B-Schools (Try To) Predict What 2021 Will Look Like

Haas Dean Ann Harrison. Photo by Noah Berger

UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business Dean Ann Harrison says climate change will be one of the biggest challenges of 2021, “and I predict that business schools will step up in 2021 to expand their efforts in sustainability.

“Climate change has become palpable, with catastrophic wildfires in the West and a record hurricane season in the Southeast. This year’s dramatic climate change events have shown that creating a sustainable economy is a matter of saving lives, preventing widespread food insecurity, reducing the poverty level, and retooling our economy.

“As a business school, we have a responsibility to facilitate new research in critical areas such as energy and economics — and to develop future business leaders equipped to address daunting challenges. Last September, I brought climate change expert Michele de Nevers to Haas in the newly-created role of executive director of sustainability programs. Michele is helping us create the infrastructure and tapping the resources needed to advance our sustainability goals. These goals should include training our students to lead in a sustainable and inclusive economy.

“As Michele says, ‘at the most basic level, it’s important that every Haas graduate comes away with basic literacy on sustainability, which means understanding the challenges, the opportunities, and the risks that will be needed to manage in the business world.’ To that end, we will be working with the faculty — about 20% of whom are already working on environmental, social, or governance areas that can be considered part of sustainability — to explore ways to infuse our core and elective curriculum with sustainability concepts across different disciplines.

“Other efforts in 2021 will include launching a new Certificate in Sustainable Business, and a concurrent MBA/Master’s degree in Sustainability. At Haas, we forge entrepreneurial leaders who create a more innovative, inclusive, and sustainable world.”


Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding. File photo

“My prediction,” writes Bill Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, “is you will see a renewed focus on updating or overhauling curriculum throughout the business school industry in 2021.  At Duke, we planned a curriculum update before the pandemic to better incorporate themes like how to bring people together with common purpose, leading technology innovation and adopting entrepreneurial mindset. As the pandemic progressed, those themes have become even more relevant and important. In addition, our professors have also been updating content to tackle issues directly in the classroom surrounding racial equity, gender parity and bias. It’s critical that we update and tweak our curriculum continually, not just at Duke, but in all business schools, to make sure we are developing leaders who meaningfully value difference and can harness it to work toward a common goal.

“In addition, I predict 2021 will be a year that we will see business solve some of world’s most pressing challenges. I have always believed in business as a transformational engine for the betterment of the world, but business has a truly unique opportunity to capitalize on this objective in coming years because of public trust.Unlike the Great Recession in 2008, the public developed a greater trust of business in 2020, versus blaming business for the downturn in the economy. In fact, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that 92 percent of employees think it’s important that CEOs speak out on one or more issue.

“I am heartened by efforts that I see in business, like PwC releasing its first ever transparency report disclosing how it’s doing in diversity and inclusion efforts. I’m also encouraged by efforts like the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion network which now has more than 1,500 members promising to advance equity. Now is the time business must get beyond commitment and into true action.”


“2021 will be the year of coming together,” says M. Eric Johnson, dean of Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management. “While 2020 may have been the virtual year, Covid has only underscored the value of in-person experiences.  Yes, virtual education, virtual selling, virtual collaboration, virtual concerts, and remote work were all hugely accelerated by Covid. At Vanderbilt, we prided ourselves in the residential experience, with only modest on-line offerings prior to Covid. Rapid innovation over the past 9 months led to successful hybrid courses that were well received this fall. But I observed something interesting: students who were quarantined during a period in the fall — and thus deprived of the joining the classroom — were the most dedicated in-person students afterward. The absence of in-person only made the interest in gathering greater (even if under our guidelines for distancing).

“While the quality and breadth of on-line programing will continue expanding, I also expect the desire for residential, in-person education will grow post-Covid. The human desire for face-to-face interaction is too great.

“I believe this applies in many areas of business. In November, I hosted the CFO of Delta Airlines. He noted that ‘the first time you are meeting with a customer virtually and your competitor meets face-to-face and you lose the deal … virtual selling is dead!’ Of course, virtual selling is here to stay — but like education, face-to-face relationships will be a mark of value. 2021 will be the year of astonishing interest in being together.”


Stanford’s Sarah Soule

“The start of a new year provides an excellent opportunity for reflection on the year’s past while looking to the wellspring of possibility ahead,” writes Sarah Soule, senior associate dean for academic affairs and professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB. “We’ve had an important year of educating and adapting amidst a pandemic, welcoming new students and, most importantly, advancing the momentum of our diversity, equity and inclusion goals.

“In 2021, Stanford GSB will continue to curate diverse, inclusive spaces where our global students, faculty and administrators feel comfortable gathering and collaborating. As stewards of leadership, we do not take lightly our role in ensuring that everyone who comes onto our campus leaves as a better version of themself, equipped with a set of skills that allows them to thwart the world’s most pressing business issues.

“While we’ve relied heavily on technology to support online learning this year, some of the most important tools we teach and leverage are empathy, understanding and consideration, which has proven to be irreplaceable when facing unprecedented times such as these. As we navigate uncertainty into 2021, I predict that we will continue leaning into these skills to have crucial conversations, accelerate goals and connect on a deeper level with our peers.

“Stanford GSB looks forward to another year of delivering world-class business education while embracing and elevating diverse ideas and perspectives at all levels. We will devote ourselves to accelerating change to solve the worlds’ greatest challenges, across the business ecosystem. Our commitment to empowering principled, motivated and empathic leaders will lead to transformation in business, and also the world.”


“Companies, like people, will struggle to behave moderately in 2021,” says Associate Dean of MBA programs and Senior Lecturer Drew Pascarella of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. “Our economy is at its best when all participants behave moderately and find an appropriate risk/reward balance. In a modern economy, moderate fiscal policy, moderate lending, moderate capital spending, moderate hiring, moderate strategic moves, etc. lead to reasonable risk/reward tradeoffs, steady growth and economic stability. The question is, as the world begins to open back up next year, and after more than a year of unprecedented disruption, will government and industrial leaders be able to return to the moderate behavior we need?

“Like individuals who have been cooped up at home for far too long, some leaders may be inclined to make high-risk/high-reward decisions in the hopes of making up for lost time or getting out of the blocks faster than their competitors. Others will simply sit on their hands, still shell-shocked from all that they’ve been through and unable to plot a reasonable path forward. Neither is good for the economy. We will be best served by those who take their time, think through their options, and make a series of rationale decisions with an appropriate risk/reward tradeoff.

“At Johnson, we are incorporating key lessons from Covid into the MBA classroom, and we continue to study past crises and recoveries so that we best prepare these future global leaders for the moderate decision-making that will empower our newest, and most complex recovery yet.”

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