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Columbia Disciplines 70 MBA Students For COVID Violations

Uris Hall

Columbia Business School has disciplined 70 MBA students for violations of the university’s travel restrictions during COVID, Poets&Quants has learned. For three weeks until Dec. 1, the students are banned from campus and must attend their classes online after traveling to Turks and Caicos Islands during the fall break in violation of the school’s policies to protect the community from a coronavirus outbreak.

CBS used IP addresses to trace the students after receiving a formal complaint which led to an investigation and the disciplinary action. Columbia MBA students have been divided over the restrictions, though the vast majority of them have complied with the university’s compact to prevent a coronavirus outbreak on campus. A school official equated the disciplinary action to a “yellow card,” effectively a warning to behave. A second violation would result in a “red card” and a full suspension from the school.

“Most honor the Columbia community compact yet large factions continue to organize and travel in large groups, most notably a group of 60 to the “COVID Castle” in the Poconos in August and another group to Turks and Caicos for fall break,” a student tells Poets&Quants. “Students are outraged and disgusted and angry.” The “COVID Castle” is a reference to an expansive 30,000 square-foot home with 18 bedrooms, three outdoor pools, an indoor basketball court and a 72-seat movie theater that rents for $5,125 a night. The Class of 2021 student who organized the Aug. 23-28 event has not responded to a query for comment. A spokesperson for Columbia said “the school was unaware of the trip and no report was made at the time. By the time details came to our attention, it was far too late to administer any type of tracing to verify who had participated.”

The so-called “COVID Castle” rented by some Columbia MBA students in August


Yet, as is common in the U.S. and throughout the world, the response by students to the coronavirus crisis has been fiercely divided. Some students are angry about the disciplinary action taken by the school. Others are frustrated that it took the school some time to do something to enforce its guidelines. Columbia Business School is hardly alone in dealing with off-campus gatherings by MBA students. MIT Sloan, Chicago Booth, and Northwestern Kellogg suspended hybrid teaching modes this fall after some MBA students got together in groups off-campus. At Kellogg, at least 17 MBA students tested positive for COVID.

Some of the Columbia Business School students who gathered for the West Indies retreat returned in early November, only to go “all out and about NYC celebrating the election events and posting videos on social media,” according to the student.

A few MBA students have publicly mocked the school’s COVID policies on Instagram, with one posting a warning from the school (see below), while another has put together a satirical video about the trip to Turks and Caicos.

A post on the Instagram account poking fun at the school’s COVID restrictions


In the video, which uses a scene from the movie The Other Guys, students are advised that the trip’s organizers are “only telling chill classmates” and using “Whatsapp to coordinate,” that they were securing “deposits for sick beach villas” and “placing (a) massive alcohol order.” To a Queen “We Are The Champions” soundtrack, they also noted that the group was “skipping outta Thursday classes to start the weekend party” and that “everyone (be) COVID-negative.”

The video post, which uses the school’s official logo and an account called cbs2021_official, also notes that there would be “partying every night not wearing masks,” “eating in parties of more than 10,” “prescription drugs” and “hooking up.”

The trip to Turks and Caicos occurred after a Sept. 16th email to students from then Dean of Students Zelon Crawford who reinforced the consequences of planning retreats and gatherings off campus after apparently hearing that some students were intending to travel together to Aruba for an overnight trip during the fall break.

A scene from a mock video on the CBS student trip to Turks and Caicos


“It has come to our attention that some students are planning both small and large trips for the upcoming fall break,” wrote Crawford in an email obtained by Poets&Quants. “Let me start by saying this: I get it; we get it; travel with your peers is a typical part of the MBA experience.  But this is not a typical year, and I’m writing tonight to remind you of your responsibilities as part of the Columbia community, and to warn you of potential consequences of irresponsible voluntary travel.

“Since the start of the pandemic, the School’s policy has always been and remains that travel is suspended until further notice.  This includes official club and cluster travel such as overnight trips and retreats. The Columbia University Travel Restrictions for Fall 2020, as set forth on the University COVID website , clearly states that all Columbia-related travel for students is suspended and personal travel is also “suspended for countries on the CDC restricted list ”, which at this time includes almost all nations on the planet, including Aruba.  Personal domestic travel or travel to countries not on the CDC restricted list is only approved in the case of a personal or family emergency.

“The reason for these requirements are simple: unnecessary travel poses an undue risk to yourself, your fellow classmates, and the entire Columbia community.  Actions of this nature could have dire consequences not only to your health and the health of your classmates, but also to your MBA experience. Moreover, you should be aware that egregious violations of these rules, such as organized personal trips to restricted areas, will subject individual participants to disciplinary action, including but not limited to suspension of all on-campus privileges for the rest of the semester.  Repeated violations may even result in dismissal.

“In closing, I ask you to consider the consequences of your actions and to hold yourself – and your peers – accountable.  Your MBA experience will only be successful if every member of our community recognizes, accepts and honors their role.”

The reported COVID rate for Columbia University remains low. Thus far, the university reports just 66 positive cases, with 14 in the week ending Nov. 9, plus an additional 113 cases outside of the university’s test and trace program. Some 27 of those 113 cases were reported in the week ending Nov. 9. Those numbers reflect a positivity rate of a mere 0.12 under the on-campus program. Columbia does not break down these numbers by school.


About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.