Positioning Business Education for the Future

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/SasinParaksa
At this year’s ICAM, two topics were top of mind: meeting AACSB’s revised standards and serving a changing student demographic in a post-COVID era.

To say it has been a tumultuous year is obviously an understatement. But as the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine picks up steam and university campuses begin to reopen, attendees at AACSB’s virtual International Conference and Annual Meeting, held last week, were ready to look ahead to what an uncertain future might bring to their institutions.

We highlight discussions from two of the conference's four session tracks—Connecting for Impact and Connecting for Innovation—in another recently published article. Here, we highlight a selection of ideas shared in the other two: The Connecting for Quality track dealt with how to best manage, maintain, and leverage accreditation, from navigating AACSB’s 2020 accreditation standards to leveraging partnerships as part of the business school mission. The Connecting for Learner Success track delved into best practices for providing students with the most enriching educational experiences in the years ahead.

Connecting for Quality:

Schools Sharing Experiences of Going Through the 2020 Standards

Many attendees were interested in hearing directly from schools that piloted AACSB’s revised accreditation standards. Among presenters offering their experiences with the standards was Michael Frenkel, associate dean for international relations and chair, macoreconomics and international economics, at WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany.

Frenkel outlined four categories where the emphasis of the 2020 Accreditation Standards have changed the most: strategic development, risk management and contingency planning, learner success, and thought leadership. With the new standards, he said, “there is a clear shift from a more quantitative to a more qualitative assessment, and this certainly has advantages.”

The WHU-Otto Beisheim School’s accreditation team found the template that the association provides on its website especially useful as it structured its report, Frenkel noted. The team appreciated that the standards invite schools to present their progress as a narrative, rather than simply as data such as ratios of qualified faculty. “We decided to emphasize the narrative element,” Frenkel noted. “We put most of the tables and graphs into the appendix and only included the mandatory tables in the report.”

Firku Boghossian, dean of the Graves School of Business and Management at Morgan State University in Baltimore, spoke specifically about Standard 9, which invites schools to tell the stories of their individual engagement and societal impact. Boghossian explained that under this standard, the Graves School highlighted the impact of several of its programs, including its participation in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, through which it had graduated 300 entrepreneurs; and the establishment of its FinTech Center, which has trained faculty from about 30 historically black colleges and universities to incorporate fintech technology into their curricula.

David Sprott, dean of the University of Wyoming’s College of Business (COB) in Laramie, explained to attendees how his school paid particular attention to the interaction between tables 3-1 and 3-2. Table 3-1 considers ratios of different types of faculty, while the new Table 3-2 considers the teaching contributions of each of those faculty members.

By filling out 3-2, Sprott explained, schools might discover, for example, that they’re deploying more practitioner faculty or fewer academic faculty than they expected in certain programs—and they can make adjustments if needed. “When we did take a look at 3-2, it really helped to illuminate a lot about the decisions we had made historically,” Sprott noted, “as well as what we need to do going forward in terms of investing in our faculty.”

Connecting for Quality:

Solving Wicked Problems Through Partnerships

A running theme throughout the conference pertained to the growing importance of embracing multistakeholder engagement to solve the world’s “wicked problems.” Among schools taking this view is the Rhodes Business School in Grahamstown, South Africa. Its dean, Owen Skae, discussed its formation of one such multistakeholder initiative, the Makhanda Circle of Unity. This apoltical, multistakeholder civil society coalition is dedicated to addressing social inequities in Makhanda, an underserved community near the school’s campus where “the majority of citizens do not have access to basic services that other people take for granted,” Skae said.

Rhodes created the Circle of Unity to bring together stakeholders from higher education, government, and churches, as well as private citizens, to work to improve the city in areas such as safety and security, operations enhancement, marketing and public relations, and local economic development. Members of the forum also work on what they call the “big city project” to attract more tourists to Makhanda, also the site of a popular annual arts festival, as a way to generate more prosperity for the community.

