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Student Feedback Prompts Adjustment to New Inclusive Leadership Course

Katherine Richardson, Campus News Editor


Professors Francesca Gino and Hise Gibson share their reflections on what went well—and not so well—with the RC-wide course.

In the third week of Inclusive Leadership—a new RC-wide course on leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion—the faculty team delivered an emotional apology in Klarman Hall.

“Our execution has been off in dozens of ways, and we put you in an awkward and terrible situation,” Professor Frances Frei said in the room. “Some of you have been moved to not want to attend class. If this were a case study on how to lose trust, you doubt our rigor and don’t have nearly enough transparency into what we’re doing. Our journey to rebuilding trust begins now.”

The apology came after mounting student criticism about the new course, which was developed in an effort to bring more DEI programming to the HBS curriculum.

The foundation for Inclusive Leadership came from “Leading Difference,” an EC elective course that Frei and Professor Francesca Gino developed two years ago. The course leveraged both professors’ research in leading diverse teams and harnessing difference. Gino said that while the course was a success, she and Frei quickly realized they could be reaching even more students.

“We got the sense that people who decided to take the class were the people who needed it the least,” Gino said. “It was wonderful. Our students were a lot of people of color, people with disabilities, and people who found themselves to be in the minority in a lot of aspects of their lives.”

Frei and Gino worked with the administration to develop an RC-wide course, and brought on Professor Hise Gibson as the third member of the faculty team. 

“Frances realized early on that in order to be effective in our teaching and designing the course, we had to challenge each other a lot and bring together other aspects of diversity. We started working with Hise, who is remarkable and brought a new set of perspectives.”

The team developed the course with a focus on preparing students for a corporate world “where most firms now include diversity, equity, and inclusion among their core values, but often fail to deliver on the full promise of these commitments,” according to the course description.

“It’s beyond necessary for the folks who are going to go out and be the future leaders of major organizations across industries to be primed in these topics before going back out into the ecosystem,” Gibson said. 

The month-long course, made up of four full Wednesdays in February, brought the RC class together in a hybrid learning model. Students met in Klarman Hall and on Zoom for a mix of lectures and group discussions and exercises. Course guests included Netflix’s Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John, Slack’s former Chief People Officer Nadia Rawlinson, and Chicago-based improv group The Second City. 

After week two, Frei, Gino and Gibson began receiving substantial feedback from students about the course, both through personal reflections and emails and communication with each RC section’s education and DEI reps. Section H’s DEI rep Mathieu Davis (HBS ’23) said that many student concerns stemmed from a lack of understanding of course structure and expectations.

“The DEI reps talked to the professors last semester and they told us it was a class on inclusion, not diversity, and we were expecting it to be a course that focused on getting voices into a room,” Davis said. “But because students didn’t have a direction as to where the class was going, many students didn’t know what the class was or how the learnings added to the course structure. We didn’t know what the end goal was and they took us on a journey where we were mindless passengers.”

As feedback mounted, one group of students sent a letter to MBA leadership requesting that the course be canceled altogether. 

“It was one of the lowest moments in my career,” Gino said. “The three of us take our roles as teachers very seriously. We were really excited about the opportunity to teach this course, and so the feedback was quite hard to digest. We described it as failing students on a noble cause we were committed to. That created quite a remarkable pause, and we had to re-design the course in light of the feedback.”

The faculty worked closely with student education and DEI reps to evolve the fourth and final session of the course to incorporate more real-life inclusion scenarios, topical cases and smaller group conversations within sections. 

“The feedback was good because it showed that the students are engaged, and that they care,” Gibson said. “The students leaned in. It highlighted care, concern and ownership that is necessary for folks we expect to go out and be leaders in organizations.” 

Both Gino and Gibson highlighted that there were a few key areas where they felt the course failed to meet student expectations. The first area was around setting a shared definition of “inclusive leadership” and the goals of the course upfront.

“When we say inclusivity, people go to DEI,” Gibson said. “I can’t fault them. Most firms have leaned in high to DEI. We’re starting with the ‘I’ on purpose. If you are unable to create an inclusive environment where you can get the best out of all your team members, you’re not bringing true value to your firm. Everything starts with inclusivity. You have to start there.” 

“In a world where we’ve been isolated with lots of social justice issues, that has shaped the way we think about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gino said. “Many students came into the course with a clear idea of what they expected, and we could’ve used the opportunity to ask for those expectations upfront and let people know which areas we planned to tackle in the course. We should have done that much more clearly.”

Gino also said that the faculty met with students before the course began, but that the conversations did not delve far enough into the learning objectives and specific case studies for the course. She said that embedding a younger person onto the teaching team throughout course development could have helped them avoid blind spots.

“It would’ve been beneficial for us to have a person in their 20s and MBA students challenge our thinking,” Gino said. “Hise is a person of color with a lot of experience in the military, Frances is gay and has experience working to fix the culture at many corporations, and I have the international, cultural perspective on how difference varies across countries. One aspect where I think we lacked diversity in a way that was hurtful to the course is age.”

Gino and Gibson said that despite the rocky start, the team is working to adjust the course for next year’s RC class. They aim to develop more Inclusive Leadership-specific cases, set clear expectations for the course upfront and continue to work with student leaders throughout the process.

“The key thing we can do now is create content specific to Inclusive Leadership that pull out key learnings,” Gibson said. “We’re working on cases with a broader group of protagonists to allow all students to see themselves in these leaders.” 

 

Katherine Richardson (MBA ’23) is a current RC who grew up in Southern California. Before HBS, she worked for four years in brand strategy in New York City, working with companies spanning healthcare, CPG, food & bev, and luxury. In college, she spent four years as a reporter and editor at The Hoya, Georgetown University’s student paper, and is so excited to keep her passion for journalism and campus news alive at the Harbus. 

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