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Business Schools and the Call to Community Action

On April 15, Chris Yenkey, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore Business School reached out to me and several others about disinfecting N95 masks. He and some colleagues had designed a working device that can be made for as little $250 using materials mostly sourced from a local building supply store. The local fire department already was using several units to disinfect hundreds of masks per hour and Chris thought the design (which they made publicly available) could be useful in other places where PPE is in short supply.

Last week, we brought Chris together with Luis Borrallo from Strathmore Business School in Kenya and Kathleen (Kat) Riach of University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School in Scotland. Luis heads the Community Service Centre at Strathmore, which is helping secondary schools in vulnerable communities, and Kat started 40@40 and DigiGallus to help us think about learning, leading and living during Covid-19. The three of talked about their work and addressed questions in a webinar format. If you missed it, watch the video.

The webinar was the first in a three-part series featuring GBSN business schools responding to the call to community action. Produced by my colleague, Maddie Handler, the series features initiatives at nine business schools in eight countries and five continents. Register for Part 2 in the series, with ESADE Business School (Spain), University of Macau Faculty of Business Administration (Chinese SAR), and Groupe ISM (Senegal). I would love to hear about your own initiatives too.

Our main objective in launching the “call to community action” webinars is to join the fight against COVID-19—to contribute in a small way to a larger set of solutions. We wanted not only to share why and how the programs were started, but also to explore how can they be scaled or replicated in different contexts and how the Global Business School Network can help. Our thought was that, even if only one additional life or one additional job is saved, it is worth our effort.

They say that organizations (and people too) reveal what (who) they really are in a crisis. From my perspective, business schools have been showing themselves to be more agile, and resourceful and innovative, than believed. Many schools took residential programs online almost overnight and have been improving those programs ever since. We’re seeing schools replace company-based projects and internships with digital ones and adapting admissions strategies to current realities. Now they are creating new hybrid options for the upcoming terms. Frankly, I think business schools will ultimately prove to be more resilient than we thought and others are predicting.

Next, I offer three additional observations from our recent exploration of business school responding to calls for community action. While it is (unfortunately) still early in our experience with COVID-19—many business schools are still putting on or adjusting their masks so they can help others—we can already see that business schools are distinctive, engaged, and impactful. While these observations are merely reminders too many of us who have worked closely with business schools for a long time, I have no doubt that some people, especially critics, will be surprised and skeptical.

Distinctive. While we all tend to generalize when we talk about business schools, the truth is that no two of them are the same. Sure they share a couple general characteristics, such as offering degree education and doing research in business and management, that cause us to call them business schools, and their missions statements can seem remarkably similar. However, the variety of community actions show that they live those missions differently depending on the contexts they operate in, strengths they have, constituents they serve, and more. While MIT convenes a series of hackathons, ESSEC Business School launches “together” its strategy for ecological and social transition, and students and alumni at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) raise $573 million in cash donations and goods to support COVID-19 relief efforts.

Engaged. Business schools have been criticized for being disconnected from practice and policy. But COVID-19 is showing that business schools have not been in a bubble. Scholars and practitioners are working together in webinars to offer highly relevant webinars, such as the Business Reconfigured Webinar Series by the American University of Cairo’s School of Business and Ivey Business School’s MBA Teachable Moments Virtual Speaker Series. I was excited to see that the GIBS Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA), with support from J.P. Morgan, will roll out a “practical toolkit to navigate the current climate of uncertainty and economic distress.” One of my favorite examples is the Helsinki Graduate School of Economics which is a collaborative effort between three Finnish universities, including GBSN member Hanken School of Economics. It established an economic situation room to support fast decision making amid the coronavirus crisis.

Impactful. Here I return to the opening of this blog, and the “call to community action.” Many people still carry a limited idea about the role of universities and business schools in society. They see the positive impact primarily through the production of knowledgeable graduates who are more responsible citizens or through scientific research that can eventually informs policies and decisions. These indirect impacts—through people and papers—are important and should be supported. However, that view ignores the real potential for impact right now, through the direct work of business school students, scholars, and leaders.

GBSN was started 17 years ago with direct impact in mind—to bring together business schools, their leaders, faculty, and students, from all over the world to build education capacity for the developing world. I like to say that we were started for SDG4 before the SDGs were created. It is natural for our members to step up to the call for community action, to empower their own communities in the fight against COVID-19.

We will continue to learn more about business schools during this crisis. While the future of higher education is being fundamentally altered by our current experiences, I am certain that the business schools we are working with at GBSN are destined to play an even bigger and more positive role in society.