Speech transcript as delivered to Alumni Town Hall on Friday 25th September 2020, 12.30 – 1.30 pm
Welcome to you all.
Thank you for joining. Almost 500 alumni are with us today, and I am grateful that you are giving us so much of your time.
My name is Professor Paolo Volpin and I am the Dean of the Business School. Thank you for joining us today.
This meeting is to explain more about why the Business School has changed its name, the process for finding a new name and how you can get involved. I will do this first, we will then hear from some our alumni community about their personal views on the change, we will have a Q&A and I will then update you on next steps and plans for the future.
If you have any questions during the meeting, please submit them using the chat function.
I would now like to introduce you to some of your alumni colleagues, who will be speaking today.
Matthew Hubbard (MBA, 1999) and a member of the Business School Alumni Board. Matthew was asked by fellow board members to represent them on the Naming Steering Committee. He will be chairing our Q&A today. Thank you, Matthew.
I am really pleased that we will also be joined by some of our alumni community today who are going to briefly speak about their personal views on our name change and its impact on them. I would like to introduce them now.
Chinenye Ikwuemesi (EMBA, 2016)
Jason Dunwell (EMBA, 2014)
Prosper Williams (MSc Management, 2010).
Christina Thorngreen (MSc Management, 2010)
I am very grateful to them for speaking today, thank you.
2020 continues to be a challenging year. We are in the middle of a pandemic and, like you, we are facing all the uncertainties that come with that. At the Business School, we have been working since March first to move our teaching online and then to prepare for an academic year that will be unlike any other.
I know the announcement of our name change in the middle of all this has caused many strong reactions in our community. Some of you celebrated the decision, some are outraged, others are unsure what to think.
We have all our own experiences and understanding of fairness and justice. It is natural that some of you might disagree with our decision.
But whether you agree or disagree – we cannot be successful without your support and confidence in us. To earn your support and confidence, you need to see us and hear from us, and you need to be able to question us. The aim of this Town Hall is to be a first step towards opening the door more widely and engaging in a dialogue about not only the name, but the strategic direction of the Business School for the decade to come.
Before we can move on to thinking about our future, it is important to understand how we got to this point. I know I may not change your minds, but what I will do today is explain the reasoning behind our decision.
Many of you have rightfully asked how it was possible that we did not know about Sir John Cass’s link to the slave trade. That is a fair criticism and a question many of us in the School have asked ourselves.
In 2001, when we accepted the donation of £5 million pounds to fund our new building and agreed to adopt Sir John Cass’s name, we carried out due diligence on the Sir John Cass Foundation, which funds educational opportunities for underprivileged communities in East London.
We did not look at the man who was the source of the Foundation’s wealth and what taking Sir John Cass’s name might imply – that is a source of sincere regret.
Discovering the truth about our namesake genuinely came as a shock, not only to us, but to all other institutions carrying his name. It is worth noting that all seven former Cass institutions and the Sir John Cass Foundation itself have now changed or are in the process of changing their name. In the context of our name change, we had to confront some very uncomfortable truths about our history.
We are a Business School with a global reach and a global outlook. But we are also fundamentally a British institution with deep roots in the City of London. That is what makes us attractive to many. It might be why you chose to study here. We have valued relationships with the great institutions of the City of London, the banks, the insurers and the professional service firms.
However, the City of London has a complicated history that is deeply intertwined with slavery. The Royal African Company was set up to organise and profit from the Atlantic slave trade. It shipped more African slaves to the Americas than any other institution in history. It was a highly profitable business and most people of note working in the City at the time would have profited from it in some way.
Sir John Cass was not a distant shareholder in the company. He worked directly for it and in his role on the Executive Committee; he set budgets and gave detailed instructions to the captains of slave ships. These instructions included everything from the prices of the enslaved people on board, to the records kept of how many died while being transported.
Sir John Cass would have been fully aware of the human cost incurred in obtaining his wealth.
Yet, as many of you have pointed out to us, history is complex. A lot of good has come from the City of London: the doctrine of Habeas Corpus, which guaranteed the right to a fair trial; political liberty in Britain, and eventually the abolition of slavery. And like other individuals who profited from slavery at the time, Sir John Cass bequeathed his wealth to support charitable work – in his case, the education of disadvantaged children.
There is light and there is dark. It is important to acknowledge these complexities of history so that we remember that we have a role in shaping the events of the world. There is always hope to do things differently, and that is the position in which we now find ourselves.
I hope that after learning more about Sir John Cass, it has become clearer to those critical of our decision why an institution like ours cannot continue to carry his name. To retain his name would send a strong, negative message about our values and priorities as an institution.
Neither his philanthropy, nor the passage of time will erase the suffering he caused and the persisting inequality that slavery has contributed to creating in the world today.
The effects of slavery are still present in society. This is not an issue of the past; it is an issue of the present. Racism and structural inequalities for Black people persist, even hundreds of years after the abolition of slavery. To this day, Black students are three times less likely than White students to get high grades at A-levels and thus, to get admitted to university; the unemployment rate of Black people is double that of White people; and Black households in the UK have 63% lower incomes than White households.
More broadly, the exploitation of others through seemingly legitimate business practices remains a source of wealth for many individuals and corporations.
As a Business School, we have a role to play in addressing these problems and inequalities. Repudiating the name of a slave trader is a first step in that direction.
At this point, I’d like to remind us that we are not a private, but a public institution. We are not driven by profits, but by our public purpose:
Our purpose is to create knowledge that has an impact on the business world. It is to educate our students in a way that prepares them for the increasingly complex world we live in. And importantly, our purpose is to build a community of mutual support that includes all of our stakeholders: our students, alumni, staff and partners.
This community is incredibly diverse – it represents many nationalities and ethnicities. It’s a community that includes Black people whose ancestors were enslaved.
