Business School Campuses & Covid-19, Part One

We face a potential catastrophe in graduate management education. According to research Poets & Quants published on July 20, 2020, among the 100 leading business schools in the U.S., the majority are opting for a hybrid approach to instruction. Sixty percent of these schools will use this blended approach, including 29 percent of private schools and 31 percent of public schools. Thirty-four percent are planning to have in-person instruction: 10 percent private and 24 percent public. Only two of these 100 eminent schools will have online-only instruction and 5 percent are considering a range of options.

Days following the survey’s release, two influential healthcare industry groups argued that to get control of the pandemic, the United States needs to restart its response with aggressive policy changes at all levels of government.

The Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security warned, “Unlike many countries in the world, the United States is not currently on course to get control of this epidemic. It is time to reset.” The Association of American Medical Colleges issued an even more ominous warning: “If the nation does not change its course—and soon—deaths in the United States could be well into the multiple hundreds of thousands.”

Also, about 150 health professionals who are mostly physicians and PhDs at teaching hospitals released an open letter to policymakers arguing for a shelter-in-place shutdown of the entire United States. The title of the letter? “Shut it down, start over, do it right.”

One of the signatories, Ophthalmology Professor Travis Porco of the University of California at San Francisco, told ABC News:

I think we’ve already failed in comparison to many countries. We’ve seen many countries act swiftly and efficiently to crush the pandemic. They’re reopening and they’re doing fine. We didn’t. We couldn’t do that.

This is precisely what business schools need to do, which is to shut down their campuses. At the end of July, two bellwether business schools abruptly did just that when they backtracked on plans to welcome students back to campus and announced plans for online-only instruction during fall 2020. Those schools are the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Shortly afterward, UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Carol Christ announced that the campus will start the fall semester online. Christ said that the San Francisco Bay Area is not “at a phase at which higher education is permitted to open under public-health orders.”

In fact, since Christ’s remarks, the statewide situation has further deteriorated, and it now appears that such orders will require all MBA programs across California to operate 100 percent online for the time being. Besides Haas, those MBA programs include the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, and the Paul Merage School Of Business at UC Irvine.

But the alarming data in the Poets survey indicate that the vast majority of business schools still appear to be trying to foist a delusion upon their students that it’s actually possible to conduct in-person classes safely during a pandemic that in almost all of the United States now rages out of control. And what’s driving that delusion? Money.

Why Create Illusions of Safety?

The extent to which business schools have invested in attempts to convince students that they will not contract the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus if they attend on-campus instruction indeed seems remarkable.

Spain’s IE Business School put out a bizarre promotional video depicting rules and measures that purportedly “guarantee the health and safety of our students.” The slick video depicts new procedures intended to create physical separation among faculty and students, while even showing the flashy operation of a hospital-style ultraviolet germicidal robot intended to disinfect classrooms overnight.

Switzerland’s Institute for Management Development takes a different approach. In the astonishing photos published by Poets & Quants on June 8, there’s no physical distancing among the students, either in classrooms or during coffee breaks, although the school does appear to require masks outside of classrooms. But in the packed IMD classroom, the professor isn’t wearing a mask, and it appears that only two or three of the students may be wearing them. Also, eye protection—advocated by experts in this CNN video—doesn’t appear to be required. Instead, we observe that IMD has built clear plexiglass carrels around the students similar to library study carrels, apparently intended to block the transmission of virus-containing moisture droplets.

One might be tempted to dismiss these efforts as initiatives appropriate for Europe, which except for Spain has the Coronavirus under control for now. But incredibly, the Yale School of Management appears to have copied IMD’s plexiglass classroom concept, although in the Yale classroom there’s also plenty of physical distancing and all the students and faculty appear to be wearing masks.

These initiatives demonstrate the big budgets business schools are investing to create an illusion of security and safety so that MBA students will pay them the kinds of high tuition they’ve always paid. After all, most of the costs at a business school—like salaries for tenured professors—are high long-term fixed costs that the schools can’t easily avoid. And the business schools can’t “variablize” these costs—they will have to pay such costs irrespective of student enrollment levels.

If the business schools want to continue to exist, they need some way to justify their continuing to collect all those tuition dollars. In fact, New York University just raised MBA tuition by 3.5 percent even though students will have the option of taking many courses online during fall 2020.

But business schools learned a harsh lesson during the spring of 2020. They learned their full-time, on-campus students will demand tuition discounts if the school serves up Zoom video lectures for the same sticker price as in-person instruction. Given that NYU has the second most expensive MBA program in the world with total costs of $233,022, it’s not surprising that 300 NYU MBA students just signed a petition asking for a similar discount during the fall term.

The Ridiculousness of the Business School Safety Protocols

The safety protocols showcased by business schools like IE, IMD, and Yale’s SOM are ridiculous. They’re absurd. Marketing Professor Scott Galloway of NYU’s Stern School of Business even believes that these protocols are public relations gimmicks that are part of elaborate bait-and-switch schemes designed to incentivize students to pay advance deposits in exchange for anticipated on-campus instruction.

However, Professor Galloway argues that United States universities and their business schools already know that this fall, all instruction will be diverted online and their buildings will shut down.

