Why This Columbia MBA Blew The Whistle On Her Classmates Over COVID

One of the 40 mobile morgues in New York City last spring

In the spring, when New York City emergency rooms were overwhelmed with coronavirus patients, Katie Brehm would walk her dog past a mobile morgue set up outside Mount Sinai Morningside hospital on 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The Columbia Business School MBA student would sometimes witness corpses in plastic body bags being placed in the refrigerated trailer.

“It’s hard for people my age to take the pandemic seriously because they don’t think they can die even if they get it,” says the 33-year-old. “But seeing that volume of death changes your perspective. That experience stays with you. Over 500 people died at that hospital. That was in March and April when it was really bad in New York.”

Her experience in New York City earlier this year convinced her to take COVID seriously. So when she heard in early November that many of her MBA classmates had ventured to Turks and Caicos for an Oct. 30 through Nov. 3 retreat during the fall break, Brehm was outraged. The student trip violated both the university’s community compact designed to keep students safe from the coronavirus during their hybrid class schedule and New York State state quarantine guidelines. On Nov. 6, she lodged a complaint with the university provost that led to the recent disciplining of 70 MBA students (see Columbia Disciplines 70 MBA Students For COVID Violations).

‘I KNEW I WAS LIGHTING A MATCH BUT THE TRIP WAS RECKLESS AND IRRESPONSIBLE’

When she filed the complaint, she says, “I knew I was lighting a match and walking away but I didn’t see I had any fault in that. The trip was reckless and irresponsible. Columbia has the responsibility to train leaders on values and when they get away with this it only reinforces those bad behaviors.”

The decision by CBS to ban 70 students from campus until Dec. 1 and require them to take their courses online has sparked a range of reactions similar to the current debate over COVID restrictions across the U.S. Some students argue that the school has no right to dictate what they do off-campus on their own time. Because Columbia identified the 70 students by using IP addresses to trace them, they argue that the investigation by Columbia Business School violated their right to privacy.

“I’d rather be dead in Turks and Caicos than alive in Uris,” quips a Class of 2021 MBA at Columbia, in a reference to the school’s current home in Uris Hall. CBS expects to move to its new campus in Manhattanville in January of 2022.

‘MBA STUDENTS ARE MORE THAN WILLING TO GET AND SPREAD COVID SO LONG AS THEY HAVE FUN’

Katie Brehm

Other students are supportive of the school’s actions to ban those students from campus until Dec. 1, requiring them to take their classes online. After all, the trip violated the school’s Covid-19 health compact, a protocol that restricts any official or organized group travel until further notice.

“Columbia, just like all of the other universities, is doing their best to protect themselves, their faculty, and their students from a virus we still know little about,” reasons another MBA student who declined to be named. “There are only imperfect options. The actions of the students prove that the travel restrictions are necessary. MBA students are more than willing to get and spread COVID, so long as they still get to have their fun.”

Brehm, who is near the end of her dual degree studies with an MBA and an MA from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. first heard about the trip from a classmate and friend over lunch. “She said she was honored not to be invited,” recalls Brehm. “And I said, ‘I am honored not to have found out about it until now.’ They were correct not to invite me because I would not only have turned the invitation down, I would have blown it up.”

DID CBS ONLY CATCH MBA STUDENTS WHO LOGGED INTO ZOOM CLASSES FROM THE WEST INDIES?

In fact, though Columbia has disciplined 70 MBA students for the trip, Brehm says that as many as 150 attended the retreat. The school was only able to identify students who actually attended their classes via ZOOM from Turks and Caicos on the Thursday before the start of the retreat and on Friday. “They didn’t discipline the students who were so into partying that they didn’t even log into classes,” she says. “If you didn’t log into Zoom classes. they didn’t catch you. The only people they disciplined were those who logged in on Thursday and Friday.”

Brehm, 33, has since lodged a second complaint about two other MBA student trips to Serbia and to the Poconos. The trip to the Poconos occurred Aug. 23-28 at a so-called “COVID Castle,” so named because only MBA students who had previously tested positive for COVID were invited to the event. The trip was apparently organized by a Class of 2021 MBA student who has worked in private equity and investment banking. That student has failed to respond to three separate requests for comment from Poets&Quants. by a Class of 2021 MBA student who has worked in private equity and investment banking. That student has failed to respond to three separate requests for comment from Poets&Quants.

It was held at 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. 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.” Brehm points out, however, that spots on the trip were re-sold on the business school’s Slack channel #z_marketplace.

OFF-CAMPUS GATHERINGS AT MIT SLOAN, CHICAGO BOOTH & NORTHWESTERN KELLOGG

Brehm has had an earlier grievance with Columbia Business School. Two years ago, Brehm charged that she was drugged and raped by a CBS classmate. The district attorney declined to bring charges in that case, and the school’s own investigation was concluded without finding evidence to discipline her assailant. Brehm says she believes the case was mishandled. Among other things, Mount Sinai Morningside lost her rape kit.
She is working with the local government to determine how the hospital could have lost critical evidence in a sex crimes case.  Depending on the outcome of that effort, Brehm hopes to find a pro bono lawyer who would be willing to file a civil lawsuit against the assailant and the university.

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.

An emergency room tent sent up outside Tent at Mount Sinai Morningside during the spring when COVID cases overwhelmed New York City

DON’T MISS: COLUMBIA DISCIPLINES 70 MBA STUDENTS FOR COVID VIOLATIONS or LIVE UPDATES; THE COVID-19 IMPACT ON BUSINESS SCHOOLS