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Leading Through COVID: A B-School Dean Tells It Like It Is

Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC Chapel Hill


He welcomes the increased competition from universities offering high-quality online MBAs at much lower prices at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business and at Boston University’s Questrom School. “They are great for the market and clientele they are serving,” insists Shackelford. “It’s just a different one from what we are serving. I was giving a presentation and the dean of BU was in the audience. A person spoke up and said, ‘You know BU is going to take you down.’ I tried to say there is totally a place for BU. We are looking at a different customer. We have very small classes, with no more than 20 students. We spend a lot of time in synchronous classes. The BU dean got up and said, ‘We studied everything. We are not trying to be like them.’ There is never going to be a student who says he can’t decide between BU and us.”

Even so, he concedes the competition in the market is challenging. “That program scares me to death all the time because we have to be constantly open to thinking about what kind of program would we have if we built it today? So if we are sitting here saying that what we are doing has worked for a decade, it might not be working six months from now. What scares me is someone comes in with technology that is better than ours. We rebuild the classes regularly, and we try to rethink everything all the time.”

As for the school’s relationship with 2U, which takes a considerable amount of revenue for every online student enrolled, the dean believes their partnership has been helpful. “Hopefully, we are both sufficiently irritating each other. I am forever saying to them if you aren’t pushing us to the limits at all times, we’re going to fail. And we irritate each other well enough to have a good relationship.” 


The success of that relationship led him to expand the partnership with 2U to a master’s in accounting in 2015. Are more options underway? “We have looked at a lot of variations of master’s of management type programs,” he explains. “But my approach has always been I don’t want to be involved in any program that I would not be delighted if my own child went there. The standard of excellence has got to be very high. Using that standard, I wouldn’t say there is no program we would consider but we are picky and choosy. It’s better to be good at a few things than to be okay at a number of things, and we are not a large enough school to be good at a lot of things. But that is not to say we would never do anything. Almost at any time, there is someone in my office with the next great thing.” 

Surprisingly, perhaps, the school’s two online degree programs did not necessarily ease the transition to virtual learning in its other programs when COVID struck. “We had one week to shift over when COVID hit. We probably had an advantage over some schools but it still wasn’t easy. The students we have in the online program want a virtual teaching world. The ones we have in other programs, that’s not what they wanted.  It’s better than having no shoes, but if you ask me would I rather wear my shoes than someone else’s shoes, you know the answer. We were able to pull stuff out of those MBA@UNC classes. But we didn’t just say to our students, ‘You are now MBA@UNC students. The online MBA is not designed for a career switcher or for more specialized training with electives in our full-time program.”

In the near term, the dean sees a convergence between online and residential programs. “There is really no such thing as an online program and a residential program,” he says. “They are already converging. Everything will be technology-enhanced learning at some point. Competition is going to get stiffer and stiffer. Geography is going to become less and less important. There were times when we owned our little turf, and maybe we had to share a bit with Duke and Virginia but nobody has got anything now. What happens when big tech gets involved and people would rather have a degree from Facebook rather than Chapel Hill? It might outlive me but the next 10 to 15 years are going to be very disruptive. It starts with the economic tightening and then innovation is going to break out because people are going to say we can’t continue what we are doing.


“For state universities like ours, funds are just drying up. We don’t get much state funding to begin with so we are pretty much privatized. But the drying up of state funds is going to affect a lot of state universities. We have the baby bust coming and I hope we will recover on the international front. That is just a place we ruled forever and we need to get that back. We have research faculty that we can’t justify paying at current levels. We haven’t done a very good job in creating a business model that is sustainable. So I think a lot of structural changes will have to occur.”

A future business model, he suggests, might well be a adopted from successful Internet companies like Netflix or Amazon Prime for lifelong, on-demand learning, “Can we go to subscription model in the future?” he asks aloud. “I use Spotify on a monthly subscription, and I can listen to whatever I want whenever I want. If I could get world class business knowledge, maybe there could be a consortium of schools to make it possible for on-demand learning. I think people will pay a lot of money for that. I don’t think we have been very student centric.”

Nevertheless, he says he is “totally bullish” on business education in the future and believes innovation is the way forward. “Nobody can out Harvard Harvard. So you have to find some way for your school to thrive and prosper and we are seeing that in spots. But we haven’t seen a breakout coming.”


Four years ago, the school took a stab at bringing virtual reality into its MBA program. Kenan-Flagler professors David Hofmann and Steven King traveled with then MBA student Tanyi Fuoching to his home country of Cameroon to create a novel simulation. The assignment for students using the VR simulation was to set up a new health-care outpost in a foreign country. Leveraging VR technology, the simulation allowed Kenan-Flagler to gain global experience without leaving campus.

Shackelford says he is looking for an ed tech partner to help it pioneer more VR simulations. “The cost of us developing it on our own is prohibitivie,” says the dean, noting that the Cameroon simulation cost about $50,000. “We have done little things but for us with our budget it’s not possible to build this out in a big way. You can spend a half million dollars pretty quickly in an international immersion opportunity. So I would say it’s about three-quarters baked.”

Another simulation is based on British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s famous expedition to Antarctica where his team endured entrapment, hunger, frigid weather, angry seas—and near madness.”We are studying making decisions under stress. We put together a virtual reality situation where when you are experiencing it you need to put a coat on because it is so cold on that ship. That is stressful. Even though it’s not real, your palms are getting sweaty because you are struggling with what to do. I want us to be on the forefront of that but we need a partner. Ten years from now we are not going to be teaching in a classroom on how to deal with stress. We’ll be teaching this by virtual reality. Imagine that we have the technology in gamification or the technology Hollywood has today in making movies. Give me 1% of that.”


Like many business school deans, Shackelford would prefer rankings that do not place numerical positions on MBA programs. “With this COVID year, it’s kind of hard to figure out what’s what,” he believes. “But I think we would be better off with a Consumer Reports approach than the rankings to begin with. We need more than some number attached to a school. We’re not playing football here. Walk into Darden (at the University of Virginia) and then you walk into our building. If you can’t tell the difference in those two places in 15 minutes, your senses aren’t very good. Some people should definitely be at Darden and some should should come here and somebody should probably go somewhere else.”

For now, the job is delivering an exceptional educational experience when it is obviously compromised by COVID. “I have been doing town halls every Friday since COVID broke out for about a half-hour with all our faculty and staff. Add to COVID the racial issues we are having these days and the political divisions and it is hard to hold a culture together under all the stuff that is happening right now. A lot of it is trying to talk to people and hold everything together. I try to end it with the message to be kind, be compassionate, and be safe. I recognize people are going through hard times, and we don’t need anybody getting sick. It’s those kinds of things that I think are more important now.”


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