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Co-operative approach

Pioneering historical approaches to Black economic co-operation, such as those of sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, should be tapped to benefit today’s business education, says study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Sketch portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois with cyan-blue overlay.
Sketch portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois

The pioneering ideas and experiments of sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois and educator W.C. Matney on Black economic co-operation and co-operative business models should be tapped to benefit modern-day business education, says a study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Dr Neil Stott.
Dr Neil Stott

Authors of the study published in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education are Leon Prieto and Simone Phipps, both Associate Research Fellows at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge; Lilia Giugni, Research Associate at the Centre; and Dr Neil Stott, Co-Director of the Centre.

The study addresses criticism of the relevance of contemporary business education, and concludes that the record of Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) can be tapped to boost the number of degrees in alternative economic development and critical political economy. The research focuses on the Department of Business Administration at Bluefield Institute in West Virginia (now known as Bluefield State College), which in the 1920s became the first HBCU to establish a student co-operative to serve as a form of business laboratory.

The study draws lessons for the present day to what occurred at Bluefield, influenced by arguments put forward by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) in two reports on African American social betterment (1898) and economic co-operation (1907). Professor William Clarence Matney (1897-1988), who was co-founder with Du Bois of the Negro Co-operative Guild, later directed the Department of Business Administration at Bluefield and established a groundbreaking student co-operative store that “grew to be appreciated all over the country”.

“We use our historical analysis to inform a discussion of how a new approach to business schools as a laboratory, rooted in racial awareness, pro-social economics and critical pedagogy (as inspired by the Bluefield experiment), may help contemporary educational institutions to better serve Black communities and tackle societal challenges that are meaningful to them in ways that fit their purposes,” the authors say.

The study concludes that such an approach is “not only apt for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but that business and research programmes at predominantly White institutions can also benefit from such lessons.”

The student co-operative at Bluefield reached a ‘premature end’, closed down in 1934 by order of the state of West Virginia, and Bluefield eventually became a mostly White college.

“We think that our findings also speak to the relevance of alternative economic frameworks, and specifically of reintroducing co-operative economics in the form of courses and practical exposure to co-operative business models,” the study says, noting that co-operatives have a current failure rate between 6% and 8% lower than conventional businesses.

The study points out that many initiatives at business schools address some of the world’s grand challenges, including a focus on sustainability and social innovation, but that “management education is still criticised for relying excessively on heroic (and racially homogenous) portrayals of leadership”.

“Racism and racial inequity especially – the bulk of our argument – are central to such ‘wicked problems’, and yet not always taken in due consideration.”

The study – entitled “Teaching (co-operative) business: the ‘Bluefield Experiment’ and the future of Black business schools” – is co-authored by Dr Leon Prieto, Associate Professor of Management at Clayton State University and Associate Research Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge; Dr Simone Phipps, Associate Professor of Management at Middle Georgia State University and Associate Research Fellow at the Centre; Dr Lilia Giugni, Research Associate at the Centre; and Dr Neil Stott, Faculty (Professor level) in Management Practice and Co-Director of the Centre.

The study includes a reference to the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of the authors: “As a Black man of Caribbean heritage who graduated from an HBCU, a Black woman of Caribbean heritage who graduated from an HBCU, a white European woman and a white European man with vastly different descents and experiences within educational and research settings, we made a point to pay careful attention to the way our own ‘racialised and cultural systems of coming to know, knowing, and inhabiting the world’ impacted this study,” the authors say.