Less than three weeks before the start of MBA classes, Stanford Graduate School of Business is preparing for a remote Autumn Quarter as the number of national and local cases of coronavirus make the conditions of its planned hybrid approach more and more difficult to meet. That’s the clear conclusion from messages sent to students and faculty by Stanford leadership and a rough transcript of an August 18 town hall meeting obtained by Poets&Quants. The news comes as several other top business schools in the United States have backtracked on plans to have a mix of in-person and remote instruction in the fall, most recently UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
During the August 18 town hall for second-year MBA students, three members of the Stanford Autumn Quarter Task Force — Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Brian Lowery, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Paul Oyer, and Associate Dean for the MBA and MSx Programs Margaret Hayes — told attendees that local government restrictions that prohibited Stanford from having indoor classes were not likely to be lifted by the start of the quarter. Stanford GSB’s leadership has set August 24 as the date for a final decision.
Stanford MBA classes are scheduled to begin September 7 for first-year students and September 21 for second-year and Ph.D. students, and conclude November 20, before Thanksgiving, with final exams the week of November 30 to December 4.
“As of now, Santa Clara County continues to be on California’s Watch List, which prohibits indoor lectures,” reads an August 17 message sent to second-year students that contained details on how to attend the Zoom meeting. “While the county’s status could change before classes begin, we recognize many members of the community are looking for more certainty about the plans for Autumn Quarter. We will make a decision next Monday, August 24, on whether our planned hybrid mode of instruction for the start of the quarter will be outdoor-online or indoor-online.”
As of today, Santa Clara County has 14,872 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 214 deaths attributed to the pandemic. In August alone, cases have risen by 25% from 11,877 on Aug. 1, though county officials warn that the numbers are likely underreported. In 13 of 17 days during this month, daily case counts have been above 100, peaking at 329 on Aug. 11th.
‘WE’VE BEEN ON THE WATCHLIST FOR A WHILE’
In the town hall meeting, held via Zoom, Oyer, Lowery, and Hayes define “Indoor-online” as “some people in the classroom (reduced capacity); rotating cohorts of learning,” with “classes indoors and online, simultaneously.” The other option cited, “outdoor-online” is “either classes outdoor or online (not simultaneous).” The town hall transcript, which does not make clear who is speaking, adds that “Importantly, BOTH qualify GSB as a hybrid program (especially relevant for international students).”
Stanford, like most of the top business schools in the United States, had planned for a hybrid fall, with a minimum of instruction done face-to-face, partly to avoid visa issues for international students and partly because some consider in-person instruction essential. But local regulations may make even a small amount of in-person instruction impossible. “If you’re on the Santa Clara County watchlist for 3 consecutive days, then you can’t offer indoor classes,” the transcript reads. “We’ve been on that list for a while.”
If Stanford is forced to cancel plans for in-person instruction, there is still a chance during the quarter that the school could switch back. That would only happen once, according to the August 17 message, which was signed by the 11 members of Stanford GSB’s Autumn Quarter Task Force.
“If conditions materially improve before August 24 and we are able to begin with the indoor-online format, we must be prepared to move to the outdoor-online format, in the event that the county returns (us) to the watchlist for three consecutive days,” the message reads. “If we begin the quarter in the outdoor-online format, we will re-evaluate moving to the indoor-online format after the county has been off the watch list for five consecutive days.
“To minimize confusion and uncertainty, we plan to only switch from the outdoor-online format to the indoor-online format once.
“As communicated earlier, the outdoor-online format doesn’t allow for as much in-person instruction as the indoor-online format. With the outdoor- online format, we expect that almost all instruction will be online. We only expect to offer a few courses that meet in smaller groups outdoors. However, we expect there to be more opportunities than usual to interact with instructors in small groups. Note that some instructors will not be on campus in Autumn Quarter for outdoor instruction or small-group interactions, but many of them are committed to small or individual virtual meetings with students. We support all faculty and students to make decisions based on their individual circumstances regarding in-person activities.”
If all instruction moves online, Stanford’s Startup Garage will be an exception, students have been told.
BLATANT DISREGARD FOR THE RULES ‘WILL BE PUNISHED’
Stanford has asked first-year MBA students to be on campus by September 4. All students “living on campus or coming to campus for any reason” are required to sign a new Graduate Student Compact that was unveiled August 15 by Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, and Stacey Bent, vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. The compact, similar to those established at other U.S. B-schools this summer, lays out detailed guidelines for screening, testing, isolation, quarantine, hygiene, distancing, and face coverings, as well as rules regarding guests, access, and travel.
In the August 18 Zoom town hall, dubbed “MBA 2021 Community Conversation,” attendees asked several questions about the compact and the consequences of violating it. They were told that for egregious offenses, they could lose housing or access to campus; the most extreme cases will be referred to the Office of Community Standards.
“You’re not going to face serious consequences if you use common sense,” Lowery, Hayes, and Oyer told students. “That said, you absolutely could if you’re participating in something that could be a potential ’super spreader’ event. Large gatherings to spread the virus or viral videos going online of people blatantly disregarding the rules will be punished.” Students were told that those who do not come to campus at all and only attend classes remotely do not have to sign the compact.
Lowery, Hayes, and Oyer are also members of the Autumn Quarter Task Force, which is composed of four teachers (professors Kate Casey, Jonathan Levav, and Andy Skrzypacz, and lecturer Robert Siegel), four representatives from leadership (Lowery, Oyer, Hayes, and Grace Lyo, assistant dean and director of teaching & learning), one staff member (Bernadette deRaphael, director of facilities & hospitality & emerging projects), and two students: Emily Calkins and Kerry Omughelli, both in the Class of 2021.
EFFECTS ON THE CURRICULUM
Students in the August 18 town hall were told that regardless of the eventual makeup of classes, Stanford has lowered graduating requirements from 98 units to 94, with 82 needing to be completed at GSB, down from 86. Some aired concerns that this move, in concert with the move online, would dilute the value of their MBA. They were told that the decision was driven by two considerations: avoiding “Zoom fatigue” and “trying to account for the changes to standardizing classes at 80 minutes (down from 120 in some cases).” Independent study units will be 6 units (up from 4) for this academic year; lowering the graduation requirements also addresses the fact that some courses are decreasing the units granted for them, students were told.
Global Experiences requirements, meanwhile, will stand, though actual travel is impossible. “We have to do it a different way now, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to do it at all given how important we continue to think global learning is,” students were told. “We will be releasing new options before the start of the quarter.”
One student asked about the effect on a particular class — Interpersonal Dynamics, known as “Touchy Feely.” They were told that if the school moves to outdoor-online, Touchy Feely’s T-groups — 12-person groups that in normal conditions meet for three to five hours every week for 10 weeks — will meet online, “because outdoor meetings won’t preserve confidentiality sufficiently.” It was a difficult decision, students were told, but the difficulty — or impossibility — in finding sufficient and appropriate outdoor space made it a necessary one.
Finally, a student asked whether the cost of their MBA will be lowered after all this.
The university has no plans to change tuition, they were told.