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As a New Academic Year Begins, is a Mandatory Return to the “Old Normal” the Only Choice?

Last year at this time, we were entering a new school year with the full wrath of the Covid upon us. Now as we start the new academic year, we do so in a markedly different context. The Covid vaccines have been available for about 6 months and by most measures have been a success in preventing many deaths. Even though there are several unknowns, there is greater knowledge about the disease and how it spreads and damages the body. There are guidelines that can be followed that balances the need to continue daily life and yet thwart the transmission of the Covid virus. On the whole there is hope that the worst of the Covid pandemic is behind us and we can look forward to a future where either Covid is largely suppressed, or we have found ways to live a “new-normal” with the Covid virus endemic around us.

Most schools are rapidly pushing for a reversal to in-class teaching. Some are mandating that faculty either teach in-person or take unpaid leave. Students are being required on many campuses to be vaccinated on a mandatory basis and attend classes in-person. This scenario is true for most developed countries where large parts of the population have been fortunate to have been able to access the Covid vaccine. This rush to go back to the “old normal” is to some degree understandable. Many schools genuinely believe in the value of in-person learning and the multiple benefits of live social interactions. Some also fear that the value of the campus experience will be diminished if live teaching in the classroom is not resumed soon. They are also listening to feedback from many students who feel that they are missing the value of in-class learning.

However, the situation is not as simple as a quick reversion to the “old normal”. The feedback is indeed mixed from over a year of remote learning. My anecdotal observation is that many faculty and staff are reluctant to return to the office or the classroom (many universities are having to mandate a forced return to the campus for them). This should make us pause and question why this is the case. We need to question how we can make the campus experience better for our faculty and staff. Perhaps we need to rethink the structure of courses and give our faculty more flexibility in the design and delivery of courses. Why not allow faculty the freedom to teach a part (say half) of the course remotely or through asynchronous modules and the other half in-person? Of course, this works if the pay or compensation of faculty is not reduced proportionately. Why not allow student advising to happen remotely? Perhaps technology can be designed to allow this advising to happen more effectively by involving other stakeholders such as alumni. Why not allow staff the flexibility to work two or three days a week from home? This may lead to a better work-life balance for many, especially those with young families. What about giving faculty the freedom to live anywhere in the world and perform their duties remotely from there? This may enable schools to be able to access global talent easily and routinely.

“Indeed, now is the time to not mandate a quick return to the ‘old normal’ but to actively question the future of education and learning.”

Now is not the time to overrule by mandate the reluctance of many faculty and staff to return to campus but rather to ask how can we redesign our programs and processes to accommodate more flexible instruction and work. We have to experiment about what will change in the months and years ahead. With the increased potential of teaching to move into new formats, we need to experiment about what works. Many new formats of learning remain to be discovered. Can we learn from literary and arts festivals where innovative approaches are often used to engage with large numbers of people? Can we learn from film and television productions about how to create effective online experiences?

At the program level, we also have to ask some hard questions. Though the MBA has proven to be remarkably resilient over the last the last few decades, is the current format and structure the right one for the future, a future where mobility is very different and virtual interactions are more commonplace? We have often built the business models of our schools based on certain high-priced programs. Are these price points sustainable? Or will we have to rethink our program structures and price points radically? The list can go on much longer. The questions are hard. The answers are not obvious. Nevertheless, we must ask the questions. Good leadership is about asking the right questions.

Business school leaders should identify the important questions for their organizations as they face a future which has been transformed by the Covid pandemic experience. They should engage with key stakeholders and plan for controlled experiments to evaluate which answers may point the way to the right direction. An open mind will be important to consider all relevant options. Organizational agility will be critical to pivot when necessary and act on the desired action plans. A hasty return to the “old normal” may not be the best choice necessarily.

Soumitra Dutta
Soumitra Dutta, Dean of Johnson (JGSM).

Soumitra Dutta is a Professor of Management at Cornell University and the Chair of the Board of Directors for GBSN. Previously he was the Founding Dean of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell and Chair of AACSB Intl. He is also the President and Co-Founder of the Portulans Institute.

Email: sd599@cornell.edu; Twitter: @soumitradutta; LinkedIn: soumitra-dutta