2020 Best Undergraduate Business Professors: Elizabeth Swanson, Babson College

Elizabeth Swanson of Babson College

Elizabeth Swanson

Mandell Family Foundation Senior Term Chair in Literature and Human Rights (full professor)

Babson College

You read that correctly. Elizabeth Swanson of Babson College is a professor in literature and human rights. And works at a business school. Swanson says when she was first hired to Babson in 2002, there were very few jobs in the country in her area of expertise, postcolonial literature. You guessed it. One of those positions was at Babson College. And now, nearly two decades later, Swanson is one of the most popular professors and her course focused on human rights is one of the most popular at Babson.

Swanson’s research has focused on the historical literacy about race and racism in the U.S. “My findings show a fundamental lack of knowledge about what African American poet Amiri Baraka once called ‘the changing same’ of U.S. history: the circular, traumatic repetition of systems of oppression and violence visited upon African American people in different forms over centuries,” Swanson says. “This research builds upon new scholarly work that has unearthed evidence of convict leasing, debt bondage, and mass incarceration—evolving systems of oppression and exploitation that replaced earlier systems of enslavement.”

Current age: 54

At current institution since what year? 2002

Education: Northeastern University, BA, MA; Miami University of Ohio, Ph.D.

List of courses you currently teach: African American Literature; Interdisciplinary Approaches to Human Rights; Literature of Witness; Literatures of Empire and Beyond; Athens and Rome: Origins of Democracy, Imperialism, and Human Rights (offshore)


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I was hired to teach at a business school. In a tough job market, there were very few jobs in the country in postcolonial literature my area of expertise; one was at Babson, a college of management and entrepreneurship. As a humanities professor in an integrated school of management, I quickly learned that my “business students” were hungry enough for learning in the humanities that my human rights course was identified by The Boston Globe in 2004 as one of the city’s most oversubscribed courses.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?

I have been researching historical literacy about race and racism in the U.S. for some time, tracking the gap between the dominant racial progress narrative that presents our history as one of forward motion from emancipation to civil rights to the supposed “post-racial” age of the Obama era, on the one hand, and the ongoing experience of violence, oppression, and marginalization documented in African American literature, history, and culture, on the other. My findings show a fundamental lack of knowledge about what African American poet Amiri Baraka once called “the changing same” of US history: the circular, traumatic repetition of systems of oppression and violence visited upon African American people in different forms over centuries. This research builds upon new scholarly work that has unearthed evidence of convict leasing, debt bondage, and mass incarceration—evolving systems of oppression and exploitation that replaced earlier systems of enslavement. Armed with this knowledge in the moment of #GeorgeFloyd (#sayhisname), students and organizational leaders can better understand the experience of Black people in the US, and the changes that must be made in order to enfranchise all citizens in a truly just, inclusive social contract.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… a landscape architect.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?

I understand the classroom as a nearly sacred public intellectual space designed to spark curiosity and expand perspectives—the learning journey is, in my experience, one of the most profound connections humans can share, and I build a narrative of the power of our classroom community from the first day to the last, each semester. I also understand my students to be whole humans who require recognition not only of their intellectual capacities and motivations, but also of their life dreams, experiences, and journeys. Students know that I genuinely care for them, and that through my teaching and mentoring I seek to build the more just world I envision for them. They know that I share their outrage at the chaos of our current world system, and that my support for them is ongoing and not limited to our course materials.

One word that describes my first time teaching: Exhilarating.

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: How richly diverse, motivated, and excellent my students would be, even if they weren’t majoring in my field.

Professor I most admire and why: Professor Guy Rotella at Northeastern University exemplified the rigor and dignity of higher education in his presentation of materials, and at the same time embodied the empathic, supportive mentor my younger self needed so very much.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

Business students take the challenging material I offer them about the current global climate of human rights and probe for solutions, diving in well past what the course requires to think entrepreneurially about change. They are supremely confident actors as well as thinkers, an unbeatable combination in a world that needs the change they can envision and make.

What is most challenging?

Honestly, my greatest challenge with my business students is to help them to ease up on themselves, to ensure balance in their already too busy lives. You know there’s a problem when it’s the students’ schedules, not the professor’s, that turn scheduling an office hour into a rubix cube.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious.

