A conversation with Dr. Marvin Washington

Claire McMillan is a fourth-year bachelor of commerce student and Co-op student intern with the Alberta School of Business Undergraduate Office. In the conversation that follows, she talks to Dr. Marvin Washington about his new role, his observations on race and his thoughts about moving forward in positive ways.

Effective July 1, 2023, Dr. Marvin Washington will take on the role of the College Dean and Vice Provost for Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Alberta. Currently, he is a Professor of Management at Portland State University. Prior to that, he spent 15 years at the University of Alberta: he is a former professor and past chair of the Department of Strategy, Management and Organization at the U of A’s Alberta School of Business, and has also served as associate dean of the Executive Education Program and the Alberta Health Services Executive Leadership program.

Dr. Marvin Washington (Ph.D., Northwestern University / Kellogg Graduate School of Management), is most known as a Pracademic (practicing academic). Dr. Washington has written three books focused on leadership, strategy and organizational change. His most recent book is Lead Self First Before Leading Others with Stephen Hacker at Business Expert Press. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Washington has worked with a wide array of organizations. Most notably, Dr. Washington has worked with organizations such as AHS, Enbridge, Shaw Communications, AIMCo, Blue Cross, YMCA, Parkland Fuels, Syncrude and SportChek, many ministries and departments in the Country of Botswana, the state of Oregon, the Government of Alberta and the City of Edmonton on topics of leadership, organizational change, and diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice. 

On a personal note, Dr. Washington is married and has three sons. When not at work, Dr. Washington is an avid basketball fan, having coached boys’ and girls’ basketball teams for almost 20 years.

It was a pleasure to have a candid and thoughtful conversation with Dr. Washington., who shared many of his life experiences.

In honour of Black History Month, Dr. Washington talked about his experiences with racism, his observations of race and his thoughts about moving forward in positive ways. He also shared his thoughts about his new role as College Dean and what he can do in that role.

*This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

Please tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. When I was six, we moved from the west side of the city to a mostly lower middle-class suburb in a mostly Black neighbourhood. I had an interesting high school experience; my high school was probably 80 per cent black (except for one class). I had friends that were white, but only because we were in the same class. But once class was over, most of what I was involved in was with people that looked like me. 

I attended Purdue University for my first year of post-secondary because it was the best engineering school, but I hated the experience. It was the first time where I had the feeling that being Black was somehow bad. 

While there, I would play the same game with the same woman at the same store: I would go in the store, and she would follow me around — I guess she thought I was stealing something. The guys in my dorm would complain about the Black curly hair when we cut our hair in the bathroom, but not about the blonde curly hair. I got tired of people asking me if I knew anything about drugs. Or just every stereotype you can imagine that you'd expect in a first-year university. But after my first year of university, I transferred to Northwestern University, joined the Black fraternity and loved it.

After earning my bachelor of science in industrial engineering from Northwestern, I began working at Proctor and Gamble (P&G) and enjoyed my time there. I started getting promoted into managerial roles — even though I knew really nothing about managerial roles. It was then I decided to pursue my MBA. That's what a lot of engineers do — they take the engineering degree with an MBA in order to understand how business works. I took the class and fell in love with the principles of management. It was the coolest class ever, people getting paid to be in a classroom and talk about leadership, decision making and teamwork. But ultimately I quit my MBA and left my position at P&G to pursue my master’s and PhD in organizational behavior and sociology at Northwestern and really loved it. 

While at my first job at Texas Tech the department chair at the time said something to the effect of: "just so you know, you're the first Black professor we've had here in my tenure. And so I can imagine there may be some issues. Hopefully, you'll code those issues as stupidity, not as racism." 

That was a really good point. 

For example, some of the guys who played basketball every Tuesday and Thursday at Texas Tech were hesitant to ask me to join because they know there's a stereotype about Blacks playing basketball and they didn't know if I'd be offended. I then went to the University of Iowa. At this point, I am 32 years old and even though I looked young, I didn't look like I was 18. The number of people on campus that would talk about me playing on the basketball team or me playing on the football team or I had a good game last night, and I was like, "I'm a professor, that's why I'm in the suit and tie right now." I just got tired of that. So when Texas Tech had another job opening, I took it and stayed for another five years. The research is what drove me to come to the University of Alberta where I stayed for 15 years. After a time at Portland State, I decided to apply for the College Dean position for an opportunity to return to the U of A!

What inspired you to pursue academia?

