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MBA Students, Faculty, Administrators React to a Trump Presidency

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In the wake of an American presidential election that has left a country divided and the rest of the world looking on with reactions ranging from surprise to disbelief, issues of racism, sexism, nativism and homophobia have erupted at the surface of national discourse. President-elect Donald Trump ran on a campaign that included promises to ban Muslims from entering the country, build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport millions of undocumented immigrants. Trump’s own comments, endorsements from outspoken individuals with ties to racist organizations and pledges to nullify executive orders issued by President Barack Obama have caused millions to question his commitment to protecting the rights of women, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.

To be fair, in his acceptance speech, Trump said, “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.” Defeated candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her own concession speech, “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” The country and the world are watching on as Trump assembles a transition team and begins to outline his plans to assume the highest office in the land.

In the days immediately following the election, many of the MBA students we reached out to weren’t inclined to offer comment, either too gutted by the results, not yet prepared to publicly voice their support for Trump or fearful of going on the record voicing their political views in general. One admissions director responded that she would love to provide thoughtful responses if only she weren’t completely buried by work because her entire team lost a full day processing the election results just as they headed into on-campus interview days.

Despite reticence by some for any number of reasons, with the election not quite a week behind us, we have managed to compile an assortment of reactions from students, faculty and administrators to the election results that seem to have thrown many business school communities—to say nothing of the world around them—into a frantic effort to understand just what a Trump presidency could mean.

A Strong Sense of Wry Disbelief
“It’s not grim, exactly, but it’s definitely somber,” said Sagar Doshi, an American MBA student describing the mood at Oxford University’s Saïd School of Business. “From the very large part of our student body that is neither from Europe nor North America, there’s a strong sense of wry disbelief—they seem to think that half of the English-speaking world has taken a giant step backward.” The European students—either British students who have lived through Brexit or European members who are used to seeing right-wing strongmen and strongwomen on their front pages—are perhaps more shocked. “They seemed to think it would happen in some places, but not quite in the U.S.” Doshi said. Among his fellow Americans, he’s seen a lot of hugging, some sickened smiles, hands on shoulders and no shortage of fevered post-mortem discussions. “But overall, there’s a feeling of mutual support as if both in anticipation of and ease from the grip of a crisis.”

Rafael Rivera, a dual-degree student at Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), reported students in shock in Boston. “It was really a surprise for everyone—most of the poll agencies predicted Hillary Clinton would win with more than 70 percent probability,” he said. Rivera himself, along with HBS classmate Jeremey Au, conducted a poll of HBS students in late September and early October that found only 3 percent of respondents said they planned to vote for Trump.

The mood was even worse at HKS, according to Rivera. “I have seen people crying,” he said. The dean of that school called the student body together on Thursday to process the results. “He gave a beautiful speech where he asked people to get closer to those segments who voted for Trump.”

Classroom Discussions Promote Understanding
A student from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who preferred to remain anonymous said that classmates had discussed the election in every single class on Wednesday. Discussion in one class—“Influence”—was particularly helpful. “We just broke down the situation and talked about leadership and bases of power—looking at it in a very academic way. It helped people understand better and take the emotional aspect out of it.” Several conversations returned to a single question, namely, how to combine two radically disparate points of view and reach understanding. “For the last year or so I wouldn’t even acknowledge there must be Trump supporters on campus, and now I really want to understand their point of view,” the Wharton student said.

On the Saïd campus, classes went one of two ways, Doshi said. In some instances, the class agreed to set the election aside and go on with the business of learning. “There’s power in that,” he noted. “It’s hard to imagine a stronger response to this election than for students to double down on learning new things, challenge their preconceived notions in class discussion and continue to focus on solving world-scale problems.”

Professors and students in other Saïd classes, meanwhile, tried to incorporate it into the topic at hand. In a small seminar discussion focused on understanding employment issues in Brazilian slums, for example, students on a study team related the American election to Brazilian favelas by reminding themselves of the operational concept of gemba, a Japanese term than means “the real place” or more specifically in business, the place where value is created. “It’s a reminder that you cannot truly understand something unless you go there, see the situation and talk with the people involved,” Doshi explained. “This election was driven heavily by an empathy gap. Right or wrong, much of the country felt ignored, unheard. Listening is something we all need to do more of.”

Faculty at HBS sought to convey a similar message, according to Rivera. “Professors have reinforced the message that the outcome is the result of a democratic process, so there are always winners and losers,” he said. “Also, they have asked students to get closer to that 50 percent of the population that believes in Trump—the American dream has clearly not reached their homes in the past few years, and it is time to listen to them.”

Campus Gatherings, Deans’ Statements Promote Dialogue and Inclusiveness
Against a disturbing backdrop of rising incidents of hate and racism across the nation in the days since the election, many schools took steps to communicate their commitment to dialogue and to fostering an environment inclusive of all. The University of Virginia’s Darden School held a community gathering on Wednesday to provide students with an opportunity to process their emotions and support one another as they grappled with complex thoughts and opinions. The following day, Darden published a note on its admissions blog echoing a missive sent by its dean, both offering reminders of inclusiveness. “As we move forward from here, we wanted to take a moment to remind you that Darden—and the University of Virginia as a whole—is and will continue to be mission and value driven,” read the admissions blog. “Our Dean, Scott C. Beardsley, tells us that ‘the Darden community’s commitment to global diversity and inclusion of people from all walks of life is steadfast.’”

At Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, Dean Matthew Slaughter and Senior Fellow Matthew Rees devoted their weekly Slaughter & Rees Report yesterday to calling on students to exercise confident humility and empathy in the days and weeks ahead, citing the school’s mission to educate wise leaders to better the world of business. “Wisdom encompasses the essential aptitudes of confident humility, about what one does and does not know; empathy, towards the diverse ideas and experiences of others; and judgment, about when and how to take risks for the better,” they wrote. “Through the application of such wisdom, enlightened decisions can be made to substantially improve business performance and the world we live in.”

The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan organized two post-election gatherings on Thursday to provide members of the community with a space for “discussion, mutual respect and learning.” Ross Dean Scott DeRue also took to his blog to reassure students and recommit to promoting inclusiveness and discussion. “In times of uncertainty, it is our values that must guide us,” he wrote. “For me personally, I am deeply committed to standing steadfast for the values of learning and discovery, independent thinking, mutual respect, and individual responsibility and opportunity for all people. It is important that we foster a diverse and inclusive community of learners—where people from different backgrounds come together, listen, discuss and learn from each other. As a place of higher education, we must hold ourselves to these higher ideals.”