-driven process, and we need to look at the variety of actions schools are taking in different contexts. In addition to educational opportunities from our events and programming, we really need to get those best practices out there for people.

Let me give you an example. The school where I served as a dean until recently had a business school inclusive excellence committee, and we researched issues related to attracting, retaining, and graduating a diverse student body. We developed programs and initiatives like faculty mentoring for diverse students, orientation and supplemental instruction programs, and an annual diversity forum.

At the AACSB, we need to find out what else is going on out there that will bring women into the pipeline, and that’s going to be an important part of this. This isn’t work that can be entirely handled by business schools. We need to engage in conversations with industry as well, and we need to work with a broad range of organizations to help make these things happen.

Q: Underrepresented populations account for only 15.9 percent of the U.S. graduate management education pipeline — an increase of 0.9 percent since 2010 — according to GMAT data. What will the AACSB do to encourage schools to increase minority student enrollment at all levels?

A: As I said before, we have to work with other organizations, and we have to try to extract best practices from schools that are already doing a lot of this work — and there are a large number of them. I think the other thing that we have to do is reach out and have discussions that go beyond higher education. We’re going to need to engage at high school and middle school [levels], perhaps even earlier than that, in order to talk to potential students about what it means to get a degree in business and about the opportunities it creates for having an impact in the world, and get them to understand that this is a place where they can make a difference and do good work.

There is a perception out there — and it probably has not been enhanced by the last recession — that business is self-serving and greedy. I think business offers a tremendous capacity to have a positive impact on the world, and that’s a message we need to send. It involves us reaching out to students much earlier in their decision-making to bring them in — and then supporting them once they are [enrolled].

Q: In order for an institution to become AACSB-accredited, it must meet AACSB eligibility requirements and accreditation standards; these focus on supporting ethical behavior, interaction and collaboration, and a commitment to social responsibility (including diversity), among others. Do you have plans to update AACSB standards to include a larger focus on diversity, as well as set specific goals schools must meet? If so, in what ways will you hold them accountable for failure to support diversity and meet goals?

A: I think it’s important to know that the AACSB isn’t just the people in our office; it’s really our entire membership. Ultimately, the extent to which any of our standards would change would be because that’s what the organization desires and a vote is taken. So we can’t just decide to change the standards.

The diversity that is found in our core values already says that this is important to our member and accredited schools. No school can complete the accreditation process without providing some evidence of their commitment to diversity; it’s part of the eligibility process. I think, beyond that, we can have conversations about it and share ideas, but any changes in the standards would come about because of a member vote.

Q: Are there benchmarks that schools must meet in order to satisfy this diversity requirement?

A: It’s important [to know] that what diversity looks like is going to vary because we are a global organization. There are parts of the world where diversity is determined by ethnicity; there are parts where it’s almost entirely based on socioeconomic status; there are parts of the world where religion really determines who’s the most diverse in a particular student population. So it’s very difficult to set benchmarks. When you’re a global organization, you have to have standards that allow for flexibility of region and school mission. But it’s a question that gets asked that is [considered], and there’s follow-up that says we need to better understand what’s going on if there are no numbers. But there are no absolute benchmarks.

Q: In a 2014 survey of business decision makers, recruiters, and students, nearly 60 percent of respondents gave recent college graduates a letter grade of “C” or lower on their preparedness for their first job. What do you believe schools should be doing to better address and overcome this deficiency?

A: If you look at our 2013 standards, … what you’ll see is what we believe are important responses to this concern. When our standards changed, we really built them upon the three pillars of engagement, innovation, and impact. By focusing on increasing engagement among students, faculty, business schools, and the professional business community, [we are] striving to increase schools’ relevance and the quality of business in management education. The boundaries are much more porous, and conversations are taking place on a regular basis. [Our emphasis] on continuous improvement and innovation is very much focused on encouraging schools to keep evaluating themselves, closing the loop, raising the bar, asking themselves, “How can we do this better?” — and they do that both internally and by engaging with other schools that are part of the AACSB membership.

The integration of impact as a basic pillar and a critical factor to quality in education — as opposed to strictly accumulating a bunch of activities.— forces business schools to articulate evidence on how what they’re doing is making a difference. So I think if you take that open engagement — that constantly questioning, [focusing on] improvement, and understanding who we are, how we are making a difference — I think that really starts to address the issue of how well our graduates are doing as they go out into the world.

We really do believe — and when I say we, I mean the AACSB at large — that offering a high-quality and impactful business education requires a commitment to diversity. It’s a central value for us, and with this new position and a genuine interest in doing more to address issues of diversity, the AACSB is going to be working with intention to support and expand its commitment in this area.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. INSIGHT Into Diversity will continue to follow the AACSB’s diversity efforts as they develop. Look for an update in our October 2016 Entrepreneurship and Business issue.