This Business School Is Leading All Others In How To Compassionately Deal With The Pandemic

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business

Even during this pandemic, Scott Beardsley still strolls over to his office at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. The place is so eerily quiet with few students, faculty, or staff on the school’s grounds that he could hear his footsteps echo in the somber emptiness of Saunders Hall.

Like so many parents today, Beardsley and his wife, Claire, now have all three of their sons, aged 23, 28 and 28, at home, along with one girlfriend and a niece in their Pavilion on the Lawn, next to the iconic Rotunda in Thomas Jefferson’s academical village.  Most recently, he’s added a puppy to the mix, Lawnie.

“I do understand what it is like to be in your 20s and studying or trying to get a job,” he says, referring to his sons. “They are doing fine, and so far we are weathering the storm. They, like many students, wonder what the world will be like and what this all means for them. I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. This, too, will pass at some point.”


Darden Dean Scott Beardsley

Until then, however, the solitude of his office on the second floor of Saunders Hall may be somewhat comforting.  “I only wish I could look out my window and see a lot more students,” he sighs. “But I tell myself that I am very fortunate to live in a place like this.”

In common with business school deans all over the world. Beardsley finds himself grappling with the most severe crisis to confront society in this generation. Unlike many of his peers, however, the former McKinsey & Co. senior partner has made Darden an exemplar in how to lead and manage an institution of higher education through the present-day catastrophe. This is not the first challenge Beardsley has encountered since becoming dean in 2015 after spending 26 years at the global consulting firm. He also had to deal with the aftermath of images of neo-Nazis marching through the UVA campus and the violence in Charlottesville that caused the death of a young woman.

Last week, Beardsley announced that Darden would offer an alternate start date in January  for members of the Class of 2022 who need additional time due to student visas or travel restrictions as well as domestic students who have “altered professional or personal circumstances” due to the pandemic. The delayed start option is for a limited portion of the incoming class which will start first year core classes in January 2021, but will begin other Darden activities such as career support ahead of their arrival. Students who start in January will take first year classes into summer 2021, before completing an abbreviated six-week-long summer internship or field project. When they return to Grounds for the second year in August 2021, all students will merge onto the same schedule and graduate together.


But that was not all. The school also said it would deploy additional need-based aid to MBA students through a hardship fund, add more money to back new scholarship resources, created an administrative team to work with students on their housing needs, and to even give students free lunches each day of class for all first-year students throughout the core curriculum. Second year students will also receive this new meal plan, allowing the classes to come together over meals. And the school has put in place a new summer program offering admitted students early prepartion for their eventual career success.

These accommodations, moreover, are all on top of the boldest admission changes of any business school in the world due to the pandemic. A month ago, Beardsley announced that Darden would accept undergraduate entrance exam scores on the SAT and ACT in lieu of a GMAT or GRE, transition its round three deadline of April 6 by more than three months to July 15th, and even nudge writers of recommendation letters on behalf of candidates. The school even opened the door to consider CPA, CFA and other certifications as evidence of a candidate’s academic merit. It is also accepting LSAT, MCAT and Executive Assessment scores instead of the GMAT or GRE.

He was among the first deans to realize that the pandemic would not only disrupt the current admissions season. It would also change the circumstances of many prospective students who would either lose their jobs or future opportunities before them. Instead of applying in the next admissions cycle, it would make sense for them to apply now, a reason why Darden pushed its application deadlines back by three full months. “We have just come off one of the most robust job markets of the post-World War II era and now there is a greater degree of uncertainty for some people,” explained Beardsley at the time. “Maybe now is a good time to go back to school. Education has been countercyclical and we want to make sure we are providing an opportunity for people to fulfill their full potential.”


Dean Beardsley’s new puppy, Lawnie

Unlike many rival schools, moreover, the moves are not out of desperation or a shortage of qualified applicants. In fact, year-over-year, applications to Darden’s MBA program are up and the changes have created what Beardsley calls “a surge” in new applications. “They are up year over year and we admitted a very strong class so our recent innovations are coming from a position of strength and caring and trying to do what we think is the right thing,” he says. “Some of the people we admitted to live in countries that cannot even get a visa appointment. I have great sympathy and compassion for them. We are trying to be responsive. We are seeing a very strong surge in applications right now. We’re quite optimistic.” 

Last year, MBA applications to Darden fell by 3.9% to 2,190, from 2,279 a year earlier. It was one of the more modest declines for any top business school, though it also occurred after steeper drops caused by the right-wing protests in Charlottesville that scared off many international applicants.

Through the dramatic changes Darden has pushed through as a result of the pandemic, the word that is most often uttered by Beardsley is compassion. “I am a big believer that you should treat people the way you want to be treated,” he says. “You try to be fair and do the right thing. You keep the excellence and stick to your academic mission but you also need to be fair and ask yourself, ‘What would help?’ 


