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An MBA Program Built Around Global Travel Evolves In The Covid Era

Notre Dame Mendoza Business on the Frontlines students visit Aldeia Martu, an indigenous community in the Amazon River Basin. This year’s BOTFL course, and its sister course Frontlines In America, are campus-bound because of coronavirus-related restrictions in international travel. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

MBA classes aren’t remote everywhere in the United States. At the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, “We’re trying to hold the line, fight the good fight,” says Viva Bartkus, associate professor of management. That means in-person instruction wherever possible.

But coronavirus isn’t being ignored — it can’t be, because it has changed the nature of one of the most important programs in the Notre Dame MBA.

Since Martijn Cremers became dean in 2019, the school has expanded its Business on the Frontlines program to become integral to the full-time MBA, working to fulfill Cremers’ vision of a degree that makes experiential learning central to the student experience. As part of that expansion, after years of development, the school has announced the launch of a pair of additional programs: a domestic version called Frontlines in America, where students work on projects in the U.S., and Frontlines Engagement, an intensive with a more condensed time frame than the six-credit BOTFL. These additions were envisioned, planned, and finally financed by gifts totaling $21 million from five benefactors.

“We’ve just now been endowed, which we’re really grateful for,” Bartkus, who leads the BOTFL program, tells Poets&Quants in a recent interview. “And so we’ll have Business on the Frontlines, the international program, Frontlines in America, which is the domestic program, and then Frontlines Engagements, which is continuing to serve our partners in a shortened timeframe, without all the additional coursework, but more focused just on the project work.”

A WILD FINISH TO THIS YEAR’S PROGRAM 

Viva Bartkus. University of Notre Dame photo

Since 2008, Mendoza’s Business on the Frontlines has sent MBA students to under-developed, post-conflict countries around the world to examine the impact of business. They engage in cross-disciplinary and data-driven study and problem-solving, then apply their newly acquired knowledge to real-world issues. It’s practical, and positive, work, helping those in most need and exemplifying the Notre Dame and Mendoza philosophies.

By last year, BOTFL students had worked on more than 50 projects in 30 countries, from Colombia to Macedonia to East Timor. Cremers, when he became dean, doubled the number of BOTFL participants to around 50, with an eye to double it again to 100 by 2021. The ability to have more — and someday, all — students engage in a BOTFL experience was a big driver for expansion to include a domestic program, which was in its final planning stages in the spring.

Covid-19 was the curveball no one saw coming. When the pandemic shut down business schools and much of the rest of the world in March, expansion plans suddenly became secondary: Mendoza College leadership had the immediate quandary of BOTFL students working all over the world, from Europe to the Middle East to Africa, who needed evacuating. Viva Bartkus recalls how, after a March 11 edict from the federal government, she and her team scrambled to get everyone home.

“I was back home in the United States, and I watched President Trump’s address on that Wednesday night, the 11th, where he said that everyone from overseas has to be back from Europe by this date,” she remembers. “So we scrambled. I had two teaching assistants, both of which were former military. And so the three of us scrambled — we got everyone up in the middle of the night between Wednesday and Thursday. We got them to airports. A number of them we had to buy new tickets for, but everyone from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, we got back before that Friday, March 13th deadline.

“One of our alumni works for United Airlines, so she was constantly checking where there were seats available. So that was very helpful. We got everyone back from that side of the world. And for a couple of them, it was really important, because they were from India, or they were from China or they were from Canada. Notre Dame has a lot of international students, so we had to get them back into the country. And then everyone from the Western Hemisphere — so Honduras, Brazil, Colombia — came back fine. And then we flipped immediately into online Zoom discussions for everyone. We had to change the curriculum a little bit, but I think we ended the class reasonably well.”

PARTNERS COME TO NOTRE DAME, INSTEAD OF VICE VERSA

In a summer when Notre Dame announced that its MBA applications are on the upswing, perhaps the best news is the long-awaited launch — however stunted by the ongoing health crisis — of Frontlines in America. The inaugural cohort this fall is 12 students, along with four alumni advisers, including grad students from the MBA program, the law school, and the Keogh Master of Global Affairs.

