Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It
Graduates wearing anonymous masks throw their square academic caps in the air. (Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg)

Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It


(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- As the coronavirus spread around the world, business school deans suddenly found themselves in real-life case studies of crisis management leadership.

“I remember exactly where I was sitting,” says Douglas Shackelford, dean of University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, when he realized students weren’t coming back from spring break and the school needed to change everything. “The next two weeks, three weeks were just a blur.”

Schools scrambled to ensure students would be safe, sending them home around the world. They canceled cornerstone international trips and shifted their MBA programs—often built on in-person teamwork—online.

One dean at a top-ranked school, INSEAD, tested positive for Covid-19 while his school was transitioning to online education.

Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It

Incoming students will see a host of differences. Along with delayed start dates, some classes will be smaller, due to students seeking deferments. Worried about admissions levels, schools have made changes for applicants as well: Many schools delayed admission deadlines for this fall’s class and temporarily scrapped GMAT or GRE testing requirements.

Many deans plan to bring students back to campus while maintaining online teaching. That will help international students who might not make it back in time. It will also enable social distancing in classrooms that must hold fewer students while others attend online. The hybrid also would accommodate professors who won’t be teaching in person because of health concerns.

Instead of offering tuition refunds that some students sought, several schools tacked on free courses or experiences following graduation to make up for program changes. Still, some aspects of online classes worked out so well that schools will keep them, regardless of what the virus does. Schools also furiously worked their extensive network of alumni to help students make connections and gain insights in a worrisome job market. So far, these schools say, MBA graduates are landing jobs at rates similar to last year’s—or slightly lower ones—and aren’t seeing a plunge yet like the one the 2009 financial crisis triggered.

Bloomberg Businessweek has spoken with deans from six business schools around the world—via Zoom, naturally—at their makeshift home offices. Here are slices of what each has undergone.

Ilian Mihov, INSEAD

Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It

The dean of INSEAD, economist Ilian Mihov, tested positive for Covid-19 in mid-March, not long after returning to Singapore from the school’s campus in Fontainebleau, France.

He spent almost a month in a hospital and quarantine center, tapping his deputy dean, Peter Zemsky, as acting dean for the first two weeks of his illness and then running the school from his quarantine facility.

“The first week, I did feel a little bit weaker, just sitting there,” he says. “I would get tired after four hours of Zoom.”

Mihov was allowed to return home on April 12. He has since fully recovered, running four miles every other day.

No doubt his message of social distancing will be taken with authority.

“We want to make sure this risk is managed and contained,” he says from his home office in Singapore. “It’s little bit naive to think we’ll have no infection on campus.”

The one-year school, No. 2 in Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2019-20 ranking of the Best B-Schools in Europe, operates in five blocks of two months apiece. The start of the September class, which will be smaller, has been pushed back a month. One potential scenario: one-third of students deferring until January because of travel and financial difficulties.

Some students asked for refunds in response to the switch to online classes, Mihov says. Instead, the school is offering an additional block of free elective classes students can attend in the summer.

“They can come for period six if they want,” he says. “We just want them to be successful and happy.”

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University

Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It

A group of Desautels Faculty of Management students at the school in Montreal had planned to visit San Francisco and Silicon Valley for credit in April. The pandemic forced the school to scrap the trip, along with one to Tokyo.

Master of Management in Analytics students shifted their focus from analyzing tech companies in California to offering 100 free hours of consultation to local nonprofits and small to medium-sized businesses with 100 or fewer employees in Canada, operating under the guidance of professors and industry professionals.

“We wanted something that was experiential learning, and we also wanted to help the local community,” Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of Desautels and a professor of finance, says in a Zoom interview against a backdrop image of McGill in summertime. A group of students is now working with the Montreal Children’s Hospital to predict the number of patients that it can handle, including at times of peak demand, and to study how visitors might be accommodated.

That was one shift among many that the school, ranked No. 7 in Canada, needed to make as it shifted instruction online in March. August orientation for MBAs will take place online, though the school hopes to arrange some partial in-person teaching in September. The hybrid approach may endure.

“We’re still in the planning stage in terms of what kind of teaching actually will happen on campus,” says Bajeux-Besnainou. “It’s probably going to be a mix and will be very different from course to course, depending on what the professor wants to implement.”

One plus: Professors say student participation has increased in the online world, Bajeux-Besnainou says.

“It’s a way for them to break the isolation,” she says. “They’re stuck in their house. Everyone is striving for human contact, even if it’s on a computer.”

Mark Nelson, Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University

Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It

One pandemic lesson learned at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in Ithaca, N.Y., and at many others: Guest speakers are a lot easier to book on Zoom.

Take Irene Rosenfeld, a Cornell alumna and former chief executive officer of snack food maker Mondelez International. She spoke from her Chicago home, via Zoom, to the Profiles in Leadership class in a discussion led by Mark Nelson, Johnson’s dean, from his home den in Ithaca, N.Y.

