Tag: Desk of the Dean

Peter Boumgarden teaches a class to incoming EMBA students ahead of the arrival of full-time MBA, SMP and BSBA students on September 14, 2020. The masks, face shields and physical distancing in this classroom setup is typical of how hybrid classes will be taught in the fall.

We are just days away from the start of a fall semester unlike any we’ve experienced. Yet in a world seemingly overrun with troubling news, I am filled with hopeful optimism about the return of our students and the commencement of classes.

Signs limit seating capacity in the atrium at Olin Business School.

We anticipate a strong student intake across all our programs—both in-person and virtually. Outfitted with carefully prepared signage, technology and sanitation equipment, our buildings are ready for students and faculty. We’ve assiduously assisted and supported faculty in enhancing their teaching in a hybrid environment—and scored high marks within the WashU community on that preparation.

Students are receiving welcome kits. Our specialized master’s students have the opportunity to be paired with mentors. Our fall planning website—dedicated to information about fall instruction in the age of COVID-19—is up, running and up-to-date.

The start of classes on September 14 marks the culmination of thousands of hours of forethought, planning and preparation. The Olin team has been focused on one simple goal: Providing world-class education during a world-changing crisis.

A massive effort

There is scarcely a person among our faculty or staff who cannot take part of the credit for pulling off the herculean task that confronted us over the summer. Everyone has pulled together to create the best Olin experience possible. That includes our faculty members, the Center for Digital Education, graduate program recruiting and student services staff, the undergraduate programs office, the Weston Career Center and corporate development teams, building operations teams, marketing and communications, the Center for Experiential Learning, accounting and other behind-the-scenes departments.

By one mode or another, the students are joining our community, and we’re excited. Many will be on campus. Some could not secure visas in time but decided nevertheless to commence their WashU Olin education online.

“We don’t have fewer students,” Ohad Kadan, vice dean for education and globalization, told his faculty colleagues recently. “We just have students in different time zones. We will have to work to cater to them. It’s a change of mindset.”

Some classes will start a little earlier or end a little later than typical so we can accommodate students across as many as six time zones around the globe. Likewise, we’ve asked professors to make themselves available for office hours at unusual times.

Instructors will teach courses with more than 60 students online. Those with fewer than 25 will be in person. In between, instructors will use one of two hybrid formats.

The new Olin experience

From the start, we have aimed high. Not to achieve the minimum required to teach students in the fall, but to do the very best.

I’m looking forward to addressing the incoming undergraduate class as usual—only online instead of from the Emerson Auditorium stage. Each student will receive a welcome kit with a combination of PPE and keepsakes. Career coaching and networking will happen. Student clubs will meet, create events and enrich their members’ preparation.

When I speak to the students as the semester begins, I plan to share what I know about where we stand as a business school in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, how it has affected us and how we hope to come out. I’ll remind them that we’ve not just played the hand we were dealt, but we’ve striven to turn these circumstances into opportunities.

I hope as they engage with classmates, staff, faculty and alumni over the course of this semester, students think that way, too.

The three horizons

I have been fond of saying that the trajectory of this crisis, this pandemic, is carrying us over three horizons.

The first I refer to as firefighting. Confronted with an instant conflagration in mid-March, we pivoted quickly, adapted and delivered results for our students through the spring semester.

The second horizon is about raising our game. We’re still in the midst of the crisis, but with reflection and the benefit of more time, we’re prepared to deliver gold-standard instruction to students in multiple formats. We’re poised to sail over that horizon now. And the third horizon? That’s about scanning beyond where we can see, anticipating what we must do in this new version of normal to be leaders in teaching and research. And we’re already doing that work.

Pictured above: Peter Boumgarden teaches a class to incoming EMBA students ahead of the arrival of full-time MBA, SMP and BSBA students on September 14, 2020. The masks, face shields and physical distancing in this classroom setup is typical of how hybrid classes will be taught in the fall.

Entrepreneurship professor Doug Villhard (top center), works with students in the CEL

Right now, Ally Gerard should be on the west coast working in the corporate partnerships department for the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team. A student in Olin’s business of sports program, Ally landed the internship after a very competitive recruiting process.

Coronavirus had other plans, however, and the internship was scrapped—a situation a great many of WashU Olin’s undergraduate and graduate students now face. Still, Ally’s chance to flex her Olin muscles, apply her skills and gain experience has not been lost.

