September 19, 2022

Kenan-Flagler Business School Needs a Change in Leadership

On Friday September 16, Doug Shackleford announced his resignation as Dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. With the departure of Dean Shackleford, I strongly believe that there is now a chance to heal Kenan-Flagler after years of leadership and actions that directly contradict the institution’s stated mission to build and inspire leaders who make the world a better place.

An abridged version of this op-ed was published by the Daily Tar Heel on 9/19/22

On Friday September 16, 2022, Doug Shackleford announced his resignation as Dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. With the departure of Dean Shackleford, I strongly believe that there is now a chance to heal Kenan-Flagler after years of leadership and actions that directly contradict the institution’s stated mission to build and inspire leaders who make the world a better place. Kenan-Flagler does not prioritize the success of all students, and has made it very clear that if something is not revenue generating, there is no room for it. This mindset is dangerous and has contributed to a mental-health crisis on campus, important members of the faculty and staff leaving, and students/alumni who speak of having PTSD from their time at Kenan-Flagler. 

I am hopeful that my public perspective, which is supported by students, alumni, staff, and faculty - who sadly have kept their sentiments private over the years - helps to illuminate how we must do better when selecting the next leader of Kenan-Flagler. 

First Impressions

My name is Chijioge “Chi” Nwogu. I am a 2018 full-time MBA graduate of and current faculty member at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. At graduation, I was recognized as the class of 2018 graduate who best exemplifies the core value of Community. The award reads “from its earliest days, UNC Chapel Hill has honored and cherished its special responsibility to serve the people of North Carolina. We at UNC Kenan-Flagler extend this notion of responsibility to include service to the nation and world through research, teaching, and community leadership.” In 2020, I received the inaugural Adams Alumni Pioneer Award in recognition of exemplary leadership and demonstrated commitment to mentorship & guidance within the Adams Apprenticeship and the UNC entrepreneurial community. 

I enrolled in Kenan-Flagler in 2016 because of two women: Dr. Deborah Stroman and Sherry Wallace. 

Dr. Deborah Stroman was the first person to welcome me to Chapel Hill in 2014 when she invited me to be a speaker at the inaugural Basketball Analytics Summit held at Kenan-Flagler. Her vision for creating a Center of Sport Business at Kenan-Flagler caught my attention, and I was blown away by her leadership, passion, and ability to connect with students.  In 2015, when I decided that it was time to apply to business school, I met Sherry Wallace, then head of admissions, at an event for the Consortium MBA program. We immediately hit it off as we dove into a conversation about the weather, food, and basketball at North Carolina. I applied to Kenan-Flagler and was accepted, alongside one of the largest classes of students of color thanks to the effort of Sherry Wallace and her team. 

Once accepted, I reached back out to Dr. Stroman who informed me that she had gotten the green light from Kenan-Flagler to launch the Center of Sport Business that fall term, during my first semester. I was elated to be in a position to once again help build something special from the ground-up, as I had done as an entrepreneur within sports technology. 

But I had my doubts about enrolling after the killings of two Black men by police in early July 2016. I reached out to Sherry Wallace to express my concerns about being a Black man at a southern school. She essentially told me to come to UNC and be a catalyst for change; to be part of the solution. Her response, and my respect for her, played a big role in my decision to come to Kenan-Flagler.

My first semester at Kenan-Flagler was tough to say the least. My first month was marked by a scary encounter with two campus police officers over a routine traffic stop, and I went into a depression after a high school friend suddenly passed away. In spite of my fragile mental state, I organized along with other students across the country against police brutality. While I watched colleagues at other business schools get the support of their dean & administration, our dean said nothing. The silence and lack of concern made it clear that Kenan-Flagler was worried about politics and not about the well-being of all its students. We were told that we could not say “Black Lives Matter” because it was too politically-charged, instead we negotiated to be able to say “KFBS Values Black Lives.” At a rally we held, the dean was invited but did not show up. 

