David Thomas did not need the help of a quota to become one of the few black deans among the US’ top business schools.
Nor did he rely on quotas when increasing the diversity of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business to such an extent that now more than half its academic staff are women, from ethnic minorities, or from overseas.
On this evidence, it might be thought that Dr Thomas signs up to one of the arguments frequently advanced against quotas: that they would create the perception that female and minority leaders had not earned their positions on merit.
Not so. Discussing the continuing dominance of white men among the UK’s ranks of professors and vice-chancellors, he told Times Higher Education that the UK “probably [has] to do something dramatic to break the logjam”.
Dr Thomas believes that academics’ views on quotas will typically vary according to where they sit in the academic hierarchy.
Researchers who are still building their careers are less likely to be enthusiastic about quotas and want “to believe it is merit that is going to take them everywhere they go”.
Experienced academics with a history of success will probably be unconcerned because they “legitimately qualify to be on the list”, he said.
“As a black person, my guess is that there were some people who, when I became dean, thought ‘a black dean’. It doesn’t bother me,” Dr Thomas said.
“I’ve got a track record of accomplishment; the fact that somebody might think ‘they really want to have diversity at Georgetown’ is not my problem.”
Diversity is important not only because it ensures that students have access to a broad range of perspectives; it can broaden the outlook of faculty, too, Dr Thomas said.
The issue was one of his top priorities when he joined Georgetown in 2011, after a two-decade career at Harvard Business School.
Beyond quotas, one successful technique at Georgetown has been to reach out to female and minority academics to encourage them to come and speak at the business school, which has helped to build potential contacts for future job opportunities.
Dr Thomas has had success in other areas, too: last year, applications for Georgetown’s MBA programme were up by 22 per cent at a time when the sector was flat overall.
Under Dr Thomas, Georgetown’s programmes have been redrawn to emphasise global business education. All MBA students undertake a project overseas, and most undergraduates do as well.
The school has also renewed its focus on principled leadership in the wake of the global financial crisis. For Dr Thomas, this is a vital change as it reflects Georgetown’s roots as a Catholic institution.
He said: “Starting a few decades ago, we basically bought into the idea that shareholder value is the only measure, and we designed business education around that assumption.”
And Dr Thomas added: “The great strength of Georgetown is, because we have a Jesuit heritage, it legitimises us having a set of views that connect to issues of service and how we use the advantages we have to make a difference.”