Glimmers of a New Normal

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Monday, March 22, 2021
By Jenny Darroch
Photo courtesy of Miami University's Farmer School of Business
The Farmer School prepares students for succeeding in a world completely remade by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the summer of 2020, Jenny Darroch took on the dean’s role at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio. Through a series of articles, she has shared her ongoing insights about her first year on the job. In a September article, she described the challenges of choosing priorities and setting a budget. In a December piece, she outlined how she identified the school’s strengths and began long-term strategic planning. Here, she examines what steps the school is taking to prepare students for the new normal of a post-pandemic era. Her final installment will appear near the end of the spring semester.

As we head into the final stretch of this strange academic year, we are beginning to see glimmers of what a new normal will look like, both on campus and in the workplaces our graduates will enter. Our world has been forever impacted by the events of 2020, including the effects of COVID-19 and our struggles to address the impacts of systemic racism. In the U.S., we also have been grappling with the political divisions highlighted by the presidential election and subsequent unrest. In this changed world, we will need new ways to prepare students to lead professional and personal lives of consequence.

In the middle of my second semester on the job, I remain in awe of our students, who have demonstrated an extraordinary resilience and a heightened ability to work in times of ambiguity. While they no doubt have found their COVID-19 experiences stressful and draining at times, this generation of students will be uniquely prepared to navigate the shifting uncertainties of the new normal. They will be able to roll with whatever comes next.

I have also been impressed by how clear our sense of direction is at the Farmer School of Business. We have sharpened that sense of direction as we’ve prepared for our five-year AACSB accreditation review. Despite all the work entailed in preparing for our peer review team visit, I consider that experience a gift. It was initially daunting to consider managing the review process in the midst of such a challenging year, especially since I am new to campus. But overseeing the development of the AACSB report allowed me to learn about the Farmer School quickly and with a great deal of depth. It also gave me a rare opportunity to understand the Farmer School’s people and processes, as well as its strengths and opportunities. I feel I will be much better prepared to write the next chapter in the school’s history at a critically important juncture.

A Set of New Realities

I have no doubt our next chapter will look significantly different than it would have looked in an ordinary year. We have had to adopt previously planned curricular changes at a greatly accelerated pace, and we have shifted our curriculum and future plans to address new realities. In particular, we want to make sure our students become adept in these three areas:

Cultural competency. We feel a renewed sense of urgency to prepare students who will succeed in culturally diverse settings. This “cultural intelligence,” or CQ, is the core of our Beyond Ready CQ curriculum, which I discussed in my September column. In the Beyond Ready curriculum, students assess and improve their cultural competencies over their four years at the school.

Our first-year students participated in a CQ assessment early in the fall of 2020, and again as the semester came to a close. We were thrilled to see that the coursework and conversations woven through their first-semester experience resulted in measurable increases in all four CQ components of drive, knowledge, action, and strategy.

As students complete their educations, they will have many opportunities to learn from the CQ activities we integrate into our curricular and co-curricular offerings. Before they enter the workforce, they will be able to reassess their CQ levels. By completing a certain number of requirements, and then demonstrating acquisition of knowledge, students will earn a CQ credential that will help set them apart in a competitive market.

We feel a renewed sense of urgency to prepare students who will succeed in culturally diverse settings.

Emerging industries. Students with strong interpersonal skills will be more likely to flourish as they take on newly created roles in an evolving workplace. Our students could be accepting jobs in industries as diverse as cybersecurity, financial technology, data analytics, smart transportation technologies, green technology, medical device sales, and supply chain management.

It is our responsibility to prepare students for these emerging fields by developing a curriculum that reflects business shifts as they’re happening and that anticipates other changes coming down the road. We must be proactive, rather than reactive, and we should constantly be evaluating and adjusting our offerings. For this reason, the Farmer School recently has added cybersecurity to the information systems major, introduced a new international entrepreneurial creativity and innovation boot camp, and created a new undergraduate certificate called Foundations in Analytics.

Remote work. The idea of remote work has been on our radar for quite some time, particularly because a globalized workforce has made virtual teams more common. However, COVID-19 has changed the workplace—quite literally overnight—and we must prepare graduates for jobs that more often will be performed remotely.

One of our core courses, Communication for Business, reflects the new ways that workers are expected to communicate. The four modules help students master essential skills in maintaining a digital presence, delivering bad news, communicating across cultures, and using emerging technology in business communications. All four modules address our current reality.

Harvard professor Ashley Whillans recently suggested that the traditional five-day work week will become a 3-2-2 schedule in which employees will go into the office three days, work remotely two days, and take two days off. Whether or not this particular formula becomes common in a post-COVID world, tomorrow’s workers must embrace a flexible schedule.

And students have certainly had an opportunity to do so during the pandemic. Not only have they nimbly switched class modalities as COVID numbers fluctuated, they also have learned to operate in virtual environments as they attended networking events, completed internships, started jobs, and worked in global teams. These online experiences have provided them with skills they’ll need for the future.

Of course, as we can all attest, remote work can cause the hours and days to blend together. We have emphasized to our students that they must strike a healthy work/life balance and prioritize wellness. We hope they will be able to maintain both balance and flexibility as they take jobs in a post-COVID world.

Time to Rebuild Community

While flexible and remote working most likely will define the workplace of the future, we can’t lose sight of the benefits of having face-to-face contact. Zoom meetings are efficient, but they can’t replace the serendipitous encounters we have as we walk through the hallways. Personally, I greatly missed being face-to-face at the recent AACSB Deans Conference. While I thought AACSB put on a tremendous virtual event, I missed sitting next to complete strangers, striking up conversations, and learning about the schools they lead. I also missed going out for drinks or meals with old friends.

That sense of community is something we lost during COVID and something we must prioritize post-pandemic. Business leaders will need to find ways to make people feel connected to their organizations even when there is little in-person interaction. Academic leaders also will need to focus on creating a sense of connection. The student experience has always been an important part of a college education, and the pandemic has underscored how vital it is that we give students opportunities to interact with the whole community—other students, professors, and alumni. When students are making decisions about where to pursue four-year degrees, they will definitely be weighing how connected they feel to the institution.

That sense of community is something we lost during COVID and something we must prioritize post-pandemic.

These considerations are at the heart of a plan we are discussing to create a Farmer School of Business Center for Diversity, Community and Belonging. We have several initiatives on the drawing board, ranging from reconsidering the art we hang in our buildings all the way to deepening our efforts to attract and retain faculty, students, and staff of diverse backgrounds. We also plan to expand our CQ curriculum throughout the four years students are enrolled and create more opportunities for peer-to-peer support.

The students have already taken the initiative to create programming to address their sense of loss due to COVID. I recently met with students who lead our Business Student Advisory Council (BASC) about events they are planning for Farmer Week, which celebrates all things that are special to the school. BASC is organizing a range of activities that support student wellness, community, and belonging. I was overwhelmed by the programming they have developed and look forward to seeing the week unfold.

The New Normal

As the actualities of life and work post-COVID become clearer, we know we will have to remain nimble—a trait not often associated with higher education. Much about the future remains unknown, and the pressures we are facing as an industry are significant.

But I also believe this past year has created never-to-be-repeated opportunities to fundamentally rethink what is at the heart of our work with students, faculty, and employers. We also have had a chance to build new curricular and co-curricular opportunities that will serve our stakeholders well as we face the new normal together.

Jenny Darroch
Dean, Farmer School of Business, Miami University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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