As the COVID-19 case count and the death toll from the virus continues to surge in California, plans for the reopening of in-person classes at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business have become increasingly complicated and stubbornly challenging. Shifting state and county guidelines, still-to-be-unveiled university protocols along with the spread of the coronavirus itself have forced the business school to plan for not one but several scenarios this autumn’s forthcoming quarter.
For the core curriculum, the school plans to adopt a hybrid format that will mix in-person and online learning components for most courses. Some classes, however, will be entirely online. But in communicating its plans to both incoming and second-year MBA students, the school is warning all students that its ability to offer any in-person classwork is dependent on both state and county restrictions. “We are hopeful that these restrictions will ease before the quarter begins, but we also acknowledge, especially given recent trends in virus cases, that we may be forced to hold classes largely online,” wrote Paul Oyer, senior associate dean of academic affairs, in a recent email to the Class of 2022.
Of course, university administrators all over the world are dealing with the frustrations of planning at a time when little certainty is possible. “What is really difficult is trying to manage the tradeoff between waiting longer for better information so you can optimize vs. the sooner you start the better prepared you will be,” sighs Oyer in a Poets&Quants interview. “We have had to make redundant investments in time to plan for both the hybrid and worst-case scenarios.
‘MAKING DECISIONS WITH A LOUSY SET OF OPTIONS AND LIMITED INFORMATION’
“The uncertainly is not something I have ever had to deal with in any position I’ve ever had,” adds Oyer who joined Stanford 20 years ago as an economics professor. “Things are getting a little better, but in the early days, we were making decisions day after day from a lousy set of options with limited information. And that gets old after awhile. On the other hand, we have students who are wonderful and rising to this challenge, and we have the resources to deal with these challenges. It is not easy and it is taxing our resources in ways we never imagined but we are very lucky.”
The No. 1 ranked business school in the world is inviting its new MBA students to come to campus for “Week Zero,” for orientation activities on Sept. 4 and the start of classes on Sept. 14. Second-year MBA classes are set to begin on Sept. 21. Students coming from outside of California are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Exactly what those students will experience when coursework starts is unclear, though an internal task force has been diligently working on a reopening plan since mid-May. The goal: Not to simply put classes online and call it a day.
“Planning around this has been incredibly difficult,” adds Oyer. “We are going down two paths at this point: One is how can we set up the most in-person experiences possible under the restrictions we face, and the problem is that is a new model. In the Spring, we were fully online but we are not just replicating that and making it better. We want to increase the in-person experience as much as possible. The other is entirely online. We live in a world of constraints and we are working very hard to make this as great an experience as it can possibly be in all dimensions.”
FACULTY ARE REIMAGING THEIR COURSES FOR THE REOPENING OF CAMPUS
Among other things, Stanford is planning staggered class schedules so all the students aren’t streaming into and out of the in-person class sessions at the same time. The school is ordering more furniture to allow for socially distanced student interactions outside of class. It is putting up extensive signage to control the flow patterns of students in its buildings. Faculty, meantime, are reimaging their courses, deciding what should be taught in-person and what should go online.
Stanford’s iconic Interpersonal Dynamics course, often dubbed by students ‘Touchy Feely,’ plans to have class lectures and activities online, while smaller eight-person groups are expected to meet in person. In a finance elective on private equity investing, faculty are planning an “A/B” format where students will alternate between attending the class in person and attending via Zoom. In virtually every Autumn course, students who are not able to come to campus or attend in person will be able to participate remotely. With access to campus severely restricted, all guest speakers will participate remotely during the Autumn quarter.
Despite all of the uncertainty, the faculty seems game. “A lot of the faculty want to teach in person,” says Brian Lowery, another senior associate dean involved with the plans to reopen. “They trust the university and the school. They are telling us, ‘If you say I can do it, I assume there will be sufficient protocols in place to make it safe.’ We don’t feel the need to push anyone and demand that people go in and teach. It’s tough because you really want to give the students an incredible experience, and you want to make sure the faculty is in a place to be successful. Yet, everyone is under such stress.”
‘ONE OF THE HARDEST PARTS OF THIS IS HOW DO WE ESTABLISH A CULTURE WHERE IT’S OKAY TO TELL SOMEONE TO PUT YOUR MASK ON’
Key to the success is preparation. “We are doing a lot of preparing for in-person classes that may pay off someday but it might not be in the fall quarter,” admits Oyer. “On the non-academic side, we are asking what are other things we can do to facilitate small group meetings. How do we bring people together in a world where they all wear masks and be six feet apart? One of the hardest parts of this is how do we establish a culture where it’s okay to say, Put your mask on,’ and it’s the norm to call out a classmate if they don’t. Our students are very naturally community-minded and it’s just a matter of getting them to understand the need to wear a mask and not to have a big party or anything that leads to a super spreader event. In the pre-COVID world, a lot of what occurred at the GSB was a super spreader event every day. If we went back to normal life tomorrow, there would be a lot of spread.”
