For Eric Johnson, dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, it was a nightmarish scenario come true. A week ago today on March 8, Johnson was in Guatemala City with students, faculty and staff on a spring break business trip when he got the news. Something had gone terribly wrong across the world on another excursion for 28 MBA students, accompanied by four professors and staff members.
He was told that one of those students, 28-year-old Taylor Force who was in his first year of the school’s MBA program, had been stabbed on a street in Israel in front of classmates and was being rushed to a nearby hospital in Tel Aviv. By the time Johnson touched down in Houston on his way back to Vanderbilt’s Nashville campus, another phone call confirmed what he feared most: Force had been killed by a Palestinian terrorist in a random attack.
The Owen group was on the second day of the trip, visiting with Israeli venture firms, as well as early stage tech and health care startups. Force and his classmates were walking from their hotel to dinner in the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv. The larger group split into smaller groups, conversing with one another and enjoying the spring break getaway. As Force and four other students approached a tourist heavy promenade on the shores of the Mediterranean, a Palestinian terrorist ran through the crowd stabbing at random. Force was stabbed in the back and the face and immediately fell to the ground. The violence lasted 20 minutes and at least 10 people were injured before the assailant was shot dead by Israeli police.
‘IT’S ALMOST AS IF THERE ARE NO SAFE PLACES LEFT IN THE WORLD’
Classmates rushed Force to the nearest hospital, but by the time they got there it was too late. Force, a West Point grad and U.S. Army veteran from Lubbock, Texas, who survived multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, was declared dead on arrival. The stabbings were part of a series of violent acts by at least three other Palestinians in the area soon after Vice President Joseph Biden arrived in the country to meet with Israel officials less than a mile away from the promenade where Force’s life was taken.
Dean Johnson, who was now back in Nashville, went straight into the school’s crisis plan. All students, faculty and staff had been accounted for and were gathered at the hotel. By Wednesday morning, they were all boarding flights back to Nashville. Some came home that night, and the rest arrived by Thursday morning. As they trickled in, Johnson and grief counselors were there to meet them. The dean spent the rest of the week dealing with the tragedy, And within a few short, painful and confusing days, Johnson and about 40 others from Owen were in Lubbock at a memorial service held today (March 14).
The visit to Israel was, like so many global immersion trips by business school students, meant to be a deep dive into a different business culture and a memorable learning opportunity. But the tragic outcome may well cause schools to rethink the widespread practice of dispatching MBAs to far-flung locales for such trips. “It’s very concerning to us,” concedes Idalene “Idie” Kesner, dean of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, which has sent its online MBA students to consulting trips in Bethlehem. “It’s almost as if there are no safe places left in the world.” While Kelley and other business schools have cancelled student trips to Kenya and Turkey–as well as any to countries on the State Department’s Watch List–Israel is widely regarded as relatively safe.
‘HE JUMPED OFF THE PAGE FOR THE ADMISSIONS COMMITTEE’
It is with some sense of irony that a former U.S. Army Captain who had participated in several dangerous missions abroad would ultimately become a victim on an open street in what most regard as a fairly safe tourist area of Israel. But as recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in Southern California show, there is no safe haven from violence.
Force graduated from New Mexico Military Institute in 2005, was an Eagle Scout and enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his grandfather also graduated. At West Point, Force joined the alpine ski team and became an avid skier. Before enrolling in Owen’s full-time MBA program last fall, he had racked up five years in the United States Army, stationed as a platoon lead in Fort Hood, Texas. He worked his way up to earning the rank of captain before leaving the military to enroll at Owen. He was deployed multiple times in Iraq and Afghanistan and was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
When Force applied to Owen’s MBA program, he “jumped off the page” for the admissions committee, says Dean Johnson. Their positive impression was confirmed as soon as he came to campus for the start of the program in August. Deep commitment and service to his country aside, Force was a humble, caring and inclusive person. “I knew Taylor well,” Johnson says, noting Owen’s intimate class size of 175. Force, he says, quickly established himself as a leader in the community and was elected senator in Owen’s student government a couple of weeks ago. “His style was that of a quiet, authentic and humble leader,” Johnson adds.