Furthering the Business Case for Diversity

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Diversity of thought and perspectives is the lifeblood of innovation. As today’s global environment increasingly calls for new ways of doing business, the integration of diverse points of view and ideas is what will drive our progress.

This month, we will welcome Clarence B. Jones, speechwriter and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, as our McInally MLK Day Celebration speaker. Jones worked closely with Dr. King on his famous, “I Have a Dream" speech, and it is a great privilege to have such an important historical figure join us to honor the day. Having spent much of my education and career in fields with very few women, and now being one of only a few top business school deans who are female1, I have a deep personal belief in the need to create a society where the contributions of all people are encouraged, valued, and celebrated.

The significant work of Dr. King and other civil rights champions laid the foundation for many people to pursue their dreams. Dr. King’s simple words changed not only an entire generation but left a legacy that continues to impact the world profoundly. The ideals he advanced – that fully valuing the contributions of diverse people improves the lives not only of those in a minority but also of the majority – are as relevant now as they ever have been.

In business and society, diversity is the key to solving our most complex challenges. Diversity is not simply a matter of social responsibility; it is a driver of business value. Research demonstrates that diverse perspectives fuel innovation2, diverse teams can, under the correct conditions, outperform non-diverse teams3, and diverse experiences enable us to better understand and be successful in cross-cultural, global business4. As leaders take on significant challenges and opportunities to move our world forward, the business case for diversity has never been greater.

The University of Michigan and the Ross School have a rich history of valuing diversity in all of its forms and of ensuring that an understanding of the benefits of diversity is part of how we develop effective leaders and managers. We were one of the first business schools to incorporate diversity in a holistic admissions process and promote a culture of inclusion, and Ross’ early involvement in the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management and the Forte Foundation, alliances of business schools advancing representation of minorities and women in MBA programs, has helped us expand diversity not only at Ross but also at other schools.

Today, Ross faculty take seriously the responsibility to draw out diverse points of view in the classroom and enable all students to learn from them.  Diversity is not always comfortable. The integration of differences can push us to confront things that are outside what we believe and understand. Our goal at Ross is not to make all individuals agree all of the time, but to enable all individuals to respect difference, learn from it, and leverage it. 

Action-based projects are an important vehicle through which Ross students experience the value of diversity. In these projects, students of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and values come together to solve complex business challenges. They often travel to locations throughout the world, and projects take place in diverse ranges of industries and organizations – large and small companies, public institutions, and nonprofits. 

Our leadership curriculum, the Ross Leadership Initiative, also challenges students to confront differences and harness them for success. It seeks to help students develop a deep appreciation for many of the values for which Dr. King stood – that diversity fuels progress, that one leader can make a difference, and that collective action can be a powerful tool to bring about significant positive change in the world.

The integration of multiple dimensions of thought, whether from across academic disciplines or sectors; geographic, cultural, or socioeconomic experiences; or racial, ethnic, or gender backgrounds, continues to shape our identity at Ross. Next month we will be unveiling more about Ross’ future strategic directions, and building on our legacy of inclusion will be a key part of these plans. I look forward to sharing more about our plans in the coming weeks, and as we honor Dr. King this month, I am deeply proud of the ways we continue to carry out his vision.


1  Women constituted 18 percent of U.S. business-school deans in 2011-2012 (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444130304577558962875402588.html

2  Cheng, C-Y., Sanchez-Burks, J., and Lee, F. “Connecting the dots within: Creative performance and identity integration.” Psychological Science, 19(11), 1178-1184 (2008). http://www.bus.umich.edu/FacultyResearch/hosmer/2009Feb20JSBurksPaper.pdf

3  Horwitz, S. and Horwitz, I. “The Effects of Team Diversity on Team Outcomes: A Meta-Analytic Review of Team Demography.” Journal of Management 33; 987 (2007).

4  Sanchez-Burks, J., Lee, F., Nisbett, R., and Ybarra, O. “Cultural Training Based on a Theory of Relational Ideology.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 29:3, 257-268 (2007).

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Alison Davis-Blake

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