9/26/16 rally organized by KFBS students

Professor Dr. Deborah Stroman did show up. She was our voice, and I am forever indebted to her because I would not have made it through that semester without her support. Especially after the election of Donald Trump as I watched the Kenan-Flagler brass lean into his presidency. I was shocked when our mandatory case competition was for Exxon-Mobile after their CEO Rex Tillerson was named Secretary of State for the Trump administration. So rather than participate, I along with two classmates boycotted the competition and internally circulated a letter that brought to light a lot of the things we felt uncomfortable with as Black students at Kenan-Flagler. Our boycott was intended to stay in-house, but because Exxon-Mobile got wind of it through a faculty member, I was put on academic probation and told that I was ineligible to travel abroad.  

But that wasn’t enough. Some members of the administration wanted a stricter punishment for us. Others wanted someone to be held accountable for our actions. The person held accountable was Professor Dr. Deborah Stroman. 

That summer of 2017, within eight months of the Center of Sport Business being launched, Dr. Stroman was relieved of her duties as a professor and the center was shut down. 

The dean’s rationale? The school was going in a different direction and wanted to prioritize health care.

Our response and plea to reconsider was: Great, you can do health care and sports business at the same time. They actually work well together, and no better place than the University of National Champions. 

Even more, why let go of the only Black woman on your faculty and someone who went above and beyond her job? Dr. Stroman was the person who intentionally created space and time for students like me, and we needed that to make sense of what we were all going through: a toxic culture created by leadership. 

The Center of Sport Business was shut down and never spoken of again. Current students were not told that it was shut down nor were incoming and prospective students. I remember spending weeks speaking with anyone who would listen to me, including some trustee members, to figure out why. Why was a respected woman, a Black woman, the one being let go along with a promising center. Imagine the promise of what the Center of Sport Business could be today at UNC with college athletes now being able to benefit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Imagine the value Kenan-Flagler could have provided not only to UNC athletes, but to the nation? 

Dr. Stroman secured a permanent role a month later at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health, the number one ranked public health school alongside Harvard. She currently serves as a leadership and equity advisor to senior administrators and faculty across the campus. Her center of Sport Business and Analytics now serves all the universities in the Research Triangle area, with RTI, SAS and Oracle as some of her sponsors. In 2021, Dr. Stroman was named the NAACP State of North Carolina Woman of the Year. Kenan-Flagler completely missed the mark letting her go. 

The Entrepreneurship Center

I often think back to my first day on campus in 2016. Dean Shackleford turned on his southern charm and gave a speech to a room full of first-year MBA’s that was highlighted by two statements:

  1. Kenan-Flagler is going to be the Stanford of the South (entrepreneurship giant) 
  2. Start donating money now

I came to Kenan-Flagler to further my entrepreneurial career, and did everything possible to stay laser-focused on my goals. And I did. So much so that I was sought out by what was then the Center of Entrepreneurial Studies to stay on as a staff member after graduating. The center was housed in the business school, and after consulting many mentors, including Dr. Stroman, I negotiated a deal to become an Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR).

The Dean’s office pushed back saying that I did not have enough experience to merit the title of EIR, and that the agreed upon pay was too high. So after initially coming to an agreement with the Center of Entrepreneurial Studies and its Director, I was brought in for another meeting and told that the best I could secure was half of the original pay rate and the role would start as Entrepreneurial Coach.  

I was shocked. I was angry. What more did I have to prove and why was the word of the Director, students who I worked with, and my peers being outweighed by this unilateral voice?

After seeking out my mentors once again, I decided I would take the role and find other ways to supplement my income while I got my startup off the ground. I would stay one year to stabilize myself before deciding what I would do next. 

In June 2018, while my peers were starting jobs at banks, consulting firms, and tech companies, I was working morning shifts as a bellhop at a high-end hotel in Chapel Hill. Yes, one month removed from receiving my MBA, just a few years removed from being CFO for two different sports technology startups. I was carrying bags and driving hotel guests around town. I did what was necessary. Later that year (2018), the Center of Entrepreneurial Studies was rebranded as the Entrepreneurship Center and Vickie Gibbs was named Executive Director. I don’t know what Vickie said through the interview process to get the job. All I know is the conversations we had felt genuine and how much she wanted me to stay on the team to help execute on her vision built around diversity, equity & inclusion, and community & student engagement. I told her everything that happened. How I was given half the pay I was promised. How I wasn’t comfortable being at the business school building and preferred to work out of our downtown office. Vickie did her best to make things right. She gave me the maximum pay raise allowed of 25% (which got me to 62.5% of what I initially agreed to), and pushed me to embrace my gift of teaching and connecting with people. She empowered me to be a coach/mentor for students, alumni, and community members who reached out to the Entrepreneurship Center. 