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Unengaged.

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… thoughtful.


What are your hobbies?

I never have enough time to explore the Cape Cod landscape where I live; to cook with herbs and vegetables I’ve grown myself; to read every book and watch every film I can get my hands on; to write in a variety of forms; and to explore the wide, wide world. My latest goal is to learn how to kite surf.

How will you spend your summer?

I recently co-launched Jane’s Way, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultancy dedicated to closing the gap in knowledge and understanding of this nation’s violent racist history, and then to building a truly inclusive social contract based upon our newly shared historical narrative. We are working with a range of corporate, governmental, and non-profit clients. This will be the first summer in many years that I do not spend researching and writing, but our Jane’s Way goal has taken on exponential urgency in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, #sayhisname, as well as the powerful collective response across the nation and the globe.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Capetown, South Africa; any beach on earth.

Favorite book(s): Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?

Easier to say what I don’t like—opera and country—than what I do—most everything else. I have followed the career of indie singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco since her first album in 1990. She never fails to surprise with her supreme guitar skills, mind-blowing arrangements, and razor sharp lyrics.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… teaching for the just, equitable new world we must bring into being.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… advancing economic inclusion and justice.

I’m grateful for… having been born free at a time when women have been empowered to live into their full potential. It is past time to make that a reality for more marginalized people and groups, and I am still more grateful for the opportunities I have to participate in making that change.

Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say: 

Alum: “I think about you often. I’m teaching a pedagogy course to graduate students this semester so I’m always reflecting on my best professors. You, of course, were far and away the very best. Calling you my professor actually diminishes your impact. You, unknowingly, led me out of a fire. You were the first person who believed in me. Seeing how steadfast your belief was actually made me believe in myself. Honestly, had we not crossed paths I don’t know if I would have made it. For you, I really do thank God (or as you would say, the goddess).”

Student comments:

“Thank you for the best class I have ever taken in my life.”

“I am extremely glad I met you. I have had a lot of teachers in my life and believe you have a unique way of communicating with us, your students. The way you treat us as peers and listen attentively to our ideas and stories is what has filled your class with confidence and perhaps why so many students were able to open up to you throughout the semester.”

“I went into this class with low expectations as this was an elective for me and is not something I would be willing to explore in the future, that being said, I could have never been so wrong. This class turned into something I would only expect to see in a movie. The class was so much fun and the topics we covered were very heavy and sad, but I came out of every class with hope and a million ways to change the world and myself so that the experiences we talked about would never happen. I learned so much about myself and I would like to thank you for that.”

“Both of your classes have opened my eyes up to a world beyond the bubble we tend to put ourselves in, and have done wonders in helping me put business into the context of doing good in the world. You’ve been more than supportive in letting your students explore topics that interest them in the realm of Human Rights and Witnessing, allowing us to grow as critical thinkers, writers, and humans. The academic world needs more professors like you – adults who have dedicated their lives to empowering young people and working to fix the injustices in the world.”

“You had a profound impact on me over these last two years and I can’t thank you enough for what you do for Babson. You’re a fantastic professor and even better person. I truly feel that your life goal is to make the world a better place, and that should be each person’s goal when it is all said and done.”

Faculty Comments:

“Elizabeth is an unmatched scholarly advocate for justice, and there is nobody, but nobody, on this earth who matches her brilliance.”

Jane Edmonds, Vice President for Programming and Community, Babson College

“In addition to imparting her knowledge of the wide-ranging subject matter of her classes, Elizabeth Swanson prods her students to be informed explorers of intellectual terrain that is frequently tough to navigate.  She is always devising new, creative pedagogies, not just to keep students engaged but to press upon them the urgency of knowing– and doing something –   about the events and ideas covered by her courses.  This makes her classes a genuinely transformative experience for Babson students.”

Julie Levinson, Professor of Film Studies, Chair, Arts and Humanities Division Babson College

“Elizabeth Swanson’s deep scholarly, activist, and artistic roots in the humanities have informed her dynamic and influential work, both inside and outside the classroom at Babson College, and for nearly 20 years.  That Babson happens to be a business school makes her impact even more significant.  She is also an extraordinary colleague—generous, collaborative, visionary.”

Mary Pinard, Professor, English, Babson College

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.