Bernie Milano Maintains Long-term Focus on Minority Doctorate Program

Mention Bernie Milano to anyone concerned about the dearth of minorities holding terminal degrees in business and related fields and the response is universal. If it were not for him, things would be much worse. As the founding president and driving force behind a 16-year effort to bolster diversity among teachers in the nation’s colleges and schools of business administration, Milano has done things that few thought were possible.

While many organizations have started ambitious programs to address diversity, few have stayed the course over the long run. The KPMG Foundation’s PhD Project is one of the few to stay the course over the long haul. Today, there are 1,043 business professors from underrepresented groups, up from fewer than 300 when the project began.

Diverse spoke with Milano recently about the project’s past, present and future.

Diverse: What has been the most satisfying aspect of your involvement with The PhD Project?

Milano: There have been many satisfying experiences, but I would have to say the overwhelming support of the academic community. When we started back in 1994 there was a widely held belief that the academy would not support such a program. Today, we have over 230 schools involved as well as great corporate support.

Diverse: Why did KPMG get involved in the first place?

Milano: The Supreme Court has recognized that diversity is essential for the health and well-being of America. Back then, the few number of minority Ph.D.s was a cause of great concern. Claude Steele has shown that there is a direct relationship between the success of minority students and their exposure to people who look like them. By addressing the faculty shortage head on, the benefits flow right on down through the pipeline.

Diverse: What threats does the Project face?

Milano: Of course, there is the constant need to raise money. On the legal front, there are no threats. People need to understand that there is no affirmative action involvement with what we do. Faculty members invite qualified applicants to enroll. No one is admitted to these programs other than for their credentials.

Diverse: How has the economy affected The PhD Project?

Milano: Universities have, as you know, been cutting back. Deans have economic realities they have to contend with. In terms of generating revenue, undergraduate enrollments generate a lot more income. Doctoral students don’t pay fees. Also it takes a lot more time and funds to support these students. We’re therefore cutting against the economic grain, which is one of the reasons that the overall numbers continue to decline.

Diverse: When you consider the opportunity costs and tenure struggles that lay ahead, why would anyone want to get a Ph.D.?

Milano: There are two main reasons. First, these people want to make a difference in the lives of the people they will teach. The second is that they discover the academy is a wonderful place to work. With the uncertainty of the corporate sector, as well as the toll taken on one’s family, an academic career offers a chance for a much more balanced lifestyle. Students are usually quite surprised to see just how well business school teachers are paid.

Diverse: Is this reflected in the applicant flow for the program?

Milano: Yes it is. We get 800 to 1,000 prospective graduate students to our conference. Around 400 are accepted to the annual conference and around 50 actually enroll in a doctoral program. Only about 10 percent come directly out of undergraduate school, but we prefer that they have been out of school for at least eight to 10 years.

Diverse: How much does it matter that one attend a ranked school?

Milano: It depends on what you want to do. Take a look at the credentials of the faculty. That will tell you a lot about the people you’ll be interacting with and also about the type of school you’ll be teaching in. Schools only invite those that they think can be successful and competitive. Your personal and professional goals become your driver. Students in our program are all over the place in terms of where they come from and where they teach.

Diverse: Why did KPMG take on The PhD Project?

Milano: We knew that it was a high-risk venture and a long-term investment. One member warned me not to make this a Roman candle project, meaning a lot of light and sound for a very short period of time. But we didn’t want to sit around and do nothing as if to suggest that this was not important enough to take action. We had to kill three business research programs to fund it. But it was well worth the effort.