Updated on Feb. 20 at 10:39 p.m.
In honor of Black History Month, Spectator is publishing a series on notable black alumni, scholars, activists, leaders, and more whose stories we wish to honor. Katherine Phillips, who passed away last month, was a Business School professor who spearheaded research on and strongly advocated for diversity in the workplace.
Katherine Phillips, a renowned Business School professor and advocate for workplace diversity who catalyzed the career of junior women faculty members at the Business School, saw the beginnings of her own education in a predominantly white magnet school.
Phillips was born in a black neighborhood of Chicago on March 4, 1972, to Adolph and Amelia Williams. In third grade, however, she was selected to attend a predominantly white magnet school, an experience that catalyzed much of the rest of her academic interests, according to the New York Times.
She went on to become the first black woman to receive tenure at both the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the Columbia Business School, where only 3.7 percent of tenured faculty are black and only 6.2 percent are underrepresented minorities.
Denise Loyd, an associate professor at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois and a frequent co-author with and collaborator of Phillips, said she believed the experience of “being in the middle” of different groups was what shaped and motivated her interest in diversity work.
“She came to see the value of bringing different perspectives to situations,” Loyd said.
After teaching at Northwestern, Phillips eventually started working at the Business School in 2011 as the Reuben Mark professor of organizational character. In her role, Phillips taught the course Leading Diversity in Organizations, which focused on inclusion in the workplace, and served as the director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics.
For students in an environment that has long been criticized for its lack of diversity, Phillips’ subject matter made the Business School feel more inclusive.
“She really pioneered this class,” James Carter, Business ’22, said. “She brought together students of the Business School and gave them a space to really think critically about diversity.”
During her tenure at the Business School, Phillips worked to add diversity and equity sections to the Lead: People, Teams, Organization class, a required course for all full-time MBA students. Modupe Akinola, who is a current professor of the course and worked with Philips on the project, noted the lack of discussion on diversity and equity in the MBA Core Curriculum before Phillips strove to make those changes. Despite the fact that there exist elective courses on topics of diversity and inclusion, this separation made students feel that the Business School did not prioritize inclusivity, according to Akinola.
“She was an unapologetic leader,” Akinola said. “If she saw something that was wrong, she would not hesitate to bring it up.”
Professor Joel Brockner, a colleague at the Business School, said Phillips exhibited strong leadership qualities and ambition.
“She really cared about the community and really tried to change the culture of the place. I received many more communications from her than I used to receive from other vice deans about her vision for the school,” he said. “I always used to say, ‘We all know you’re gonna be a University President one day.’”
While she ultimately did not take on that role, Phillips went on to serve as the senior vice dean for the Business School from 2014 to 2017. In 2015, Phillips argued for the value of a diverse environment at a University-sponsored talk and at a panel on diversity in higher education.
“If you create that kind of environment in your organizations, in your schools, in your families, you will find that the value of diversity is there for you to capture,” she said in her speech.
Phillips also served on the Provost’s Advisory Council for the Enhancement of Faculty Diversity. Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Dennis Mitchell described Phillips as a dedicated teacher, mentor, and collaborator who worked tirelessly to create an inclusive community.
“She embodied a rare combination of selflessness, humility, and grace while being a relentless advocate and guide for her students,” Mitchell said in a statement. He added that Phillips spearheaded efforts upon arriving at Columbia to increase recruitment and career development of junior women at the Business School.
As an academic, Phillips conducted research on diversity in the workplace. One study she conducted examined the effects of black women’s hairstyle choices on perceptions of professionalism, where she found that black participants reacted more negatively to Afrocentric hairstyles than white participants, suggesting that members of marginalized communities may feel compelled to police each other’s behaviors to conform to the mainstream.
Professor Daniel Ames of the Business School described Phillips as “one of the most important scholars of her generation in advancing how we, as social scientists, think about the value of diversity.”
“Her research showed how simply expecting to have a conversation with people who are different from you led you to generate more thoughtful arguments,” he said.
In addition to being an accomplished academic, Phillips also spoke at corporate gatherings at companies like Goldman Sachs and Google to share her research and advocate the importance of fostering a diverse workplace.
As the end of Black History Month looms near, Loyd suggested that everyone should work to embrace diversity in order to carry on Phillips’ legacy as both an accomplished professional black woman and an advocate for diversity.
“She likened the experience of getting the value of diversity to going to the gym and building your muscles,” Loyd said. “You recognize that there’s value to be had out of exercising even if it’s painful in the moment. There’s gain that comes out of that pain.”
Akinola also added that she believed the University should continue to offer more classes about diversity and hire more faculty of color in order to continue Phillips’ legacy.
“Every student should see somebody who looks like them, teaching them in the classroom,” she said.
Phillips’ memory lives on through her husband, Damon J. Phillips; her daughters, Kinara and Amali; her parents; her sisters, Natalie Morrow, Ethel Rogers, and Angelia Williams; and her brothers, Adolph and Eric Williams.
Loyd expressed how Phillips is remembered as gracious, selfless, and always collaborative.
“She built herself up by building up others,” Loyd said.