Business School Campuses & Covid-19, Part Two: Four Unacceptable Risks of Remaining Open


In the first article in this two-part series, we explored three compelling reasons why business schools should shut down their campuses without delay due to Covid-19. View that article here.

Business school campuses that remain open for classes will expose their MBA students, faculty, and staff to four main risks. The first is a risk of severe, protracted illness and disability for students. The second is an additional risk of death for tenured faculty, along with older administrators and staff. The third is a lack of health system capacity for anybody who requires care. The fourth involves a higher than typical risk of transmitting or contracting the virus than might be expected within other university divisions.

After exploring the four risks of keeping business schools open for in-person classes, we cover the growing number of MBA professors who have signed petitions to move their courses online, as well as why distance-based coursework should be the new standard until this pandemic is no longer a threat.

Risk #1: MBA Students Risk Protracted, Debilitating Illnesses

First, because most on-campus full-time, part-time and executive MBA students fall in the age range between 25 and 49 years, the mortality risk is relatively low for this younger cohort. In a best-case scenario with all intensive care patients receiving high-quality care, this Bayesian analysis of Covid-19 cases in Geneva, Switzerland is instructive.

The report published in The Lancet shows that by June 1, only two deaths had resulted among approximately 28,800 adults from 20 to 49 years of age. Of the 286 SARS-CoV-2 deaths, the youngest person to die was 31 years old. For those in this age group, the researchers calculated an infection fatality rate (IFR) within a confidence interval at the 95 percent level of significance to be 0.0092 percent, equivalent to only a one in 10,870 risk of death.

But even though patients in the typical age range of MBAs may not be at risk of dying from Covid-19, they remain vulnerable to a substantial risk of illness. Many of these frightening episodes often require hospitalization, last as much as three months, and involve considerable suffering.

This Wall Street Journal investigation disclosed numerous examples of patients in this age range who survived but were left with extended disabilities from the disease. Some estimates now place the “long-haul” protracted sickness and organ damage suffered by the cases who recover at 35 percent of all those with symptoms.

Risk #2: Older Faculty and Staff Also Risk Death

Second, although MBA students mainly face a risk of serious and protracted illness, older faculty and staff face an additional risk: death.

In the Swiss study, starting at age 50, the fatality risk increases dramatically with age, soaring to almost 6 percent for those aged older than 65 years. Keep in mind that about half of United States university professors hold tenure; they are on average 55 years old; and these days, many continue their teaching and research well into their 70s.

Tenured faculty face the greatest infection risk of anyone at a business school, and protecting these men and women means they need to be kept away from business school campuses for the foreseeable future. From Professor Galloway:

What happens when an iconic professor doesn’t show up [during] week 4 and is dead by week 7? It’s likely, with any critical mass of in-person classes, that this would happen at several, if not dozens, of campuses. Stanford alone has 22 Nobel laureates, five Pulitzer Prize winners, and 27 MacArthur fellows. These are people we need to protect.

However, asking junior faculty to temporarily assume all the on-campus teaching responsibilities of tenured professors isn’t a viable solution because doing so now puts younger faculty at risk. That’s because, as the epidemic continues, the average age of hospitalized Covid patients continues to decline in many areas. For example, since July 1 the average hospitalized Covid-19 patient in San Francisco is now only 41 years old.

Risk #3: A Lack of Health System Capacity

With respect to the capacity of the health system to treat patients, the Swiss study involves a best-case scenario:

Geneva’s health system, with additional Covid-19 surge capacity, accommodated the influx of cases needing intensive care (peak of 80 of 110 surge capacity intensive care unit beds were in use at one time) while maintaining care quality standards.

In other words, Geneva’s health system never ran out of intensive care unit beds. But many business schools are located in smaller communities that might not be so lucky. That’s because they’re located in isolated college towns in rural areas of the Midwest and Western United States with limited health systems.

College town health systems generally cater to two main constituencies: young university students and elderly retirees. The students come for the education and the degrees. The retirees move to these towns to take advantage of cultural activities, entertainment, and sports without the expense and hassle of living in or near a major urban center.

Usually, these health systems don’t need much capacity. That’s because the students, who tend to be young, don’t need much care from the health systems, which largely cater to the retired population.