“It was so much easier to bring in some amazing guest speakers,” Nelson tells us from that den. It’s a practice the school will continue after it returns fully to physical classes.

Instead of asking people to take a day to travel, the school expects to bring in experts via Zoom for as little as 10 minutes to address a topic, says Drew Pascarella, associate dean for MBA programs.

The school, ranked No. 11 in the U.S., also intends to use Zoom to better incorporate collaboration between students at the school’s campus in western New York and those enrolled in programs in New York City, including at the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, and executive MBA students and alumni throughout the Americas.

“There’s an opportunity for us to not relinquish the comfort we have with this kind of interaction,” Nelson says.

Rajendra Srivastava, Indian School of Business

Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It

When the travel ban hit, Rajendra Srivastava, dean of the Indian School of Business, was in Austin, Tex., where he lived for 25 years as a professor, department chair, and dean at the University of Texas at Austin, where he maintains a house.

He’s still there.

“I’m running two campuses from 12,000 miles away,” Srivastava says from the city where his three children were born. “If you want a lesson in virtual management, I’m probably the best equipped to teach it.”

Srivastava typically works from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., taking time to sleep in between, as he connects with the Indian School’s two campuses in Hyderabad and Mohali, a 10.5-hour time difference from Austin.

When the pandemic struck India hard in March, the school quickly sent students home, weeks before graduation. Srivastava says the students were briefly unhappy. The school paid for their plane tickets.

ISB, No. 4 in the APAC ranking, usually begins classes in mid-April. Srivastava delayed the start of the one-year program by several weeks; it will run from June to May. A typical class holds almost 900 students, but the one that began in June has 693, he says.

Rather than cut tuition, he says, the school is offering more value. This means an additional trip, either in India or abroad, to learn about a business sector; accommodations will be covered by the school, which will also provide an additional week of career fairs and meetings with corporations to help students secure jobs.

Srivastava says the school will continually adjust its course content as insights emerge, including some focus on resilience.

Jobs are important. He says 96% of the graduating class of 892 were placed as of graduation time in April.

Employment for the class of 2020 has “been holding steady,” he says. “I am afraid of what’s going to happen six months from now.”

Douglas Shackelford, University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It

UNC’s Kenan-Flagler school in Chapel Hill had been offering an online MBA program for years when the pandemic struck. In March, students were asked not to return to campus from spring break and had to complete courses online.

The school, ranked No. 18 in the U.S., quickly marshaled resources, including assistance in information technology, to help professors whose courses had never been part of the online curriculum. Some elements of the experience will persist.

“We’re putting the Zoom screen in the back of all of our classrooms,” Shackelford, the school’s dean, says in an interview from a bedroom-turned-office at his Chapel Hill home.

The school is planning in-person classes for next term. Social distancing requirements might necessitate a combination of in-person and virtual participation for larger classes.

Lecture halls that once held 50 students may now accommodate about 25 people. One plan involves having half of a class watching over Zoom from home on Tuesday, for example, while others appear in person; the groups would switch on Thursday.

Other classes might be wholly virtual to accommodate professors who aren’t able to teach in person because of health concerns.

The start date for classes has been delayed from early August until after Labor Day in September in the hope that additional time will enable new international students to reach the campus. Obtaining visas has been challenging during the pandemic, and this could impact tuition revenue, as international students pay out-of-state prices. About 20% of the class of 2020 came from abroad, led by 12% from India and 2% from China.

“International students are a significant component of our class, most years,” Shackelford says. “If they can’t show up, that’s a significant thing.”

Francois Ortalo-Magné, London Business School

Business School Deans Live the Crisis, Not Just Teach About It

Like others, London Business School canceled students’ international trips. Students were unhappy that the school couldn’t create the experience they expected, says Dean Francois Ortalo-Magné.

“The pandemic created situations where there couldn’t be win-win,” he tells Bloomberg Businessweek from his campus home. “We will have to compromise because the crisis is just not allowing us to do whatever we want. It was about allocation of losses, because we all lost.”

Students stepped up in various ways. A regular student-led Thursday social gathering called “Sundowners” moved to a virtual format. Earlier this month, 300 people registered for the event, and sixpacks of beer were delivered to those in London, Ortalo-Magné says. The Italian student group lured Stefano Domenicali, chief executive officer of Lamborghini, to become a virtual guest speaker, and he discussed the future of the auto market.

Prioritizing safety, the school determined to help students progress toward their degrees and promised help with jobs. Placement so far is “slightly behind last year. We remain encouraged,” says Ortalo-Magné.

The school plans to fulfill its original plan to start in August, albeit online. As of Sept. 21, this will become a mix, should the virus permit.

Ortalo-Magné says that while online teaching can work well by securing higher attendance and better class participation, online education can’t recreate an important part of the business school experience.

“What we are missing is the serendipity,” he says.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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