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

How many classes did you have to shift to remote instruction?

We’ve had to shift the day-time MBA program, the quantitative management program, the master of management studies program. Those three programs were 100% face-to-face so all that had to be converted. And then we had some really interesting challenges with these hybrid programs, our weekend MBA and our global Executive MBA which already had an online component but also a physical residency. We had a residency for the global program scheduled for India and had to make a series of decisions as we saw COVID-19 in China, then in Southeast Asia and then everywhere. One of our biggest challenges was the fact that our information set has changed so rapidly on a daily basis in terms of what we need to or should do to ensure our number one priority which is the health and safety of our students. So all of those programs also had to be converted to be purely online.

So given the controversy over the shift to remote instruction, with MBA students at several schools demanding tuition refunds, do you differentiate between a well-designed online course and simply putting a class up on Zoom?

Fuqua Dean William Boulding (Photo by Justin Cook)

This is a really interesting and important question. I think one of the challenges with the label online is that when you say you are doing an online program people have a mental model of what that means. Online means a lot of different things. Some are high touch, high cost, and some are high volume, low cost. But it turns out that the mental model most people have is that if it is online it must be high volume, low cost, low touch, and low engagement, with a one-way flow of information. In business school, it’s absolutely essential to get students working with each other. But if you have a mental model that online is impersonal, then you begin to see some discontent from people who say, ‘Well, wait a minute. I didn’t sign up for that. But a well-crafted online program is very thoughtful about how you make the most of the classroom experience, how you think about these chunks of knowledge that can pre-populate the experience and becomes a platform for strong engagement and how you inform the teamwork and assignments in smaller groups. All of that is very important as you are in this online environment.

The reality of what we are seeing depends on where a school was coming into this crisis. They were either prepared to deliver the best of an online environment or we just have to have classes and somehow get people through. The perception is that it cannot possibly be as high quality or engaging as what you can do in a physical environment. I think people who experience online the way it can be will change their perceptions of what an online experience is like. They will see that it can be high quality. So I do believe that this is a totally forced experiment but the consequence will be that moving forward to the day when we have a vaccine and we can open our doors you will have a number of people who will say they are okay with this online environment. This gives me access in a way that I might not be able to get. Some people will come out of this saying, ‘Wow, I hated my online experience. Face-to-face is the way to go.’ And other people will say, ‘Online is the way to go. It’s cool.’

I am sure you have seen that at a number of schools, including Harvard, Stanford and Wharton, MBA students are demanding tuition refunds for their online classes and signing petitions to that effect by the hundreds. Do you think tuition for online classes should be granted?

This is what I have been trying to communicate to our community. There is no doubt that everyone is feeling that they lost something and we have. At a minimum, we’ve lost something that we discovered matters a lot. Maybe we took it for granted. It is human connection. That is a big deal. So people are feeling a sense of loss. And the people who feel the loss most acutely in the business school world are the people who are graduating. They had built up these relations and were so looking forward to squeezing every last drop out of the relationships they build in person, knowing that these are lifetime relationships that would continue as people go to the four corners of the world. They weren’t prepared to retreat to their apartments and not see each other before they got to get closure. If you are feeling that something has been taken away from you, it permeates a lot of what you see and experience.

My guess is that a lot of these movements are not necessarily directed at diminished classroom instruction. I think they are feeling more of a loss outside the classroom and that creates this angst and general unhappiness. Those students understand that if you have a faculty member sitting in their home office in a virtual classroom the cost of that class is the same as a physical classroom. From a cost point of view, I think they all understand intellectually that it is the same thing. But then they say, ‘From a received experience, is it as good? Forget about the cost basis. What is the customer experience?’ And there you are going to see some variability about what the schools can do.

What I’ve communicated to our students is that we have been teaching in an online environment literally since the mid-1990s. This is not new for us. When we launched our online version of the quantitative management degree, we launched it at the same tuition as the face-to-face program because we believe that if we put our name on a degree, it has to be of a quality level that can’t be diminished. Similarly, we have this interesting weekend MBA program where instead of having to come on campus every other weekend, we said you only have to come every four weeks. You can make a choice. If you like face-to-face you can come here and if you can’t, you can have a virtual experience. We don’t charge students who make different choices at different tuition levels.

Another perspective on this is to get the students to realize that this is not just a short-term transaction but a valued relationship. They are not only students today with a finite horizon to graduation but these are our shareholders. These are the people who have a vested interest in making sure the school gets better over time and the value of their degree goes up. We have an obligation to all of our shareholders. The other thing that is not widely known to MBA students is that their tuition does not cover the cost of running the business school. It’s only through philanthropy that you can make up that difference. So we have an obligation to shareholders who have invested and current students to make sure that future students get an education that is at least as good as we can offer today.

I’ve tried to be very transparent with our students about these questions. There’s no doubt like all the other schools you’ve mentioned that our students are asking the same questions. But I’ve tried to be fully transparent with them. We are not going to give back a tuition rebate. We will give back fees that we will not incur. And let’s just be open and candid because one of the things that matters more now than ever in this crazy environment is transparency. People want to know why you are making the decisions you make and how you make them.

So we’ve talked a bit about program delivery but two other areas that have been drastically impacted by the health crisis is admissions and careers and jobs. In admissions, you have schools worried about yield and whether international admits will be able to attend school in the U.S. And the extended deadlines have given some admits more time to apply to higher-ranked schools and renege on their offers even after laying down deposits to come. What do you make of the chaos in admissions this year?

From an admissions point of view, this will be the craziest cycle in the history of business schools Just as an aside, we had a virtual board meeting a couple of weeks ago and every time we have a board meeting I write a cover letter with the materials we distribute to our directors. In the fall, I said something that maybe with the benefit of hindsight was way over the top. I said this past year was arguably the hardest in the history of business schools. And actually, I think at the time that was true. But in the spring when I wrote my letter, I said, ‘Wow. I had no idea what it was like to face challenging circumstances. I clearly didn’t know what challenging meant. It’s just so topsy-turvy. We are trying to thread a needle and no one knows where that needle will be in terms of trying to start our programs when students can actually travel to campus and campus will be open.

Normally, one program starts in May, two start in July, the day-time program starts at the beginning of August as does the global program. All of our programs start when everything is going to be shut down. So we literally changed the schedules for all of our programs which is not a simple thing to do. But we changed the start dates. We will not start the daytime MBA program until the first week of September. Normally, we have one quick-term in the summer and then you roll in the two fall terms. So we will have a one-month term that starts in September and then we’ll go into our two fall terms starting in October. 

For our first-year students, they are going to finish up in the next couple of weeks, and then they will have a break until the beginning of October to work on their internships or look for their internships depending on the situation they face. We think that the counter shift actually was to the benefit of our first-year community where there is so much anxiety over what is going to happen to their internships. But here, like the rest of the world, we are making a guess that the optimal time when we will be 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 that things shut down again until we get to the vaccine in the spring. 

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