The problem is that none of this security and safety theater is real. It’s all a smoke-and-mirrors illusion—and the business schools know that fact. Here are several reasons why it’s illusory.

MBA Students Leave Campuses Each Day

First, it’s foolish—and dangerous—to expect that students and faculty will maintain the kinds of protocols depicted in IE’s video during the entire time they’re off campus and during weekends and holidays. As Professor Galloway astutely points out, these on-campus protocols are only as effective as the protocols students adhere to off campus.

Some students will never adhere to these protocols off campus. Many late-twenty-something MBAs continue to believe that their youth makes them invincible. And invincibility plus selfishness fueled with alcohol can be an especially reckless and ultimately lethal triple-threat during a pandemic. By illustration, many MBAs drink just as much as their undergraduate brethren, if not more:

In 2008, for example, some MBA students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management reportedly were so drunk at an event at the Field Museum in Chicago that the bar was shut down early. According to an email written by a student officer, some students attempted to smuggle into the museum “a substantial amount of alcohol” in large trash bins filled with bottles, cans, and flasks.

Some MBA candidates arrived at Kellogg’s open bar event already over-served and began to vomit on themselves. Some students spat at people and threw things at the museum’s $8.3 million Tyrannosaurus Rex. “It is pretty embarrassing that the Field Museum will refuse to host future Kellogg events unless they can treat it like a high school prom, with breathalyzers, high security, and chaperones,” wrote Andrea Hanson, then a vice president of the Kellogg Student Association.

In many cases, faculty and deans aren’t all that aware of the behavior because it occurs outside of the classroom. But there is an expectation that some bad behavior is inevitable. “These are MBAs,” says Amir Ziv, vice dean at Columbia Business School. “They are in their late 20s. There is a lot of youth and there is alcohol at parties.”

Professor Galloway has plenty of personal experience with this lethal combination:

My 4th year at UCLA I was Interfraternity Council President (not on my LinkedIn profile). As king of the jarheads, I was privy to the tragedy that unfurled each week from the collision of youth, alcohol, and newfound freedom. In the same year, a Lambda Chi passed out from drinking on the roof of his fraternity, rolled off into the driveway, and was found the next morning in a coma. Our IFC VP (a Phi Kap) got shi**y drunk at a party in Malibu, decided to take a jetski out at 2 am, and washed up 5 days later. Our treasurer (Sigma Chi) hanged himself after his girlfriend rejected his marriage proposal.

Yep, but today’s youth will definitely wear masks and keep 6 feet from each other off campus.

Gen Z is by far the age group most likely to be asymptomatic. They are also most likely to feel immortal and defy healthcare guidance. So, both physically and psychologically, young people are most inclined to be superspreaders.

No “Safe” Off-Campus Communities

Second, since it’s foolish to rely on MBA students to continue the kinds of strict protocols off campus that business schools like IE will purport to require on campus, are there business schools located in “safe” communities where one would not need to worry as much about the interactions of students off campus?

The United States Centers for Disease Control originally developed guidelines in May for the reopening of K-12 schools that were revealed after superb reporting by the Associated Press and NBC News. Although these guidelines did not specifically include higher education, they’re relevant because it’s now understood because of a South Korean study that the vast majority of children as young as only age 10 transmit with characteristics identical to adults SARS-CoV-2.

The very first question in the CDC’s original school reopening decision algorithm was this: Is the school in a community no longer requiring significant mitigation?

If the answer to that question is “no,” then the algorithm suddenly ends, because in that case, the CDC told schools they cannot open. In other words, in May the CDC said that no school can open in any region in America where community spread is still not under control.

According to epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, in late July, the epidemic is much like a “five-alarm forest fire burning uncontrolled across the nation.” Dr. Osterholm asserts that there’s less then a handful of areas in the United States where community spread is controlled. And these regions tend to be in remote areas of states like Hawaii, Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming where no business school campuses exist.

We Don’t Fully Understand Covid-19 Transmission

Third, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still not well characterized or understood. The plexiglass classroom carrels at IMD and Yale were built only weeks before 239 scientists signed on to a paper warning that the virus could be transmitted in infectious concentrations through aerosols released through breathing and speech, not to mention coughing and sneezing.

Perfume odors are aerosols, and so is cigarette smoke. Aerosols like these can waft in indoor air for three hours or more, and will easily float and hang above that plexiglass. So, all that plexiglass merely helps craft the illusion that the business schools care about their students, but as more recent research on SARS-CoV-2 aerosols disclosed, the plexiglass is not effective at stopping the spread of the virus.

Fresh air helps, which is why infection rates are much lower outside. However, most business school classrooms have sealed windows—if they have any windows at all—and the HVAC systems at most business schools were never designed years ago to filter viruses. “Letting students congregate in rooms permanently sealed for temperature control, regardless of masks and distancing protocols, plays like the opening scene of Contagion 2,” says Professor Galloway.

In that sense, there’s not a significant difference in terms of transmission dynamics between a business school classroom and a cruise liner, a meatpacking plant, a prison, a bar, or a movie theater.

In the second part of this two-part series, we present the four unacceptable risks every business school faces if they don’t shut down their campuses without delay because of Covid-19.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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