Describing the program, Bartkus says it is designed to explore challenges to what she calls “the dignity of work” in the United States — everything from prejudice, violence, and drug addiction to the breakdown of the family, and more — and to create practical solutions. “Part of this is working alongside, and collaborating with, the partners,” she says, “and part of it is touching the other folks who are very different than ourselves.” Confined to campus this first year, students who normally would travel to communities around the U.S. are instead welcoming partners to South Bend; this fall, Bartkus says, the program has two, chosen in part for their proximity — “driving distance” — to Notre Dame’s campus.

“Our partners are chosen because they are building livelihoods and jobs and setting the economic conditions for growth for those most vulnerable in our country,” she says. “I’m very, very proud that in our inaugural year, we’re working with the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago. It is in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, on the South Side of Chicago, one of the 10 most violent neighborhoods across Chicago. The life expectancy there for males is a full 10 years less than the average of Chicago, which has Greater Grand Crossing in the average. So it’s a quite a challenging place, but our partner is terrific, and it’s providing youth programming. And also they’ve asked us to help them build businesses that can absorb some of that youth, at least while they’re in high school, so they can learn new skills. And then we’ll see how it goes from there. But it’s a three-year commitment to the Comer Youth Center, because frankly you can’t have all the impact you’d want in the very first year. And this is a partner that can help us gain insight into urban poverty.”

The other Frontlines in America partner is Coalfield Development, out of Huntington, West Virginia. “They have a pretty terrific program helping those who are recovering opioid addicts, or convicts, or others to return to the workforce,” Bartkus says. “So we’re helping them build a set of businesses. The CEO and his chief lieutenant are driving from West Virginia to visit us. So it’s a hundred percent project work that week. They don’t have any other classes, and so they can just work alongside the partners, have dinners together, interview, and things like that.”

Frontlines Engagements, the more intensive version of the program, is delayed a year, Bartkus says, “since they were very much focused on serving the partners in-country, or onsite in West Virginia, or wherever. And so they’ve just said, ‘Hey, just sit that one out a year.’ Which is terrific — it’ll give us more opportunities to learn how to do Frontlines in America as well as possible.”

MEYER FAMILY’S $15M GIFT WAS BIGGEST TO PROGRAM THIS YEAR

Ken and Susan Meyer, long-time benefactors of the university, gave $15 million this summer to aid the expansion of Business on the Frontlines, which will now bear their name.

“Our world order is particularly vulnerable right now, mid-year 2020,” Ken Meyer, a 1966 Notre Dame graduate, said in a statement in August. “The pandemic’s impact has been particularly harsh on the less fortunate among us worldwide. The Meyer Business on the Frontlines Program will provide our students an opportunity to confront these issues firsthand, work directly with the people impacted, and provide practical, affordable business solutions. What a wonderful opportunity for all of us to actually improve less fortunate peoples’ lives!”

The Meyers’ gift, while the biggest, was not the only substantial donation BOTFL received this year. In January, John and Terri Dunbar gave $1 million to endow a couple of teams in the program; John Dunbar has been a BOTFL team adviser for six years, traveling with the school to Uganda, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and other destinations. Another gift, of $5 million, came from in February from Paul Purcell, the former CEO and chairman of the investment bank Baird. Purcell donated the money to help cover ongoing operational expenses just before he passed away from cancer February 28.

“With those three donations, we have more than enough money to scale,” Bartkus says. “But if you think about it, there’s so many barriers to the dignity of work around the world. There’s plenty of work for our students and our faculty to do.

“It is a popular program. We always have more applications than we have spots, and we always have more requests from partners than we can take on. The real constraint historically has been time. We have great staff, and we have two wonderful instructors: professor Kelly Rubey and professor Joe Sweeney. Both of them came through the program in the last five to eight years, and the Department of Management & Organization, my department, is ridiculously excited to hire them as teaching professors for the department.”

MBA student Olivia Feldpausch (right) tours the Fimka Sapalovska’s sheep farm in Umlena, Maleshevo region, North Macedonia. MBA students from Notre Dame traveled to the region in March 2020 to study agricultural businesses as part of their Business on the Frontlines course. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

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