When I was at Northwestern, I was 19 years old and it was probably the most comfortable feeling I had as a kid growing up. I went into engineering because I knew that as an engineer I would get a job —my mom and dad made that very clear. Throughout university, I kept my head down. I got the grades, but I didn’t connect with people. It was transactional. Then I went back to get my MBA. After getting to know my professors, I felt like that was the job I wanted.

Naively, I didn't know there were jobs at a university other than being a professor! Had I known, I wonder if I would have pursued other career paths, but ultimately, the goal for me was the comfort of being on campus. It fits in a very practical, direct sense. I’d get paid to read, write and talk to people. That's really what drew me to academia. 

My research interest is in large-scale organizational change — what we call institutional change. I ran track in college at Northwestern and they cut the program during the last year of my undergraduate degree. I never understood that. It just felt like it was a relatively cheap program to run. So this issue of college sports and how universities make decisions around college sports was my curiosity. That led to my dissertation, which led to my interest in large-scale college sport. When I came to Canada, my research goal was to compare and contrast Canadian amateur sport to the US. Amateur sport. 

Why is the U of A important to you? What inspired you to come back?

I enjoyed my time at the University of Alberta. The U of A is in a period of positive growth and is a place that's asking for creativity and innovation. Now that we have the structure with the College Deans, there's an opportunity to make room for creativity and integration, such as what ideas there could be for degrees, courses or certificate programs. It's a really neat opportunity. We often talk about universities being siloed, so you end up with potential duplication. But once you have Colleges, that increases opportunities for integration. It's actually pretty neat to say that my job, in some sense, is to find ways to integrate across the social sciences and humanities. 

I think I'm really excited about being able to contribute to the U of A success now that my sons have gone through it. I often joke that since my oldest son is called Marvin. Jr., I used to say that in some spaces, only one Marvin should be there at a time. Now that Marvin Jr. has gone through university, I get a chance to sort of experience what my sons went through, take the good and bad, and help make other students' experiences better. How can I make those experiences cooler in some sense? So that's what I'm excited about. It's a good place to pursue my career. 

What does Black History Month mean to you?

It's a true story, but it's a story that I resonate with. When I worked at Proctor and Gamble and was getting my MBA, I quit all of that to get my Ph.D. I was consulting with a couple of colleagues and we flew to Botswana. I watched a British television cooking show that featured a Black chef. It was the first Black person I'd ever seen on a cooking show. I just assumed — probably unconsciously —  that Black people could not have this role because all the chefs I’d seen on TV that had their own cooking shows did not look like me. I laughed at myself thinking: “that's silly, Marvin!” Of course, you think you can become everything you want. But you don't know what it is you want to become if you can't see it someplace else. 

I was in my early 30s when I saw that show. What if I had known when I was a kid that there are Black chefs out there and Black people that have their cooking shows? How might that have influenced me?

When I think about Black History Month, I think it's a time to gain exposure to different possibilities. To show that there are lots of people that look like you that are doing amazing things in the world which will hopefully open up your degrees of freedom so you can also do amazing things. 

How do you hope your new role will tie into amplifying Black voices on campus, and how do you want to see representation on campus?

I’ve learned that in most of the rooms I go into, I automatically bring diversity into the room because I walk into so few rooms where other people look like me. At every university I've ever taught at, except for Portland State, at least one student has seen me at the front of the class and they've asked, "when is the instructor coming into the class?" That student can't imagine a Black person being the instructor; I must be the TA or somebody else. 

Being the only one in a room who looks like me comes with great responsibility. What do I do with that? How do I then help make this a productive conversation that brings in neglected voices? How do I help become encouraging in bringing those voices into the room? 

So in every room I walk into now I'm going to play the College Dean. Hopefully, that's a smart, insightful, supportive and collaborative person. But part of my identity will also bring a perspective that may or may not be at the table. I hope I’ll have the courage to do that.

Was realizing you have been treated differently as a person of colour something you had to adjust to?

I've had to learn over time. I mentor young students, especially young people of colour and often talk about the current environment and how you have to think about your politics. A really good friend of mine is a White guy with whom I went to grad school. We would go to conferences and room together. We had similar research interests and found ourselves in similar sessions. No one remembered his name. Everyone remembered my name. 

It would drive him crazy because he'd be like, "I just met you yesterday. How are you going to forget me?" But when it comes to me, everyone remembers. I finally said, “you appreciate that my name is easy to remember because in their brain, they go, Black guy, Marvin, because I may be the only Black guy they've seen in this whole conference.” What are my politics with that? What do I do with that? Do I use it in a way to be argumentative? Do I use it in a way to be supportive? Do I try to ignore it? Because the reality is, when we go to this conference, 95 per cent of the attendees look like him and less than one per cent look like me. 

