Sauder students defend economics of slavery in ‘tone-deaf’ class presentation

A group of students reportedly said in a class presentation that although Black lives matter, they would use slavery in a pitch to secure venture capital.

The presentation came to light with backlash against the assignment after a UBC Confessions post said yesterday they were part of COMM 382, Economics of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Commenters blasted both the assignment and the presentation for their insensitivity given UBC’s anti-racist and Indigenous reconciliation commitments.

“They’re very tone-deaf and very stupid to put [slavery] down as a reason,” said a 2020 Sauder graduate who had taken the course in the summer of 2018 and wished to remain anonymous out of concern for job prospects.

A pitch to fund colonization

Jenny Zhao, a third-year Sauder student, wasn’t expecting a comment of that nature to be made in the Collaborate Ultra lecture. She said the group members’ cameras were off and that afterward, the professor thanked them for their work as he did with all groups.

Course instructor Dr. Steven Minns has been a Sauder lecturer since 2014, and has run the assignment since at least 2018, according to three students interviewed.

The Ubyssey obtained a copy of the assignment, which asks students to pitch a business idea to the Queen of Spain for venture capital. Christopher Columbus is implied to be giving the pitch, which involves Spain’s attempts to find a trading route to India.

The assignment encouraged students to “be creative and make any assumptions you would like to make.” Minns did not respond to requests for comment.

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An eight-page prelude establishes the historical context of around the year 1400, when Christopher Columbus colonized North America and performed what the Guardian called the “killing, kidnapping and looting” of Indigenous peoples. Monuments to Columbus have since toppled around the world after anti-racist activist movements.

At one point, the narrative — a first-person reimagination of the Queen of Spain’s mental monologue — describes the queen’s concern for Portugal’s success in colonizing Africa.

“[T]hey started discovering new countries and new resources along the coast. They became richer this way. And what did they do with that new wealth? They invested it, sending out more ships to go down the western coast of Africa … No one had been able to do this before.”

Dated 2009, the document credits a Thomas Hellman. A former Sauder instructor by the same name who now works at Oxford University did not respond to a request for comment.

“This fictional monologue is loosely based on assorted historical facts and some fiction. It is meant to be used as a case study in entrepreneurship and venture capital,” a footnote in Hellman’s assignment reads.

“All the political incorrectness is meant to be taken in jest, and is not meant to offend anyone.”

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‘Why are you so sensitive about it?’

Minns instructed students to read Hellman’s assignment along with his own additional instructions. Minns’s instructions note that “this case does not mention the social impact that followed the age of discovery (in particular colonization and exploitation),” suggesting that students consider a “social entrepreneurship” venture.

“If you decide to do this, you would want to appeal to the Queen’s ‘better nature’ and make a case for a truly innovative social enterprise (they were rare in those days!) and possibly a novel world view!” the assignment concludes.

The Social Enterprise Council of Canada defines social enterprise as community-based business that works toward and reinvests profits into environmental or social goals.

Vikashan Muru, a 2019 Sauder graduate, claims Minns only acknowledged a lacking mention of colonization and added the part about social entrepreneurship after Muru raised his concerns about the assignment after class.

Muru, who took the class in 2019, said he and one student were concerned about the assignment that year, and Zhao said she didn’t know of any students raising any issues this year. The other student who graduated in 2020 added that no one publicly took issue with the assignment in the summer of 2018.

Muru said that he approached Minns in the summer of 2019 and had a 20-minute conversation with him, pointing out how the “problematic” nature of the assignment was out of touch.

“Two of his comments really stuck out and have just been with me since,” said Muru. “One of his first comments was, ‘Why are you so sensitive about it?’”

Muru said Minns also called it a “slippery slope” when certain subjects are censored. Minns did not provide a response about the alleged conversation.

“It was so clear that he had no idea how this is a problem.”

Questioning business student ethics

All three students agreed that Minns was an adequate instructor: Muru said he was “fine” until the assignment came up, Zhao said he was “enthusiastic” and the 2020 graduate said Minns was one of the “better” instructors he’s had.

But Minns’s inclusion of a strongly colonial example and the lack of student outcry raises the question of how ethics are being taught in Sauder courses. It’s unclear whether Minns was considering changing the course further after changes he made from 2019 to 2020.

According to the Sauder website, commerce general program requirements only include two ethics courses in total: COMM 186, Values, Ethics and Community, which students take in first year, and COMM 394, a course about government business ethics. Students also receive a dose of ethics in a COMM 101 unit. Aside from this, students have the option to take at least two upper-level electives on business ethics.

Sara Ghebremusse, assistant professor at the Allard School of Law with expertise in African legal rights and human rights, said not prefacing the assignment with the devastating impacts of Columbus’s colonization has negative impacts.

“I would encourage professors to rethink the ways in which they teach these materials in their classrooms, because … it is a disservice to the Black and racialized students in that class,” she said. “It does a disservice for members of our Indigenous community and broader Black and racialized communities on campus.”

The lack of discussion around colonization could have contributed to what the 2020 graduate called a “business-first mindset” where students treat the impacts of their comments as an afterthought.

Kin Lo, Sauder senior associate dean, students, apologized for the effects of the students’ presentation.

“We recognize how one student group’s response to the assignment in question was triggering for some students in today’s context and had a harmful impact, and for this we sincerely apologize,” said Lo in a statement to The Ubyssey. He added that the faculty will be speaking with the students who gave the presentation and will be offering resources to any affected students.

“We are equally looking at how we can learn from this and how we can better inform ourselves as educators in this area,” he said.

Ghebremusse said the university has an obligation to graduate a generation that is well-informed about ethics and social issues.

“I would hope that the topics important topics like that … will be infused throughout the curriculum so that Sauder is graduating students that are well equipped to go into this world and become active anti-racist entrepreneurs, and active anti-racist accountants, or even active anti-racist businesspeople, generally.”

This article has been updated to clarify what ethics courses are required for Sauder students.