In email and webinar communications, in fact, school administrators have been discouraging students from taking trips together before they come to campus. Oyer told returning MBAs that their individual and collective behaviors before arrival will impact their experience during the reopened quarter. “We are aware of the unofficial leisure travel that occurs in a typical year before students matriculate,” he wrote. “We do not endorse or sponsor such travel. Our observation over many years is that these events do not reflect well on the GSB and the student community, nor are they an effective way to build an inclusive class dynamic, as many students are unable to participate. These issues are especially salient given the current trajectory of Covid-19 in the U.S. and throughout the world. Not only will gathering in large groups prior to arrival compromise the health and safety of others, but such gatherings may also create unintended consequences for the experience you will be able to have on campus. If there is a cluster of COVID-19 cases within the GSB, our ability to hold class meetings in person and have social gatherings will be jeopardized.”
Planning for the fall began in mid-May with the creation of a task force that included students, faculty facilities staff, the MBA program office, the teaching and learning team, and representatives from the dean’s office. The group has met at least weekly and often more frequently to deal with the mountain of details necessary to build contingency plans for nearly every scenario. One conclusion: In-person classes are critical to the MBA experience so every effort should be made to have them. “The students really missed that intense in-person experience in the spring,” says Lowery. “By no fault of anyone here was it taken away, but we are trying to make sure they have social connection when they return.”
THE CALIFORNIA ADVANTAGE: ‘WE CAN SIT OUTSIDE FOR INFORMAL MEETINGS’
Oyer agrees. “If we have people coming into class every day, even if that class wasn’t as good as having it online, we still want to do it so people have a reason to come to campus every day,” says Oyer. “As long as it is done with the proper protocols because that serendipitous running into people is an important part of the community. Being in California is a good advantage to us because we can sit outside for informal meetings.” In fact, the school plans on installing more furniture outside to encourage those encounters, all socially distanced, of course.
The school began running test classes over the summer to both allow faculty to get more comfortable teaching in a hybrid format and to iron out any kinks, including the realization that faculty who write on whiteboards in their online classes need to make sure the glare from camera angles or lighting in the room does not interfere with students’ ability to read what they’re writing.
“When people say hybrid that can be a number of things,” explains Lowery. “One version is teaching in two modalities at the same time. We had a test with that. Some people might use that. There is going to be a range of what we do so faculty can really tailor the experience to the material and so students have the best possible experience. We are trying to create as much flexibility as possible.”
NO IDEA WHAT PERCENTAGE OF THE CLASSES WILL BE IN-PERSON
Asked to estimate what percentage of Stanford’s MBA classes will actually be in-person in the autumn quarter, Lowery could not provide a reliable estimate. “I would not hazard a guess,” he says. “It matters based on first and second years and what second year students choose to take. Things are changing so quickly that anything I tell you right now could be outdated tomorrow.”
While many details are yet to be finalized, Stanford’s 80-seat, tiered classrooms, of course, will not be completely filled. “Right now my sense is that maybe somewhere to a quarter to a third of the seats will be used,” says Lowery. “The university is telling us what is possible.” In any case, in-person classes also will be broadcast so they can be taken by students remotely. “Some students might not be able to make it back so we want them to have the opportunity to stay on track by taking classes online,” adds Lowery.
MBA candidates who come back to the reopened campus will benefit, in part, from the abrupt transition to remote instruction that occurred in the spring. “The amount we learned about Zoom-based teaching was incredible,” says Oyer. “We have a bunch of people who did such a great job in the spring quarter, and they are spreading best practices. One task force member was an absolute star in adopting her class.” He cites Katherine Casey, an associate professor of political economy at Stanford GSB. “In the spring, you saw a little bit of the reversal of the teaching experience. The great teachers were always the great teachers but some of the newer teachers who hadn’t yet found their sea legs were more tech savvy to begin with and were absolute stars. For them, there was nothing to unlearn and nothing to adapt.”
‘IT’S A GOOD TIME TO BE IN SCHOOL’
Beyond the classwork, the task force is also grappling with how to reimagine the required global experience for second-year MBAs. Currently, all university-sponsored travel–whether domestic or international–has been suspended. So the school is working closely with we will focus on working with student leaders on a reimagined experience. For incoming MBAs, there’s the opportunity to participate in what the school is calling “Global Dialogues” in August prior to the start of the MBA program.
Some European schools that have already reopened their campuses have adopted some unique aspects to minimize the dangers of an outbreak. IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, for example, has UV-ray robots patrolling the classes and offices in the evening to disinfect them and has installed thermal imaging cameras to detect students with elevated temperatures. “We don’t have any new fangled fancy thing,” says Lowery. “We are waiting to see what the testing and quarantine regime will be. There will be a health app that people will use to check in before they come to campus, and we will limit off-campus visitors while increasing the number of guess visitors to classrooms via Zoom. But the protocols of people coming to campus is driven by the university.”
It’s all part of the new normal: A raging, still out-of-control pandemic. An ensuing recession with record unemployment. And a country convulsed by a national discourse over racial justice. Yet from Oyer’s standpoint, it’s also an ideal opportunity for young professionals to take a break and become students. “It’s a good time to be in school,” he says flatly. “This is exactly the time you want to be in school gathering human capital, even if the experience isn’t exactly what you expected or hoped for.”