Business Schools Face Surge in Activism

March 01, 2017

By Kelsey Gee Wall Street Journal

Business schools are erupting with a new spirit of activism—one informed more by Bill Gates than Bill Ackman.

In the past year, M.B.A. students and faculty at Harvard Business School, University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and others have marched in protest, organized fundraisers and waded into public debates over President Donald J. Trump’s stance on issues such as immigration and environmental regulation.

“At the undergraduate level, these kinds of demonstrations happen frequently, but I can’t remember a time when our graduate students have been as involved” in campus politics, said Peter Johnson, dean of the full-time M.B.A. program at Haas School of Business, at the University of California Berkeley, who joined the university in 1999.

The calls for civic engagement are a new reality on what was once often the American campus’s quietest quad in times of turbulence. While some M.B.A. students said they are less inclined to protest publicly, others feel that a successful career in business doesn’t preclude outspokenness on social issues, thanks to a shift in the way millennials view the role companies play in society, says Brent Chrite, dean of University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.

Students cited Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook, former New York City mayor and Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg and Starbucks Corp. chief Howard Schultz as models for blending corporate goals with a social mission.

“This is a generation of students that believes in the capacity to do well financially when you do good for society. We’re dealing with a new demographic necessity” to remain engaged on global issues, Dean Chrite says.

Broad political shifts—a rise in populism and polarization—are reigniting debate over issues such as globalization and diversity. Defenders of free-market precepts such as open trade and migration often find themselves allied with some liberal causes, as a groundswell of civic activism redraws party lines.

“There’s always been a feeling among us professors that we shouldn’t be too political or it reduced our credibility,” says Andrew King, a professor of sustainable business at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

Mr. King says for him, that changed with President Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. “There’s a sense now that clean-water regulation and ideas like the value of diversity in business, which are central to what we do, are suddenly under attack and we can’t afford to lose them.”

In January, Mr. King and 21 professors at top business schools wrote a letter imploring President Trump to preserve current environmental laws and adhere to U.S. commitments to the Paris agreement on climate change. The Hill published the missive on Jan. 23, as the Trump White House pledged to help cut federal red tape by rolling back a raft of environmental regulations issued by the Obama administration.

Some M.B.A. students and faculty have taken a more direct approach.

Tiffany Smith, a second-year student at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, helped found a coalition of students from about a dozen business schools committed to diversity and inclusion in business. The group, dubbed “MBAs Open Up,” spent the month of February fundraising for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The group raised nearly $5,000 from business school students, faculty and alumni for one of the country’s largest civil-liberties organizations, which recently filed lawsuits challenging the president’s executive orders on immigration and police stop-and-frisk programs. The Trump administration said the January orders were needed to keep terrorists from entering the U.S., and Mr. Trump said on the campaign trail that the policing strategy helps reduce crime.

Students at Yale University’s School of Management gather regularly outside the cafeteria to enlist classmates to call their members of Congress.

This past weekend, about 35 Yale M.B.A. students and professors knocked on doors in the towns of Watertown and Southbury, Conn., canvassing for Greg Cava, a Democrat running for a state Senate seat in a special election.

At Wharton, M.B.A. student Elizabeth Tang co-wrote a letter to fellow alumnus Mr. Trump, saying his campaign rhetoric promoted prejudice. She says the letter garnered signatures from more than 4,000 past and present students of the country’s oldest business school.

“As future business leaders, we’re coming from a position of immense privilege that allows us to have a significant impact on policy,” says Ms. Tang, who is also pursuing a law degree. “Remaining silent would be equivalent to complicity with the statements and actions” of Mr. Trump, she says. At a press conference this month, Mr. Trump said he was the “least racist person” ever.

Not all of Wharton’s roughly 1,700 M.B.A. candidates agree.

Ben Allen, a second-year Wharton student and former Navy officer, says that while he supports his classmates’ right to express their political views, he sometimes bristles at the tone of the discourse.

Some students are too quick to express outrage or label their peers as racist for voicing agreement with any of President Trump’s decisions, Mr. Allen says, and those knee-jerk responses run counter to the way business leaders should make decisions. The 32-year-old says he challenges his peers to research and carefully consider their views.

“If you do, and you’re just as upset, well amen, now you’re more informed,” he says.