So now you're a Black student on campus and chances are, of the 40,000 students, there will be 38,000 that don't look like you and less than 2000 that do. What do they do with that? That's something I've had to learn to think through. 

For example, next month is Women's Month. I remember going to a conference with a colleague of mine and when we checked in at the hotel they gave her a room on the first floor  She says: "excuse me, can I change to get a higher room? Some guy is going to come in through the blinds." As a guy, I never have to think about that. Well, that's a woman's politics. Me, as a Black person, I have to think through my politics. For example, I can't go off yelling in a meeting, because others are going to code that differently. So if I do that, is that the code I want people to have? Sometimes the answer is yes. That's the impact I'm trying to make. Sometimes the answer is no. So I’ve got to find a different way to do it.

What message do you then have for young Black students?

I think in some ways it’s not as hard for the current generation of students. The generation in the 60s was fighting to be in the university. But in other ways, it's more difficult, because now there are bigger politics, right? 

But how can I help? By being in rooms and helping people of colour, helping Blacks realize they're not alone because it's really easy to feel alone on a big campus. After all, many will still take a class where no one else looks like them. How do I help students realize they're not alone? There are other people and processes to help support. The University of Alberta is doing wonderful, amazing things to help all students get the support they want on campus. But you still have to have the courage to figure out where those supports are. So how can I help that? How can I help give students the confidence that they deserve to be in every space? 

As you can imagine, when I applied for this job as College Dean, it involved a lot of self-talk. It was me looking in the mirror, me writing my cover letter..do I tell people I want this job? If I don't get it am I going to be embarrassed? And then what if they don't want me to get the job because it's a big job — it's a College Dean. It's a Vice Provost. I think that by helping students get that confidence, they can go do whatever they want to do. 

Universities are crazy spaces because for some, it’s the only space where students will be with people they didn’t choose to be with. You're born into a family, so assuming you like your family, that's fine. You don’t live in a neighbourhood that your family thinks is a good neighbourhood, so that's fine. You didn't choose the high school. Then you’re in university, and now taking some classes. I didn't choose the other 30 students in the class. So how do I navigate that? Hopefully, I can help students get confidence, get courage, and feel supported in a way that I didn't have growing up. 

I had to work hard to find my group of eight people to hang out with. Even if the number of diverse students remain the same, hopefully, there are more support systems in place to help them find their group. I do think that the U of A offers a lot of those supports. But, it’s important to make help accessible and help students find the courage to access those supports.

Let's say I'm struggling in school and there's something in my family situation that I may or may not feel comfortable telling anyone. If the first person I talk to looks nothing like me and has a different background in me, it's really hard for me to share something intimate. And so part of it is having the people that can help, but the other part is having them understand the difficulty in sharing with a stranger who may not understand you. So then you try to not stick out. Convince yourself you’re fine. That doesn't hurt. If you say that does hurt, what might happen? And so now, hopefully, with me being on campus, I can help students feel some confidence, that if they can express their feelings that someone will be there to listen, they may have at least a little bit of ability to understand some insight. 

How can others be an ally to the Black community?

This is one of those buzzwords. When I was 19, no one was asking about how to be an ally. That word wasn't there. And sometimes we get stuck with the word. But, I tend to think of two things. 

One, I'm going to call ‘small spaces,’ where you let your authenticity, vulnerability and integrity shine, and help the other person's authenticity and vulnerability and integrity shine. So what I mean by that is, to reach out to understand each others’ struggles. For instance, a department chair reached out to me and offered that if anything goes bad, to talk to them, they wanted to help. They also said they hoped that if someone says something negative, I’d code it as stupidity versus pure racism. It would have taken a lot for him to come to me and say that, versus the typical waiting for me to go to him. So that's a small thing. So if you want to be an ally, just see what I'm going through and then just really help support. That's small-sided. 

Big-sided — this is something that I had to learn. If I'm in a room and if someone cracks a joke about another race or another gender or something else, they're going to crack that joke about me when I'm not in the room. So it's less about how I support you when you're in the room? It's how do I support you when you're not in the room? Do I let that guy tell that crappy joke about women when I'm not in the room? And I think that part will help you because then you'll come into rooms knowing the awkward conversations have already been had. When something has been said, and then I expect you to sort of step in. I should be able to step in myself, but there are lots of things that are being said about me when I'm not in those rooms to hear them. You want to be an ally when you hear those things, and address those things because then you're doing it out of your integrity. You're not doing it out of a performance. Who's going to bring that voice? I can bring that voice. But I'm not in every room.

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