At ICN Business School in Nancy, France, such cross-sector work occurs through its curriculum, 20 percent of which is dedicated to the intersections among art, technology, and management. The school supports 20 transdisciplinary student groups—each with eight students from art, design, and engineering—that complete one-week immersive projects with companies. “Wicked problems are actually cross-sectoral. They go across industries, they go across nations, and they are actually universal,” said Sarah Vaughan, associate dean of quality and accreditations at ICN. These problems, she added, “require coordinated actions and cooperation with stakeholders from across all sectors of society—the public sector, the private sector, the for-profit, the not-for-profit, because each of these stakeholder groups will be bringing very different gifts to the table.”

Wicked problems go across industries, and they require coordinated actions and cooperation with stakeholders from across all sectors of society.

The world’s wicked problems may be large, but business schools can tackle them by starting small—and local—said Assaad Farah, dean of the School of Business Administration at the American University in Dubai. He pointed to his own school’s COVID-19 Rehab Program; run in collaboration with a hospital in the UAE Arise network, the program provides an online portal where expatriates in Dubai who have contracted COVID-19 can connect with physicians and support. Students in two marketing classes completed projects to raise awareness of this program, working with faculty, physicians, and other professionals.

The school also has collaborated with the Dubai police force to create the Resilience Stamp, a status that the Dubai government gives to businesses that are well-prepared to navigate adversity. The design of this program, which provides resiliency training to both businessowners and police officers who are the auditors giving the stamp, is based on a citywide program called Resilience in the Real Estate Sector that helps entire cities rebound during times of change.

“We started with small projects slowly,” said Farah. “We got more and more involved in bigger projects. We started two years ago, and some projects are still in the making right now.”

Connecting for Learner Success:

Redesigning the Future of Experiential Learning

Even before the pandemic, the need to provide consistent hands-on learning experiences was made a priority at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Neil Niman, an associate professor, described how the school realized that not all of its students were reaping the same benefits from student clubs, internships, consulting projects, and study abroad. Many of these experiences “were happening outside our control,” said Niman. “We wanted to really expand what we were doing in the experiential learning space and take it to the next level.”

To create a more consistent and comprehensive experiential learning option, the Paul College created its Business in Practice (BiP) program. BiP courses, which generally last for a semester, are taught by industry professionals. These professionals design their own course content based on their expertise, with the support of an instructional designer, faculty, and staff.

BiP now comprises a portfolio of 52 two-credit courses, each designed to help students master one of four “intelligences” prized by employers, Niman explained. These include social intelligence, the ability to navigate complex situations; analytical intelligence, the ability to work with numbers; competitive intelligence, the ability to respond to a changing business environment; and professional intelligence, the ability to turn the knowledge learned in business school into professional success. As part of their programs, undergraduates must take at least one BiP course from each category and are graded on a pass/fail basis.

In each course, they form teams to work on projects related to the relevant industry—for instance, in one BiP course taught by an executive from the Duck shoe company, students learned how to design a new shoe and bring it to market. In a more recent course, an executive from the clothing company Vera Bradley walked students through the process of choosing a product to license and identifying appropriate licensing partners.

BiP represents the school’s efforts to focus its curriculum on teaching “both hard and soft skills, because if you talk to employers today, that’s what they’re looking for,” said Niman. “We wanted to bake that into every experience.”

Connecting for Learner Success:

Resilient Teaching Models

Presenters noted several pedagogical innovations that their schools adopted during the pandemic that they believe will remain even after face-to-face instruction returns. For example, one of the biggest advancements in pedagogy over the last year has been in faculty training, said Delphine Manceau, dean of NEOMA Business School in Mont-Saint-Aignan, France. In the early months of the pandemic, schools began training faculty in how to use video conferencing and other online collaboration tools. But now, more than a year later, that training has become progressively more nuanced, encompassing all aspects of online learning and student engagement.

In addition, last year NEOMA Business School opened its first virtual campus, where students and faculty create avatars and move through its offices and classrooms online. Through their avatars, students can sit or stand, raise their hands to answer questions or applaud, in a way that mimics real-life interactions. “What’s great about a virtual campus is that it enables serendipity and unexpected encounters,” says Manceau. Over the last year, the school has held workshops, career development activities, and even large conferences on its virtual campus. The school plans to continue using this innovation to reach students who are studying remotely or who are off campus while they complete internships.

