Stanford GSB Dean Jon Levin On MBAs, COVID, Racial Injustice & The Future

Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin on the impact of the pandemic on Stanford, its MBA students and the future of business education

Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin on the impact of the pandemic on Stanford, its MBA students and the future of business education

On Sept. 1, Jonathan Levin will have been dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business for four full years. During one evening this week, the 47-year-old economist sat down for a lengthy and illuminating podcast interview with a recent alum of the school, Benjamin Kohlmann, an engagement manager at McKinsey & Co. Kohlmann earned his MBA from Stanford three years ago in 2017, having arrived on campus a year before Levin’s deanship began. He enrolled at the school after a successful military career, having flown 32 combat missions and making more than 300 landings on U.S. carriers.

The interview with Levin, on Kohlmann’s Random Walk podcast series, ranges wide and deep on a vast variety of topics from the most important trends to impact business education in recent years to the value of going back to school during a period of massive world change. Levin also addressed how the shift to online learning is likely to have a long-lasting impact on higher education, what the school is doing to deal with racial inequity, and how MBA students reimagined the critical co-curricular part of the MBA experience when Stanford shifted learning online in the spring.

The interview with Dean Jonathan Levin occurred as part of a podcast series called A Random Walk with Ben Kohlmann

Among other things, Levin set up a task force last spring to ponder the long-term impact of the pandemic called the Beyond COVID Task Force. Among its observations is that a virtual environment permits a “temporal extension” of both learning and relationship building because, as Levin observes, “it is easier to stay connected with people either before or after they leave the physical environment of the campus.” One example: Stanford began engaging with this fall’s incoming MBA cohort eight weeks before orientation. So Levin plans to make significant investments in using technology for lifelong learning to help alumni stay connected to Stanford long after they graduate.


While Stanford will start the fall quarter mostly online, with only a couple of in-person, outdoor classes, the majority of MBA students will at least be on campus. “I worry for students who are at schools that are starting 100% remote and the students have no physical togetherness,” he says.” How will they meet people? How will they form friendships? It’s going to be a big, big challenge for everyone.”

Levin made clear that he strongly believes in the continued value of the two-year, residential MBA experience which he suggests is more like an educational “telescope” compared to a Ph.D. which Levin describes as more of a “microscope.” “Someone who does a Ph.D. is being handed this incredibly powerful microscope to just zoom in on some specific set of knowledge,” he says. “In my case, it was economics. In an MBA program like Stanford’s, it’s like giving someone an incredibly powerful telescope. You are just opening their aperture to see all these possibilities and giving them the skills to go in so many directions. That value is not going away. It’s not going to go away if we do it online for a year or a quarter, either. It’s just a powerful value proposition.”

The interview comes at an unprecedented time of uncertainty in both the world, the U.S., and in higher education. At a recent town hall with students, Levin explains, the anxiety and concern among students were tangible. “They just want to know how is this going to work?” he says. “We are all going into a new world of going to school during a pandemic. They want to understand how we will keep them safe and how they will get to know their classmates and the faculty. What they would love is certainty. How long will this last? It’s just like everyone. That is something that is impossible to deliver right now, unfortunately, so that makes for a tough situation for everyone.”

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview:

Kohlmann: Stanford made a pretty big decision on the 24th to change from a hybrid model to an almost remote model. Can you walk us through that decision-making process?

Levin: We’ve been thinking about the fall quarter since the middle of the spring and had a task force that was set up of students, staff, and faculty that was planning the whole academic experience for the fall. We knew we were going to bring our students back to campus even though a lot of undergraduate institutions are not bringing their students back at all. We had them on campus all through the spring in a way that was quite safe and worked out very well. Having been through a quarter of entirely online education in the spring, it was clear that the students and faculty really missed being together and being with each other in person. We wanted to do everything we could to accommodate that while understanding that the first priority had to be the health and safe of the community.