That’s thanks to a new seven-week course Ally, BSBA ’22, and more than 300 of her fellow students are taking right now—a course Olin’s faculty and staff conceived and launched in a matter of weeks as the pandemic gutted internship opportunities for our students.

“Applied Problem Solving for Organizations” began as an idea in late April. By the time the course began June 1, more than 30 faculty members had volunteered to serve as project advisors. Dozens of companies—many with Olin alumni in leadership—had proposed projects offering real-world experience to our students.

Ultimately, the team at Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning had settled on 50 projects for teams of four or five students, many of which include both graduate and undergraduate students.

Preserving experiences for summer

“I wanted to help out the students who were confronted with internship challenges,” said John Horn, professor of practice in economics and advisor to Ally’s team. “It’s not a perfect substitute, but it’s really pretty good. I’ve heard from students who kept their internships that their virtual experiences were challenging. Their employer is also trying to figure out the program in real time.”

Another faculty advisor, Durai Sundaramoorthi, senior lecturer in management, expanded on Horn’s last point.

“This is an interesting alternative to a traditional internship,” he said.  “This project gives a broad perspective about the entire business of entrepreneurship. It is a great learning experience for students.”

Built with care—and haste

Enough cannot be said about the urgency with which the Olin community tackled this challenge—from the CEL, which organized the curriculum, to the staff that promoted the program and recruited students, to the Weston Career Center, which guided students toward the opportunity and worked with potential clients, to the alumni who recognized the need and offered project opportunities.

It’s worth noting that the opportunity worked in both directions.

“Honestly, we had to scrap existing plans to bring on summer interns due to the pandemic,” said Jay Li, BSBA ’16, and director of marketing for Regatta Craft Mixers. “When I received the email from Dean Taylor about the program, we rushed to pitch a strategic project we’ve been struggling with.”

Now, an Olin team is working with the New York-based beverage maker to gain insight from its consumer research to inform a grocery-store selling strategy.

Solving real-world problems

Ally’s team is working with St. Louis-based Insituform Technologies—a pipeline rehabilitation firm—to research industry best practices and conduct a competitive intelligence analysis to understand the regional differences in the firm’s operations. She’s leading the team, which includes graduate students.

“This is my first experience in ‘leading up’ to students much further along in their higher education journey,” she said. “The CEL has fostered a working environment that pushes us to grow as consulting professionals but also as empathetic leaders and teammates.”

In many ways, of course, this turn of events was disappointing. We have exceptional students who have worked hard. We have built a world-class career center, which has been knocking it out of the park with student placements and internships—then, a global crisis.

We can’t get the internships back, but we can make sure our students have a meaningful experience. We can make sure our students have a story to tell about the work they did this summer. We can—and we have.

Pictured above: Entrepreneurship professor Doug Villhard (top center), works with students in the CEL’s summer program.

The definition of a face-to-face meeting will never be the same.

In just six weeks, the world has changed forever, and with that global change, so has the means and meaning of business education. In a post-pandemic world, will we ever return to where we were before spring break?

I don’t think so. I said as much recently in Poets & Quants’ story on the subject. In fact, the change was already happening. COVID-19 just accelerated the pace.

The changes for business schools fall largely into two categories: first, what we mean by international, and second, how we deliver content and experiences going forward. Paradoxically, business education will become increasingly more global, while the need for international travel will contract. Meanwhile, the pace at which both faculty and students adapt to and adopt new tools for teaching and learning will hasten.

WashU Olin Business School is ready.

What ‘global’ now means for business schools

Others have opined more broadly about the future of higher education. As the authors of a Harvard Business Review article wrote just 36 days ago, “Both teachers and students are readjusting and recalibrating in the middle of teaching semesters. The syllabus and course contents are being revised as the courses are being taught.”

And indeed, in a recent Olin faculty meeting, my colleagues acknowledge a steep learning curve—but one they’ve scaled quickly as they employed tools such as video conferencing, break-out rooms and asynchronous discussions. The work is difficult, but manageable. The key, most agree, is maintaining the personal connection with students.

“I just refused to accept that virtual meant impersonal,” Konstantina Kiousis, senior lecturer in business management, told her colleagues. “We thought about how to make the personal connection in this space. This is part of the world we work in. You’re going to be working with people in other countries.”

That is so true. As a fund manager a decade ago, I worked with a team spread among offices in London, San Francisco and Sydney—long before anyone had heard of Zoom and just as the iPhone had gained a foothold. Understanding how to lead a team spanning 18 time zones and two hemispheres was an important skill then and even more so today.

