Sterling H. Schoen | 1918-1999
1st Consortium director inspired by 'the burning of Chicago'
The Consortium’s first director was an unassuming business school professor from Washington University in St. Louis whose life was changed during a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago in 1962.
Sterling Harry Schoen ably describes the awakening that occurred to him during that summertime visit to Chicago, and his subsequent research, in a letter he wrote in 1996, sixteen years after he left behind the leadership of the organization he had created, The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management.
In that letter to Professor Alfred Edwards at the University of Michigan (where Schoen himself had received his MBA and doctorate), he writes, “I witnessed the burning of Chicago.”
Later, he goes on: “It was there that I first conceived of the notion that our business schools might take a more active and constructive role in promoting equal opportunity employment in our country. I soon realized that Washington University by itself could make little impact on the problem, and so the idea of a consortium of leading universities was conceived.”
As Barbara Britton Jones writes in Leading the Challenge of Change, The Consortium’s definitive history, Schoen returned from Chicago “with an awakened consciousness of the pervasive corporate culture of unequal access for African Americans and an inspired vision for a program that could potentially displace a system deeply rooted in discrimination. In his understated manner and deliberate methodology, Professor Schoen took the time he needed to gather data, resources and support for his idea before presenting it to an audience for scrutiny.”
Schoen was born Jan 21, 1918, in Daggett, Mich., 10 months before the armistice that ended World War I. Raised with his sister Norma Jean in the upper midwest, Jones writes that he was “a child of the Roaring Twenties, (with) a front-row seat to an era of tremendous economic growth, flappers, gin, jazz, prohibition, the infamy of Al Capone and a world made smaller by the evolving popularity of the radio.”
After his experience in Chicago, along with his research showing zero African Americans in leadership positions in the Fortune 500 companies of the era, he gained the support of the Washington University business school leadership to pursue his idea.
By summer of 1966, he had arranged for $20,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to underwrite a “feasibility conference,” where nearly 50 representatives from business, higher education, the public sector and the nonprofit world gathered at Washington University to consider whether such a “consortium” would serve the goals Schoen had envisioned.
Once given the green light in August 1966, the program was off and running, with Schoen as the part-time director: Two-thirds of his time was devoted to The Consortium, while the rest remained with his professorial commitments at the business school.
“When Professor Schoen stepped into the directorship of The Consortium, he did so with passion and resolve,” Jones writes in Leading the Challenge of Change. “He was involved at every level of the organization. One has only to review the massive numbers of letters — the length of which often exceeded five typewritten pages with carbon copies — references to phone calls and visits, funding proposals, etc., to understand the magnitude of the time and effort Professor Schoen poured into his work.”
Schoen guided The Consortium through a name change (the organization originally included “for Negroes” in its title); an expansion of its mission to include women, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans; its conversion to a nonprofit corporation, separate from Washington University; and its expansion from three to six member schools before retiring as The Consortium’s director in 1980.
Schoen died Nov. 20, 1999, at Missouri Baptist Medical Center in west St. Louis County after suffering a heart attack. He was 81. He was memorialized in an obituary in Washington University’s “Record” as the man who “brought more than 3,000 minority men and women into the ranks of American business management.”