“In a world of great uncertainty,” he adds, “we tried to focus on what we control. We control our actions and our values. And we care about students and want to have the best student experience in the world. So we ask ourselves how do we leverage what we know to reduce uncertainty. Actions are important. This is just an extension of what we usually do to try to be as student-centric as possible and as innovative and caring as we can be.”

Beardsley expects 60 to 70 of Darden’s incoming MBA class of about 340 students this fall to take advantage of the January start. “We think it would be one section,” he says. “It could be a little bit more but it will not be more than two sections. Most students we think will start as scheduled in August. Some students will face difficulties that make it impossible for them to start then, and we are committed to diversity and inclusion. Having a late start option this year is appropriate to help us meet that mission. We want to give every chance to people who might have difficulty starting in August.”

Beardsley says that the January start not only applies to international students who might have trouble gaining a student visa. It also will applies to domestic admits. “We want the group to be representative of a global community including Americans,” he says. “There may be Americans who are living abroad and face travel restrictions and other people in the U.S. that through whatever circumstance. Maybe they were ill or someone in their family was ill or something else prevents them from starting due to their professional and personal lives. We are going to listen carefully about why someone might want to take the late start and if it is a valid reason we will allow a limited number to do that. We think it will be a mixed group.”


Perhaps the most novel accommodation is the idea of giving students a free lunch throughout the entire core curriculum. “There is really no such thing as a free lunch but we thought that in the middle of all this with everybody being a little bit isolated with Zoom and away, we asked ourselves what would be a great way to build community and give everybody something to look forward to. Why not come out of this and make sure everybody can have lunch together and bring first and second years together. It’s an unusual measure but it is consistent with who we are. It’s symbolic.

“It came out of the fact that one of our trustees gave us a nice gift to renovate our dining hall. We are in the process of doing that. Once people can gather together again, we thought why not make this a way to rediscover the new dining hall? The germ of the idea was we are renovating our dining hall anyway. Let’s make an incremental step and make this possible for everybody. Every day when I get to school in the morning, I am always thinking about what am I going to have for lunch. So we thought, ‘Gosh, what would be a nice gesture to celebrate community’ and that is what we came up with. I have always described Darden as a big family and what do families usually do? They eat together. So it is in that spirit.”

Beardsley, however, is holding firm on the school’s case-by-case deferral policy, despite Harvard Business School’s more recent decision to be more flexible this year. “We have always had a policy that we do deferrals on a case by case basis and that is our plan for now. We do not have an open deferral policy. That is totally inappropriate. But we try to understand each situation. If someone has a compelling reason for a deferral, we are always open to listen to it. Everybody who applied and got into school right now knows there is uncertainty with the way things may unfold in the fall. What unfolded in the spring nobody could have predicted. No one has a crystal ball. I think a lot of students are ready to get going with their education. The middle of a crisis is a great time to learn. We think that the vast majority of student applicants are going to like the options in the fall and the late start option in January.”


The big remaining question at Darden and other business schools, of course, is what will the fall semester look like? Will it be online or in the physical classroom or something in-between? The university will announce that decision no later than mid-June. “I really don’t know what the odds are but what I know is that we will be ready for any scenario,” says Beardsley. “If it allows us to be ready in person, we are ready for that or for a mixed-mode. We all want to see students on Grounds in August. Almost every university feels that way and Darden certainly feels that way. The real question is under what conditions will we be able to have students and staff on campus safely? That decision will be taken by the university in consultation with the governor and the state.”

Meantime, the faculty are working together to ensure that whatever form the fall takes, Darden will build on its reputation as having the best MBA teaching faculty in the world. “The faculty are always thinking about how to deliver the best educational experience,” he insists. “They want to be as good in the virtual classroom as they are in the physical classroom. They are trading best practices. I am also teaching this term and found the online environment suits itself incredibly well to the cold call. Of course, everybody misses being together but the feedback we’ve had from our students has been extremely positive. And the faculty are gearing up for the fall and thinking about how they can tweak what they are doing to create a very engaging and interactive student experience. We are using all the features: breakout rooms, hand raising, polling, virtual First Coffee at Darden, happy hours online from faculty. We are going to keep pushing the limit and seeing what the best tools are and continuing to innovate.”

Perhaps the greatest endorsement thus far has come from the omission of a student revolt over tuition refunds for online classes, something that has occurred at a wide range of other business schools, including Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. “I’ve had one student ask the question and that is the limit of what I have heard about tuition refunds,” says Beardsley. “When faced with human tragedy and suffering, I think everybody is just taking a pragmatic approach. The student feedback has been really uplifting. I got a few notes back and one student told me, ‘This confirms I made the right decision to come to Darden.’ The student leadership contacted us this past week and said they are putting together a gift to Darden and asked where they could make the biggest difference to help the school at this time. I found that to be an amazing gesture by the students. I tip my hat to the Darden students. I love them a lot.” 



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