Today, through our MBA global immersion, overseas residencies and numerous study-abroad opportunities, we’ve clearly established Olin as the kind of global business school that equips students to lead across borders and time zones. That won’t change.

Enhancing education, not substituting our value

Yet we’ve clearly crossed a threshold in the past six weeks. The meaning of “face to face” has changed. We’ll continue to find value in overseas travel, experiencing different cultures first hand, seeing plants and machinery, processes and staff with our own eyes. But increasingly, we’ll complement those experiences with virtual engagements that provide global context and hands-on experience—without the jet lag.

Because of the changes wrought so quickly by the pandemic, digital learning has become table stakes. We’re not substituting the expertise and personal contact experienced professors bring. With digital learning, we’ll maintain our edge and our excellence.

In only a few weeks, our faculty has adapted to that way of thinking. Nick Argyres, Olin’s Vernon W. & Marion K. Piper Professor of Strategy, teaches many of our professional and executive MBA courses and shared his previous reluctance to demand outside projects of these working professionals.

“Arranging to get together physically with multiple teammates can be challenging,” Nick said. “Now that I’ve used Zoom, I can see that you can collaborate pretty well on it. I would now consider asking them to meet for half an hour over Zoom to cover basics so we can get to the more advanced material in class.”

More than Zoom

In short order, business education without a digital component will be viewed as second-rate. Ray Irving, director of our Center for Digital Education, sees those signs already.

“Some of the world’s leading universities are frightened about the change,” he said. “Institutions you would never have thought would offer an online MBA are strongly considering it.”

Our investment in the CDE, which only launched in October, was prescient in positioning us to respond to this crisis. But as Ray notes, we had already taken steps to move well beyond Zoom lectures before the crisis overcame us.

He envisions asynchronous content delivery using videos, recording and animations. He foresees a rich range of high-quality resources for students. And he also foresees opening the opportunity to world-class business education to students who might not otherwise be able to access it such as professionals working abroad for NGOs or active-duty military.

“We can cast our net to the world,” he said. “We never want to get away from what we’re about. We’re about education. With this faculty, we can be one of the best in the world.”

In the midst of this pandemic, we have quickly shown faculty and students not only that they can teach and learn in virtual classrooms, collaborating in digital breakout rooms across time zones and cultures—but that they can learn (and practice) valuable skills that will serve them in their 21st century careers.

Students have already said as much. Here’s how Mac Farrell, class of 2023 in Arts & Sciences, described the virtual case competition in Konstantina’s Management 100 course.

“Thank you for providing me with the most unbelievable learning experience I can say I have ever had in my academic career,” he wrote. “This project was the most intellectually stimulating and difficult task I have had to do, but I have learned both individual and team skills that I believe will be valuable not just in college, but for the rest of my life.”

In December 2018, I reflected in this very column on our plans to bring WashU Olin into a digital space—investing in virtual, online learning experiences. Mere months later, we welcomed Ray Irving and Nina Kim, who built a team and launched our state-of-the-art Center for Digital Learning in the fall.

Nina Kim and Ray Irving

Neither Ray nor Nina nor I could have imagined just how essential their services would become—and how urgently they’d be needed. Not even a semester past the CDE’s launch, the coronavirus pandemic forced a full migration into virtual classrooms.

Our world-class faculty, staff and students have been dynamic and resilient in this unprecedented situation.

“We had always planned to engage faculty in developing online sessions,” said Ray, the CDE’s director. “But that plan had been based on a more gradual transition over the next 12 months—not 200-plus faculty and staff in 10 days.”

When Ray and Nina signed on at Olin, no one could have anticipated a global pandemic that would empty university campuses around the world. But Ray and Nina—and the stellar team that they have recruited, including instructional designers such as Kella Thornton—have leapt into action to provide crucial faculty and staff support and training in online learning at this critical time.

CDE team member Charlie Drexler demonstrates the CDE’s green screen studio to faculty.

“Although online learning is new to Olin, it’s not new to Nina, Kella or myself,” Ray said. The urgency to deliver online learning support was. The CDE team moved hundreds of faculty and staff—many of whom had never used platforms such as Zoom—into a fully digital classroom environment.

“This was an all-hands-on-deck situation,” said Nina, the CDE’s assistant director.

Indeed, it was. Almost immediately, the CDE created collaboration resources with the faculty administration team to ensure a smooth transition for students, instructors and staff. The team scheduled training meetings, created a training program from scratch and provided the necessary resources for faculty, staff and students to remain connected—wherever they might be.

