Coronavirus has been the most talked-about element in higher education for about six months now. Some schools have undoubtedly handled the pandemic better than others. As The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania prepares for a fall semester that the school recently announced will begin fully online because of the continuing risk of the pandemic, MBA admits are coming forward to say that their alma-mater-to-be has fumbled its pandemic response at key moments — and has a Class of 2022 full of angry and disappointed students as a result.
The eruption of discontent comes after Wharton’s announcement late last month that plans for a hybrid approach this fall have been suspended in response to a national resurgence of the coronavirus Covid-19. The incoming MBA admits don’t spare new Dean Erika James, calling her “a crisis management expert who can’t handle a crisis”; as one tells Poets&Quants, he and his classmates are paying the price for a lack of leadership at the precise moment when the school needs it most.
Their biggest criticism: Wharton misled admits with poor communication throughout the summer, delaying announcements and moving back deadlines, then made its big announcement about going fully online to start the fall without also having a Q&A session or offering much additional information. Additionally, they say, the school has not brought students into any of the decision-making about the fall and has been unforgivably inflexible in granting deferrals or considering discounted tuition.
‘I SHARE IN YOUR DISAPPOINTMENT’
“There has been excessively poor communication between the administration and students, with many representatives of the Wharton administration urging students to move to Philadelphia right up until now,” one student says of the late-July announcement of an entirely virtual start to classes, which are slated to begin August 19. “Many students have given up offers at other schools, left their jobs, and moved halfway around the world to attend a program that is now very different from what they paid for.
The school’s hybrid approach was originally communicated on July 6, and then reaffirmed in email messages to students on July 9th and 21st. Ten days later, on July 31, came official notification that all courses would pretty much be online. “There were countless promises and misleading communications sent out by the Wharton administration,” grouses on admitted student. “International students, who have been fighting for months to secure visas to get here, have been especially pushed aside. To receive this surprise update right before school starts, rather than months ago, has disrupted and upended everyone’s plans.”
Like every school, of course, Wharton is struggling to navigate through an unprecedented health crisis amid great uncertainty. Re-opening a business school campus, moreover, is dependent on guidelines and rules from the Centers for Disease Control, the state government and the University of Pennsylvania. In communicating its change of heart on July 31, the school was clearly apologetic in its messaging.
“I share in your disappointment,” wrote Howie Kaufold, vice dean of Wharton’s MBA program. “For the past several months, we concentrated our efforts on creating plans for an in-person experience for you but as the developments unfolded over the last two weeks, It became clear that what we could deliver would not be sustainable amid the shifting situation, nor worth the heightened risk for those of you attending. It is now evident that rather than plateauing during the summer, as many health expert expected, COVID-19 has instead gained momentum.”
COVID CASES IN PHILADELPHIA HAVE DOUBLED SINCE WHARTON ANNOUNCED ITS HYBRID REOPENING
In fact, new daily cases of coronavirus in Philadelphia have more than doubled from July 6 when Wharton officially announced it would go hybrid, to July 31 when the school reversed its decision, jumping from 450 to 970 new cases a day. In that same timeframe, daily deaths attributed to COVID in Philadelphia rose from one on July 6 to 13 on July 31.
Nonetheless, these numbers are far below the peak of cases on April 9, when there were 1,989 new confirmed COVID cases, while daily deaths from COVID reached a peak of 554 on May 5 in Philadelphia. Wharton is the only M7 business school — that elite group including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Chicago, Northwestern, and MIT — that has thus far announced the fall will be online. All the other schools are sticking with their hybrid formats.
Fueling the frustration of students is their lack of involvement in the planning of a fall return. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business put students members on its faculty and staff task force. That did not happen at Wharton. In, fact, complain students, the school didn’t even informally consult with students on the plans.
“From our perspective, they didn’t survey us and they didn’t ask for our input,” says a second-year MBA. “They didn’t ask for students on the task force. Students proposed things and they largely went unanswered. I don’t know if it is flat-footed but it just doesn’t feel particularly innovative, forward-looking or responsive. They generally do not provide clarity on their decisions. They provide no backup or justification for their changes despite the fact that students have asked for it repeatedly.” A spokesperson for Wharton did not return phone and email calls for comment.
DID WHARTON PLAN ALL ALONG TO GO VIRTUAL?
Poets&Quants spoke with six Wharton admits to the MBA Class of 2022 and a second-year student in the Class of 2021. Five of the half-dozen admits considered deferrals but were either denied or declined to pursue one because they expected to be denied. A sixth admit, accepted to another school, has opted to go there instead, partly because of what she characterizes as Wharton’s missteps. All asked for, and were granted, anonymity to avoid potential reprisals from the school or colleagues. Much of their criticism is also supported by a student survey in July–before the decision to cancel in-person classes–based on the responses of 572 members of the MBA Class of 2021 (see This Survey Fully Captures MBA Discontent In The Age of COVID).
The survey found that 78% of the second-year students are not excited about the upcoming semester, and 94% of them feel the value of their overall MBA experience has diminished by at least 40%. When asked to rate their expectations for the fall semester on a scale of 1 (would rather defer) to 10 (very excited), 78% of the responding students rated it 5 or below. No less crucial, 86% of the students responding to the survey feel that Wharton has not incorporated student feedback in the decision-making process for this fall.
In the short-term, moreover, 31% of the students indicated that they are likely to request a leave of absence this fall, making Wharton’s planning for future classes more difficult. Over the long-term, 69% of students have changed their stance on donating to Wharton, and 48% of students do not plan on donating at all.