But what happens when a pandemic maxes out the capacity of the health system because unusually large numbers from both groups need inpatient care, and many more than usual need intensive care? Once the outbreak spreads from business schools to their parent universities, it’s difficult to understand how the limited hospital systems in these small towns will cope with the flood of patients.

Ultimately, that lack of capacity will drive the fatality rate up. As the Swiss paper notes, “the IFR is not solely determined by host and pathogen biology, but also by the capacity of health systems to treat severe cases.”

Risk #4: Business Schools Could Become Superspreaders

A business school campus could quickly become a “mini-Wuhan” where a multiplier effect spreads the virus at exponential rates. That’s because, more than most other university divisions, business schools could serve as dangerous virus transfer stations and mutation centers. All the groups at a business school—classmates, faculty, staff, and administrators—risk infecting each other because business schools have transmission characteristics and dynamics not found in all university divisions.

For example, because at many business schools as many as 40 percent of MBA students hail from outside the United States, symptom-free carriers could not only bring infections from their home countries to the business school but could also carry these infections back to their home nations. Business schools who open would also be accepting the risk of international students’ contracting the coronavirus during unsafe long-haul airline flights and bringing the virus back to campus.

But even if they don’t travel outside the United States, anyone within a business school community could exchange the virus to and from family and friends. And even if they aren’t older, anyone exposed would find themselves at a high risk of hospitalization if they have pre-existing conditions like obesity, diabetes, or pulmonary disease.

“A Rising Revolt by Professors”

So many faculty members besides Professor Galloway have criticized reopening campuses that the New York Times concluded that colleges face “a rising revolt by professors.” One such campus is Temple University in Philadelphia, which faces a union revolt by more than 1,000 Temple University professors, librarians, and academic professionals who want an all-online fall semester.

Thousands of professors across the nation have signed petitions calling for all-virtual instruction. One particularly aggressive campaign is underway at Georgia Tech, where almost 80 percent of the university’s 1,100 faculty asked the administration to shift all courses online. Poets & Quants found about 16 professors at the Scheller College of Business who signed GT’s petition.

Here at BSchools, we uncovered faculty at other business schools who signed petitions as well. Examples include three professors from Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

At the Questrom School of Business of Boston University, at least three faculty members have signed a petition:

Finally, at the Smeal College of Business of Penn State University, at least one professor has signed a petition:

Online MBA Programs: Infinitely Safer During Covid-19

What’s apparent is that on-campus university education has suddenly become an inherently dangerous endeavor, similar to commercial aviation during the 1950s. It was only through an all-out commitment to 100 percent safety that the aviation industry was able to win the confidence of the traveling public at the beginning of the jet age in the early 1960s. It is truly disheartening to witness how business school administrators today refuse to treat their students, faculty, and staff with the same care and respect.

Meanwhile, it’s inappropriate to raise student expectations for in-person instruction that can’t safely be fulfilled—and to collect tuition deposits in exchange for those expectations.

What’s the solution? Professor Galloway asserts that the best option is to enhance online education so that little difference exists between in-person and online experiences:

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and there is a huge opportunity. Once university leadership has acknowledged the obvious, they can turn their formidable human and financial capital to reducing the delta between online and offline experiences. We have, in just the last several weeks, come a long way. Leaning in to the online experience will instill universities with a multichannel competence. Post-Covid this competence could result in similar levels of student satisfaction and experience, and an effective doubling of campuses if 50% of classes, those best suited for remote learning, are held online. This also has the potential to break the wheel of the emerging caste system fueled by higher ed.

By leveraging technology, universities can unlock a massive increase in the ROI of public universities, which educate two-thirds of university students. The argument that additional seats erode the brand equity of the institutions is bullsh*t. A doubling of the freshman seats at UCLA would return admission rates to what they were in the nineties — still more difficult to be admitted than when I applied.

Granted, online MBA instruction hasn’t yet been perfected. But for most students, online graduate management education is more than good enough. At the best online MBA programs, it’s as good as or better than on-campus instruction. And for the foreseeable future, online delivery offers an infinitely safer alternative than setting foot on a business school campus.

The collective delusion engaged in by students, faculty, and administrators that safely conducting MBA classes on campus this fall is even remotely possible needs to end—and end without delay. While business schools shift to 100 percent online instruction, their campuses need to shut down as soon as possible and remain closed well into 2021.

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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