We spent a lot of the last couple of months trying to develop methods for hybrid learning, with half the students in the classroom and half online, with a rotation system. And in August, California came out with their higher education guidelines and the rules in California right now are in order to have indoor instruction your county has to be not on the state watch list. Our county—Santa Clara— has been on the watch list since July. So we are not allowed to do in-person, indoor instruction. So we are going to start the quarter with virtual instruction and a few outdoor classes and then there will be opportunities for outdoor office hours and interactions. Hopefully, we’ll come off and do more of a hybrid model.

Stanford also made the decision a few weeks ago not to bring undergraduate students back to campus. So one of the things that will happen on the campus for the fall quarter is that it will be a much sparser environment. There will be relatively few students and a lot of people working at home. And we have put in place testing protocols for students, staff and faculty. It is going to be an academic year like nothing anyone has ever faced before. Our students are just starting to arrive And we’ll have to do everything we can to keep people safe and still have a great educational experience which is the goal.

Kohlmann: How did you structure the organization to figure out what to do in the school year?

Every institution of higher education and also K-through-12 education as well is grappling with the same questions of how do you run an educational institution? What is ingrained in the way we do things is the idea of getting a group of students on campus, getting a group of faculty there, and putting them in close proximity. And a lot of the magic happens that way. When we set out to think about this one of the things we wanted to think about it was to what extent could we have that important interaction and marry that with health and safety. That is what everyone is wrestling with. We have an incredibly talented set of students. They are great problem solvers. We wanted to have a lot of student involvement. We’ve had two student leaders on our task force have done an extraordinary job of bringing in student input. We’ve had a group of faculty who have been terrific. There has been a lot of faculty innovation in teaching with the move to virtual. And all the staff to do our facilities and our teaching and learning support. That was the group we put together led by two of our senior associate deans. They met weekly for months and did a lot of consultation with the health care experts at Stanford who have been phenomenal. That was basically the process that we ran. And we’ve had to be incredibly adaptive because of the shifting state and county guidelines. Obviously, we have to operate within those rules. The county has been a very good partner for Stanford. We have pretty strict rules here but it has worked well from a health standpoint.


Kohlmann: One of the narratives in the media is the divergence between how students want to engage on campus and how faculty want to engage on campus. How have you balanced the needs of students and faculty in making this decision?

Levin: There is a lot of heterogeneity in people’s risk tolerance and their comfort to go out and engage in public. You drive around parts of California and you see people behave in very different ways with different comfort levels for being out and interacting. Some of that breaks down on age. In general, students are at much lower risk and are naturally more comfortable. But not all of them by the way. Some of the students are concerned and rightly so because they have health conditions or respiratory conditions. Some are really, really anxious and you have to be sensitive to that. And for our faculty, there is a lot of variation. We told our faculty what the students would like but we also told them we wouldn’t force them to do anything they are not comfortable with. Some of our faculty do want to teach virtually because it is a safer environment, and some of them really want to get back to interact with students. They love that part of their job. They want to be in the mix and be with the students and we’ve tried to accommodate people as best we can, subject to state and county rules which are making our decisions for us.

Kohlmann: Walk us through when you were seeing the numbers of COVID cases rise in March and you had to make the decision to go online.

It was on our radar screen. We were thinking about the pandemic and then in March when we started to get cases locally, we made a decision at Stanford to go online and we basically made it on a Friday night and everyone was online Monday morning. It was crazy but it was sort of amazing to see people’s adaptability. On Saturday morning, we put up a Google sheet with all the classes and we asked all the faculty how would they get online and what would they do and could they do it? how would they do it. I watched the Google sheet populate in real-time. I just sat there and watched our faculty who came on and one said, ‘I’ve done a lot of online teaching. I’m experienced. No problem.’ Another person came on and said, ‘I have never used Zoom but on Monday morning I will know how to do it. I’ve got this.’ Everyone uniformly just said, ‘I can handle this. I can do it, I can figure it out.’ And sure enough, they did. It was pretty inspiring to see that happen. All credit to our faculty and staff for their support and to our students for being incredibly adaptable in making a transition like that.

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