‘WHARTON HAS GONE THROUGH FOUR PHASES OF WHAT THE DELIVERY MODEL SHOULD BE’
The students’ main criticism: They were urged for months to move to Philadelphia to attend some in-person classes, but on July 31 the school announced an all-online format to start the fall — by which time the deadline for deferrals had passed and it was too late for most to change their plans. Admits may still request a “leave of absence” through September 8, which is much the same as a deferral in practice; but those who spoke to P&Q say the difficulty they and others had in securing a deferral makes them skeptical that the school will be liberal in granting LOAs. They point to Harvard Business School’s blanket offer of deferrals for any admits who wish to wait until the fall of 2021 to enroll, contrasting HBS’s approach with Wharton’s, and add that Wharton’s plans to enroll its largest-ever class — the exact size of which has not yet been announced — show that Wharton’s leadership planned to be entirely online all along.
“Wharton has gone through four phases of what the delivery model for their fall should be,” one student tells P&Q. “First it was going to be in-person like everywhere else. Then they made a big announcement that it would probably be hybrid, without providing many details, and then they rebranded to ‘Remote Plus’ where they were going to offer very, very few in-person classes, most of them online, and everyone was annoyed about that. Then they switched it to completely virtual. So it’s like everyone’s been brought through this sequence of more and more and more and more virtual at every step of the way — and every time after all the deadlines passed, they would come out with something new.
“Wharton has also accepted one of its largest classes in history this year and I think it’s interesting because other schools have chosen the opposite approach. HBS decided to accept one of its smallest classes in history so that they could host in-person classes with social distancing. As we all know, to host a class with social distancing, you have to be able to fit fewer people into a room. What Wharton did is, they accepted one of their largest classes in history. They still won’t publicly release the numbers, but everyone knows it’s one of the largest classes because we can see the number of accepted students. Then they said our class size is too big to host in-person activities. So I think it’s interesting that they kind of created some of this problem for themselves.
“I know it’s kind of an inference, but the way I see it is, if they planned to admit so many people, it shows that they planned all along to do it mostly virtual because they always knew what the social distancing restraints were for the specific buildings that they host classes in on campus.”
IN PRACTICE, A DEFERRAL POLICY FOR INTERNATIONALS ONLY
Wharton’s official policy is to grant deferrals on a “case-by-case basis,” as Blair Mannix, director of MBA admissions, reiterated in an April post on the school website. But in practice, say the MBA admits who spoke to P&Q, Wharton’s deferral policy is only for international students who could not get a visa to the U.S. — a common problem in the Trump era.
The deferral policy works much differently for domestic students, the admits say.
“While they allowed you to apply for a deferral, they made it very clear that they would only grant one in very extreme circumstances,” one admit says. “I think the specific example given in a video live stream was someone getting deployed to Afghanistan by the U.S. Army. So they wouldn’t allow an open deferral the way HBS did just for people who think there’s a lot of uncertainty with COVID, or their parents lost their jobs, or their situation has changed. None of that was considered legitimate enough to grant deferrals to domestic students.
“A lot of people were kind of held hostage with no other option. Yeah, Wharton will say that they had a different policy, but in practice, it was for international students only. I think all of us would have definitely considered it if we had been given an open deferral policy like HBS, which we were never given. All of us got into other schools, too. Them doing this at the last minute really prevents anyone from going anywhere else.”
One international admit who spoke to P&Q says she intends to be in Philadelphia this fall, barring visa problems. But she, too, was stunned by the school’s announcement that in-person classes had been nixed.
“Definitely it was surprising for us to know, given we were told it’ll be hybrid when we made the enrollment versus deferral decision,” she tells P&Q. “But apparently the reason for going virtual is that 40% of all the Covid cases in the U.S. since the pandemic started have been reported only last month. While the classes will be virtual, they are including small in-person requirements like studio classes, lab requirements, and clinical trials to ensure internationals can still make it to the U.S. in fall.”
‘THE STUDENT PERCEPTION OF HER IS SOMEONE WHO’S BEEN VERY UNINVOLVED SO FAR’
Wharton’s new dean, Erika James, is known as a crisis management expert — she even co-authored a book on the subject. But James’s handling of the biggest crisis to hit graduate business education in generations is being questioned by Wharton MBA admits and second-year MBA students who say she is at least partly to blame for poor communication and widespread misunderstanding between the administration, students, and admits. They also don’t spare her predecessor, Geoffrey Garrett, who served as a lame duck dean through June. Of course, it could not have helped that there was a leadership transition in the middle of the pandemic, either.
“Erika James, our new dean, considers herself an expert in crisis management,” one MBA admit says. “To everyone in our class, the school keeps touting how she’s an expert in crisis management and how she’s the best person to lead Wharton forward through these unprecedented times — so it’s really funny for everyone to see how little she’s been involved. I mean, her first public address to the student body was the announcement the other day when she said everything was going virtual. Until then, we had not seen her face or heard from her besides one email.
“The student perception of her is someone who’s very uninvolved so far, who is being touted as an expert in crisis management, but then clearly isn’t. I don’t want to blame it all on her because I think she inherited a lot of the problem, and a lot of the problems we’re talking about were in place before she came. I think a lot of the misleading came from the admissions director and from the vice deans who would constantly host these live streams. So it’s definitely not all the fault of the current dean, but yeah, she inherited a problem and I think it’s kind of funny that she’s a crisis management expert and then can’t really handle this crisis.”
Another admit, referring to James’s video announcement of the school’s plan for an all-online format, adds: “One story that I don’t get at all is that Erika James is getting so much praise when she’s ignored students for the last six months. She went on a publicity tour. She calls herself a crisis management expert. She read a scripted message from a Word document that she typed out. It came off extremely broken and insincere.”