Typically, the Asia School of Business would only plan projects that were two- to three-hour flights away, so students wouldn’t suffer from jet lag. With virtual formats, the school now can do projects anywhere in the world.

For Charles Harry Fine, president and dean of the Asia School of Business (ASB) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of the biggest revelations of the past year regarded how much virtual platforms can expand his school’s reach.

This became especially apparent in the school’s action-based learning program. At ASB, student teams typically spend one-third of their programs off campus completing projects for corporate partners. When pandemic lockdowns made face-to-face projects impossible, the school’s corporate partners initially resisted moving them to a virtual format. But the school was able to move the entire process online, from project sourcing and scoping to execution and deliverables—eventually every student team had a project. The school had to grapple with planning around 13 time zones—its students were living in 25 different countries. But the teams overcame this obstacle by scheduling most synchronous meetings in the morning in Asia and Africa, which coincided with the afternoon in Europe, and the evening in the United States.

Although the transition to online interactions was difficult, ultimately virtual projects have become a “real win,” Fine said, and will remain a permanent part of the school’s experiential learning approach. “Typically, we would only plan projects that were two- to three-hour flights away from Kuala Lumpur, so students wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time with jet lag. Now we can do projects anywhere in the world,” he added. “That gives us more reach.”

Connecting for Learner Success:

Building a Sense of Community

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons business schools have learned with the move to online platforms is the importance of building a community where students feel welcome, supported, and heard. Last year, for example, the College of Business at University of Nebraska–Lincoln held virtual town halls for incoming students and their parents, who appreciated having the unusual opportunity of posing questions directly to school leadership, said Kathleen Farrell, the school’s dean.

Then, during the break between the fall and spring semesters, each of the 3,700 undergraduate students at the UNL College of Business received a personal phone call from one of the college’s 55 faculty and staff. Working off a script, “we asked them, ‘How are you doing? What are some of the challenges you faced? Do you need any resources to be successful?’” said Farrell. The school followed up with emails to offer appropriate resources to students who expressed a need.

At the beginning of the campaign, 83 percent of these students had enrolled for the spring; by the end, this number increased to 95 percent. “It was also a retention strategy,” said Farrell. “But it created a great deal of goodwill with our students.”

Similarly, faculty and staff at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware in Newark have discovered how much more easily they can bring their community together on virtual platforms, whether by bringing in more alumni to speak to students or attracting larger audiences to events.

“We were able to attract much, much larger audiences than we ever had on campus,” said Bruce Weber, the school’s dean. “We had 1,000 participants in an event we did on Black women in business,” where four alums discussed the trauma their communities were facing and their experience as Black women at a time when society was confronting issues of racial inequality.

Faculty were even able to strengthen the sense of community within their own ranks, holding events where they shared best practices in teaching and asked each other how they were pivoting their research activities during the pandemic. “Faculty gave each other more support than could have come from a centralized source such as the dean’s office or university research office,” said Weber.

Innovations for a Changed World

ICAM attendees largely agreed that it’s unlikely that schools will abandon the advantages they have found come with delivering some of their most popular events—from networking sessions to happy hours to pitch competitions—in virtual formats. These advantages, such as the ability to reach broader audiences and better prepare students to work well on globally distributed teams, indicate that certain innovations are here to stay.

When schools return to face-to-face instruction, said Fine of the Asia School of Business, “we will still use the digital reach to expand our horizons in ways that we did not do before the pandemic.”

Social impact, too, is likely to remain a permanent fixture in most business schools’ missions and strategies, especially now that it has become such an integral part of AACSB’s revised accreditation standards. “We think that it’s great that the areas of engagement and impact are not just looking at research, but also at societal impact at the institutional and individual level,” said Frenkel of the WHU-Otto Beisheim School. “That captures as a matter of fact what leadership in academia and society ultimately means.”

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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