For Millennial Business Majors, Identity 101 Required Course

Lynn Wooten

Lynn Wooten. Source: University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business

  • Michigan's Ross School adds mandatory diversity classes
  • Students want to mix business savvy and social conscience

The University of Michigan, answering calls from students who asked to blend their business training with social conscience, has added a three-year diversity requirement to the Ross School of Business undergraduate curriculum.

The classes, including “Identity 101,” are mandatory for graduation and elevate the message of understanding diversity as a business imperative, said Lynn Wooten, associate dean for undergraduate programs. The initiative began with an effort by the Black Student Union to improve the racial climate on campus, which others then joined, she said.

“Students felt their classmates weren’t getting the education they needed about how to lead in a diverse society,” Wooten said. Rival college programs such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School offer optional diversity-focused courses. Michigan requires liberal arts students to take one class related to race and ethnicity from the catalog, a more academic approach than the business school’s workshops.

Millennials, women and men in their 20s and early 30s who grew up with the sting of the global financial crisis, have a more expansive approach to a business career than those before them, said Neil Howe, president of Lifecourse Associates, a Great Falls, Virginia-based consulting firm that studies generations and the economy. Business is by far the most popular major among U.S. college graduates, representing 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2013, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Not ‘Power Tools’

“These aren’t budding “power tools,”’ Howe said of today’s business majors. “For millennials, there isn’t that division between profit-making and altruism. Their idea is that social responsibility overlaps with their work.”

That’s true for Javonne Barrett, a 20-year-old Michigan sophomore who took
a workshop called “Entering Into, Engaging With and Exiting Communities Across Difference.”

“It helped me to see the ways business is impacted by our identities,” Barrett said. “You have to be able to understand others before you can be a good business leader.” It was also personal. The class helped Barrett deal with offensive remarks some of his classmates made about his hometown of Detroit, he said. “I was able to take away the emotional aspect.”

The Ross School, named for Related Cos. founder Stephen Ross, is ranked No. 10 this year among graduate business schools by Bloomberg Businessweek, while the 1,600-student undergraduate program was ranked No. 12 in 2014. Alison Davis-Blake, who took over as dean in 2011, is the first woman to run the school. She has increased the percentage of female and minority staff partly by insisting on interviewing a longer list of candidates for open jobs, she said. 

“By being a bit more expansive, we’ve been able to radically change the face of our faculty,” she said.

The diversity workshops began this fall after a pilot program in 2014. Among them, “Identity 101” explores how race, gender, abilities status and sexual orientation “connect to larger systems of power, privilege and oppression,” according to the course description. “CQ” is a class on cultural intelligence focusing on “the skills and capabilities needed to succeed internationally and in multicultural situations.”

Ka’Marr Coleman-Byrd, 19, took the “Genealogy of Spending” workshop, where he learned about how his parents’ behavior influenced his spending and savings habits. 

“It helped me identify and address my strengths and weaknesses, and that’s necessary when you are in a business environment,” Coleman-Byrd said. He also learned not to compare himself with celebrities who buy name-brand clothing or cars, he said. 

“I wish I had taken it earlier,” he said of the class. “I would have saved money.”

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