Why This Dean Is Optimistic About An On-Campus Start In The Fall

Duke Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding. File photo

When the fall term begins at business schools in late August and early September, the dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business is optimistic that instruction will return to the physical classroom and the campus. Dean William Boulding believes that once the country gets beyond the surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, a confluence of changes will emerge to make people feel safe enough to reengage in society.

“I’m optimistic about physically opening for three reasons,” says Boulding. “Number one, we are going to see better treatments. We will have solved the testing issues which have continued to plague this country. The key to really successful management and engagement is whether you have access to really easy testing. My belief is by the time we get into the summer, I believe we will have a home test kit. With better treatment and best practices, the level of panic will go down.”

He doesn’t rule out a second wave of the pandemic in the late fall, however. “Like the rest of the world,” he says, “we are making a guess that the optimal time to open is the beginning of September. The best guess is that when we reopen things we will probably have another wave of COVID-19 which will happen in the fall. So it wouldn’t be surprising if things shut down again until we get to the vaccine in the spring.” 


In a wide-ranging and highly revealing interview with Poets&Quants, Dean Boulding also explains why he believes business schools will not experience a boom in MBA applications in the next admissions cycle, why the current admissions season is “the craziest in the history of business schools,” how he is dealing with the challenges in finding this year’s graduates jobs in a severe recession, and what he believes will be the long-lasting impacts of the coronavirus on business education. He also addresses the current controversy over tuition refunds for MBA students who are now in Zoom classes.

His views are as sobering as they are optimistic. He believes that many business schools and universities will go out of business, especially those that have weak balance sheets and are heavily dependent on tuition revenue. Boulding believes the most vulnerable MBA graduates this year are those who are in the midst of self-directed searches for jobs. “All of that has been thrown up in the air,” he says. “Who (among employers) is ready to make decisions right now? They are just trying to hold on until the storm passes. So I worry quite a bit about people in that position who need something to get through the storm until companies are open for business and are hiring like gangbusters. I think that will happen when the vaccine is finally out there in the spring of next year.”

Boulding is an especially authoritative voice in these uncertain times. Besides leading Fuqua as dean for the past eight-plus years, he chairs the board of the Graduate Management Admission Council, the organization that administers the GMAT exam. A professor whose teaching interests span the areas of management, marketing, and strategy, he also serves as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Values.

The health crisis has also hit home. By mid-March, at least 15 Duke MBA students who traveled to Israel over spring break tested positive for COVID-19 and had been isolated at their homes off-campus. An additional 11 individuals in the Duke community tested positive after traveling internationally as well, according to news reports.

The conversation with Poets&Quants Founder John A. Byrne occurred remotely via Zoon, as everything does these days, with Dean Boulding in his home office in Durham, N.C., and Byrne in his man cave in the Bay Area just outside San Francisco.  In common with other schools, Fuqua has moved all of its 101 current courses out of the physical classroom and online. It was a move involving 45 faculty members at the school and 80 of those courses were transitioned over a two-day period for the school’s full-time residential programs.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows:

So this is clearly a crazy time. How are you and how have you been dealing with the crisis?

This is a time that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. This is something that we have never experienced so it has been interesting and challenging. What I feel really good about is what people often say, that in a crisis you can see both the best and the worst of human behavior and we are really lucky that we get to see the best. 

Despite all these challenges, I feel extremely grateful to the community I am part of to help us get through this. Some of the things we are doing now because we have to we will continue to do. So this is not without upside in terms of identifying ways to connect our community in ways that we weren’t using before. So there definitely are positive aspects despite the onslaught of really scary, damaging events that are happening.

Bill, can you give us a few examples of the upside?

What this helps faculty and students understand is what works well online and why do you need face-to-face. I think there is a generation with a belief that by definition everything face to face has to dominate. And yet I believe that faculty and students are discovering that there are examples where they can change up the material in interesting ways to put some content online that actually enhances the face-to-face component. There is this massive forced experiment, and out of it you are going to have some failures and some discoveries around better practices than what we know-how.

If you choose a face-to-face program, so much of that experience happens outside the classroom. So we need to be very much aware of not only how we teach but how we facilitate that interaction. I just came out of a meeting where the insight was, ‘Wow. These interactions online are attracting much bigger audiences because people don’t have the barriers of having to get out of their homes and into a particular location.’ Whether it’s physical or psychological barriers, it is opening up access to programming at a scale that you don’t get in a face to face environment. Those are things that will be sticky for us.

A ritual for all schools is Admit Weekend to help admissions seal the deal with admits. Did you have your big admissions event online this year?

A month or two ago, we had a Blue Devils Weekend on campus but that feels like centuries ago. Now our second one will be virtual. We’ll learn what works well in a virtual environment and then on an ongoing basis we will create an online alternative for someone who can’t get to campus for the actual event. At the same time, we’re creating opportunities for programming, including interviews with on-campus guests who you may have to work with for weeks to figure out a time in their schedule to come. Now we’ve been able to put together a series of events more easily because the barriers to participation have been lowered. There are definitely positive things that will come out of this crisis but let’s not kid ourselves this is a humanitarian crisis of enormous consequences, both in terms of health and economics. This is serious stuff.

How difficult was it for Fuqua to make the transition from the physical classroom to remote instruction?

We were on spring break with two days to go when the university announced that we would be closing down the campus. Because the announcement was so precipitous, the university said it would extend the spring break by another week to give faculty time to stand up on line. We did not take the extra week. We felt why not go the next Monday as planned on the schedule. We’ve been through this drill before having to close down our campus in China. We had very little notice and we stood up the online version of our program there for students overnight. So we knew what to do and made the decision to take no more than two days over spring break. Luckily, we also have several programs that either have 100% online delivery or a fraction is online. So we have a faculty that is very experienced in using the online modality of teaching. So we actually have several years of investment in building up our online capabilities so when the moment came we were ready.

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