My rise from staff to faculty is because of the leadership and mentorship of Vickie Gibbs, and the culture that she created at the Entrepreneurship Center. Our team was doing great work, and everyone was recognizing it. Students, alumni, other centers at the university. Everyone was talking about the impact our programming and mentorship channels were having. There was a sense of excitement as we began programs like the Eship Scholars, Innovation Internships, and Makeathon. 

9/25/19 Eship Center sponsors Black Wall Street Homecoming

During 2020, the George Floyd killing at the hands of a police officer sparked another wave of protest much like 2016. Vickie Gibbs, on behalf of the Entrepreneurship Center, immediately responded in a way that made me proud and put pressure on others at Kenan-Flagler to act. The dean’s office announced that Kenan-Flager would create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiative, co-led by Sherry Wallace and Elizabeth Dickinson. This was a stark contrast to the response I saw from Kenan-Flager in 2016, and I felt hopeful that things were finally heading in the right direction. 

Then in 2021, Dean Shackleford decided not to keep the Entrepreneurship Center around. Our budget was cut by 40% (after being cut by 20% in 2020), and previously earmarked funds were redirected to the new “state of the art building”. Vickie Gibbs resigned with her hands completely cuffed, and all the center’s staff associated with student programming, including me, were transitioned off the team. Kenan-Flagler stripped the Entrepreneurship Center of all student programming and left only a revenue-generating program targeted at serving companies in the region.

Once again, I found myself in a situation with a center that was serving a population of highly engaged students, prematurely and abruptly ended. The dean’s office made it clear throughout the process that Kenan-Flagler would not support any programs that were not revenue-generating, while publicly acting as if nothing had changed. 

Until today, there has been zero communication letting students and alumni know about the cutbacks to the Entrepreneurship Center. These are students who are expecting one thing, and then are given less. At the end of the day, the people who suffer from all of this are students. The culture of elitism, the “dog eat dog” atmosphere is pervasive and has dangerous consequences tied directly to student’s mental health. I talk to students. All the time. And they tell me what is going on. How they feel unsafe and unsupported at the business school. How they dread going to the business school campus. All the things I felt as an MBA student, and still feel today as a faculty member and alumnus. 

The Bottom Line

Buildings do not make institutions. People and the values they act on (not say) are what determines the culture of an institution. I understand how someone can come to Kenan-Flagler expecting one thing, and then have to deal with the reality of what they’ve signed up for. It’s all a lie. The truth is that Kenan-Flagler Business School has a diversity issue. KFBS ranks 73 out of 84 MBA programs, according to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Bschool Diversity Index. 

Last month, both co-leads of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative at Kenan-Flagler resigned from their positions. I am not here to speak on their behalf. I can only express that I am not surprised that they’ve decided to move on after doing their best within the toxic culture under Dean Shackleford.

There is a pattern here, and it is Kenan-Flagler’s mission and actions were often misaligned under Dean Shackleford. This is not the type of leadership Kenan-Flagler needs. 

I've done my best to speak up on the issues at Kenan-Flagler, while actively being part of the solution. For example, I‘ve spent years demanding for a more diverse faculty. I do not take it lightly that I’m a 34-year-old Black man on the faculty of a top business school. I take pride in leading my students through a journey of discovery, and I will continue to mentor students on campus, and support alumni who are enthusiastic about entrepreneurship. I will give directly to student organizations, and will show up when called upon.

My call to action? Let’s make sure the next dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School is truly focused on the mission to build and inspire leaders who make the world a better place. 

Always love & respect,

Chijioge “Chi” Nwogu

KFBS Class of 2018, KFBS Faculty, Founder/CEO of GameFlo

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