We have a responsibility to all of you. But in this situation, given Sir John Cass’ involvement in the slave trade, we have a particularly strong responsibility to the Black members of our community.
This decision is not about “cancelling” history, this decision is about facing up to our history. Nor is it a decision that has been imposed on us by City or other external forces. This decision is our decision.
When it came to the decision to no longer use the name Cass, it was not the easy thing to do. But, for our School and its future, I know it is the right thing to do.
This decision is about affirming what we stand for as an academic institution – one that is dedicated to research, education and community; to learning from the past, questioning the world we live in now and to striving to improve it for the future.
The world has changed drastically in the two decades since we agreed to carry the Cass name: we have seen the rise of artificial intelligence, the gig economy, the devastating impacts of climate change, changing geopolitics, and of course, we are currently living through a pandemic whose impact is still unknowable. We have had to ask ourselves if we are really doing all we can to prepare our students for this future. Our name change challenges us to seriously engage with this question. It is also an opportunity to reimagine our future and to imagine a better future. And for that, I am grateful.
I will speak more about our plans for the School, the process for finding our new name and explain how you can get involved shortly. But first, I would like to hand over to our alumni speakers.
Alumni speakers (Chinenye, Prosper, Christina, Jason)
I wish to thank the speakers for their brave and heartfelt words.
Q&A, Chaired by Matthew Hubbard
Thank you for all your questions. I hope I have provided some answers, and we will work on our FAQs to answer even more.
I now want to say a few words about the process of the name change. We have set up a Naming Steering Committee that will oversee the search for our new name. This is an informal working group of Council, with broad representation from all our stakeholders. As explained, Matt is the alumni representative on this group. This group will make naming suggestions to Council. There is a second group, the Naming Project Group, that will do all the work around the name change. This group is populated by our academic and professional marketing and branding experts, and will be supported by a branding agency. The agency pitches are happening this and next week.
There will be two broad stages to the name finding process, to which you can contribute. In the first stage, our community will be able to make direct naming suggestions as part of a carefully managed crowdsourcing contest.
In the second stage, the Naming Project Group will identify the most promising names, and conduct a wide consultation with all stakeholder groups, nationally and internationally, to find out how the different names resonate.
Based on this information, the Project Group will make its recommendations to the Steering Group, which in turn makes it to Council. This process should be completed in March, so that in April, we will be able to announce our new name.
In the months following this announcement, the Project Group will work to prepare the official launch of the new name, which involves tens of thousands of small changes, including to our – and your – email addresses.
We will fully launch our new name in time for the next academic year – 2021/22.
To conclude, I want to talk briefly about our future plans for the Business School.
We have a strong reputation as an institution, and that reputation will not disappear. Changing our name is an opportunity. Changing our name is only a starting point for creating a better business school which is more tuned with the future of business.
We have only started this conversation and our plans will evolve and crystallise throughout the year, hopefully with your input.
We believe that change has to happen on several levels:
First, we have to start addressing the issues of racial equity. This starts with more equal access to the Business School. We will set up a Racial Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship Fund worth about £5 million – the amount of money we originally received from the Sir John Cass Foundation. Starting next academic year, over a 10-year period, we will provide complete fee-waivers and stipends to 10 Black undergraduate, 5 Masters and 3 PhD students per year. We will also build in support for outreach and guidance for this cohort of students.
We will change our curriculum. We will incorporate our history – linked to the history of the City of London – to ensure we never forget why we changed our name. We will also explicitly talk about race and diversity throughout the curriculum and make this discussion part of all student inductions.
Finally, we have already started work on a Racial Equity and Inclusion Strategy for the Business School. To advise and monitor the School’s progress on these issues, we will set up a Diversity and Inclusion Council consisting of staff, students, and alumni.
Second, searching for a new name gives us cause to re-examine more broadly what we can do to renew our commitment to excellence. We must prepare the Business School to serve its purpose in the next decade to come. We excel at teaching subject-specific knowledge and ensuring that our students learn the technical skills they need to succeed in their careers. But given the challenges of tomorrow’s world, I don’t believe that is enough anymore. We must tackle difficult social, economic and environmental problems head on. We must ensure that our graduates are resilient in the face of unexpected problems and uncertainty.
We will achieve this by no longer prioritising knowledge over thinking.
Of course, we must convey to our graduates the knowledge they need to do their jobs, but in addition, we have to train them more explicitly in thinking. Not “what” to think, but “how” to think. Survey after survey shows that critical thinking and complex problem solving are the most sought-after skills in graduates. Yet, these are also the skills most in decline.
Therefore, we must imbue our curriculum and everything we do with a renewed focus on complex problem solving, critical thinking and judgment:
We must lead the way in bringing our research topics into the classroom, such as ESG investing, shareholder activism, ethical dilemmas in big data analysis and AI, sustainable consumption, managing diversity in global teams – just to name a few.
There is so much more we can do – this challenge will entail nothing less than reviewing every single programme and every single course we teach, and to re-imagine how we can teach them better to reflect our changing world and our evolving vision for the school. This means getting rid of some of the things we do, and adding new courses, maybe whole new programmes. This means being bold enough to embrace different pedagogical approaches, educational technologies and assessment methods. This means challenging our students and ourselves to go out of our comfort zone and explore the uncomfortable, the complex, and the unknown.
For you, our alumni, the challenge will be to decide if you want to help us shape this vision for the future of your Business School. Your experiences, skills, and networks will be essential in bringing these ideas to life.
I would now like to thank you all for coming today. I would like to thank Matt for co-chairing with me and, most of all, I would like to thank our alumni speakers, Chinenye, Prosper, Christina and Jason, for sharing their thoughts with us today.
Thank you, all. I look forward to working with all of you, and to continue this conversation.