“We fully understand this is the worst possible circumstances,” Ray said, “but we were determined to play the hand that was in front of us.”

They have more than delivered. I’m immensely proud of this team, and of our community’s ability to pull together in this extraordinary moment. More than simply creating an environment where online learning is possible, Ray, Nina and their team—along with our outstanding faculty and staff—have provided the space for our school to truly thrive in difficult times.

“We have heard from multiple students,” said Ashley Macrander, associate dean and director of graduate student services. “They say they are truly enjoying the online classes and think everything has gone very well.”

I’m grateful as well for the teamwork and collaboration the CDE has received from the faculty. “The faculty have been amazing,” Ray said. “They have simply got on with the task in hand, worked with us and made this happen—in extremely short order. I guess that’s what you’d expect of world-class faculty but it’s been truly remarkable to see this happen in real time.”

Tom Fields, professor of accounting, teaches Strategic Cost Analysis via Zoom.

In fact, faculty have banded together on their own, creating a faculty learning group spearheaded by Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior. That group suggests new and innovative ways to use Zoom features as well as soliciting support and feedback from students, many of whom are technology experts and are gracious in sharing their insights.

Ten days after moving seamlessly into our new way of teaching, I’m proud to say we have 115 faculty teaching 230 classes across numerous time zones to many hundreds of students. We are ensuring that our students will continue to receive world-class education until such time as we can safely bring them back to campus.

I’m grateful for the foresight of our senior leadership team and the National Council for providing the resources and the talent to assemble the CDE. Most of all, I am grateful for the way the faculty, students and staff have rallied together.

We are getting through this like the world-class school that we are.

Pictured at top: Center for Digital Education team. Back row, left to right: Ray Irving, Wes Murrell, Shawn Bell, Emily Furst; Front row, left to right: Kella Thornton, Nina Kim, Charlie Drexler

A few months back, Abram Van Engen unfolded a story before an audience of mostly business school people. The story involved a latter-day businessman stewing over the decision to sell his failing paint mills.

From the Emerson Auditorium stage, Van Engen unveiled the story bit by bit, polling the audience with each newly revealed wrinkle. Should the businessman sell the failing mills? If the buyer knows the mills are failing, is the decision justified? What if the buyer offers the businessman a kick-back? Would you sell?

In his telling of The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells’ 1884 novel, Van Engen whipsawed the audience from one decision to the next. In so doing, the English professor from across the WashU campus not only illustrated the way a shifting narrative changes one’s perspective. More broadly, he and his partner in the presentation, Olin’s Peter Boumgarden, illustrated the importance of cross-disciplinary proficiency for business success in today’s world.

“What can be learned at the intersection of business and literature?” Boumgarden asked the audience. The Olin professor of practice in strategy and organizations continued: “What can I learn about markets by exploring literature and arts?”

Indeed, the 2008 global financial crisis reinforced my thinking on the subject. Working as a fund manager, navigating the crisis for my clients, brought into relief the notion that individuals aren’t motivated solely by hard data, facts and figures, dollars and cents. If we knew economics had much to learn from sociology and psychology, we knew it more keenly after that. Hence the rise of behavioural finance among researchers.

Boumgarden spoke expansively about a WashU programme specifically designed to foster this sort of cross-disciplinary approach to education, Beyond Boundaries—the program that drove Boumgarden and Van Engen to collaborate on their Markets and Morality course.

“Oftentimes we live in our own little bubbles,” he said. “We need some thinking about the moral complexity of markets to understand what’s happening in the world today.”

I’ve written about this in an earlier Desk of the Dean column for the Olin Blog, specifically in the context of a number of cross-disciplinary minors and majors we’ve developed with colleagues in other parts of the WashU campus. As I wrote then, and still believe today, real-world problems don’t come neatly packaged. We must tear down academic siloes to solve the toughest problems, moving from the highly qualitative to the highly quantitative, using our skills of persuasion, backing our viewpoints with hard-core analysis.

“Brands and businesses have long understood that stories push us one way or another,” Van Engen told the audience at the pair’s Century Club presentation in mid-November (if you missed it, it’s worth a watch).

“If there is one thing literature offers us, and there are many things, it’s a slightly different perspective,” Van Engen said. “Narratives give us something beyond an argument or an opinion. The more narratives we come across, the more they reform the narratives we have already come across.”

Pictured above: Peter Boumgarden and Abram Van Engen at their November 2019 Century Club presentation.