Stanford GSB Dean Jon Levin On MBAs, COVID, Racial Injustice & The Future

Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin on the impact of the pandemic on Stanford, its MBA

Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin on the impact of the pandemic on Stanford, its MBA students and the future of business education

Stanford Graduate School of Business for four full years. During one evening this week, the 47-year-old economist sat down for a lengthy and illuminating podcast interview with a recent alum of the school, Benjamin Kohlmann, an engagement manager at McKinsey & Co. Kohlmann earned his MBA from Stanford three years ago in 2017, having arrived on campus a year before Levin’s deanship began. He enrolled at the school after a successful military career, having flown 32 combat missions and making more than 300 landings on U.S. carriers.” data-reactid=”33″>On Sept. 1, Jonathan Levin will have been dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business for four full years. During one evening this week, the 47-year-old economist sat down for a lengthy and illuminating podcast interview with a recent alum of the school, Benjamin Kohlmann, an engagement manager at McKinsey & Co. Kohlmann earned his MBA from Stanford three years ago in 2017, having arrived on campus a year before Levin’s deanship began. He enrolled at the school after a successful military career, having flown 32 combat missions and making more than 300 landings on U.S. carriers.

Kohlmann’s Random Walk podcast series, ranges wide and deep on a vast variety of topics from the most important trends to impact business education in recent years to the value of going back to school during a period of massive world change. Levin also addressed how the shift to online learning is likely to have a long-lasting impact on higher education, what the school is doing to deal with racial inequity, and how MBA students reimagined the critical co-curricular part of the MBA experience when Stanford shifted learning online in the spring.” data-reactid=”34″>The interview with Levin, on Kohlmann’s Random Walk podcast series, ranges wide and deep on a vast variety of topics from the most important trends to impact business education in recent years to the value of going back to school during a period of massive world change. Levin also addressed how the shift to online learning is likely to have a long-lasting impact on higher education, what the school is doing to deal with racial inequity, and how MBA students reimagined the critical co-curricular part of the MBA experience when Stanford shifted learning online in the spring.

The interview with Dean Jonathan Levin occurred as part of a podcast series called A Random Walk with Ben Kohlmann

Beyond COVID Task Force. Among its observations is that a virtual environment permits a “temporal extension” of both learning and relationship building because, as Levin observes, “it is easier to stay connected with people either before or after they leave the physical environment of the campus.” One example: Stanford began engaging with this fall’s incoming MBA cohort eight weeks before orientation. So Levin plans to make significant investments in using technology for lifelong learning to help alumni stay connected to Stanford long after they graduate.” data-reactid=”56″>Among other things, Levin set up a task force last spring to ponder the long-term impact of the pandemic called the Beyond COVID Task Force. Among its observations is that a virtual environment permits a “temporal extension” of both learning and relationship building because, as Levin observes, “it is easier to stay connected with people either before or after they leave the physical environment of the campus.” One example: Stanford began engaging with this fall’s incoming MBA cohort eight weeks before orientation. So Levin plans to make significant investments in using technology for lifelong learning to help alumni stay connected to Stanford long after they graduate.

start the fall quarter mostly online, with only a couple of in-person, outdoor classes, the majority of MBA students will at least be on campus. “I worry for students who are at schools that are starting 100% remote and the students have no physical togetherness,” he says.” How will they meet people? How will they form friendships? It’s going to be a big, big challenge for everyone.”” data-reactid=”58″>While Stanford will start the fall quarter mostly online, with only a couple of in-person, outdoor classes, the majority of MBA students will at least be on campus. “I worry for students who are at schools that are starting 100% remote and the students have no physical togetherness,” he says.” How will they meet people? How will they form friendships? It’s going to be a big, big challenge for everyone.”

Levin made clear that he strongly believes in the continued value of the two-year, residential MBA experience which he suggests is more like an educational “telescope” compared to a Ph.D. which Levin describes as more of a “microscope.” “Someone who does a Ph.D. is being handed this incredibly powerful microscope to just zoom in on some specific set of knowledge,” he says. “In my case, it was economics. In an MBA program like Stanford’s, it’s like giving someone an incredibly powerful telescope. You are just opening their aperture to see all these possibilities and giving them the skills to go in so many directions. That value is not going away. It’s not going to go away if we do it online for a year or a quarter, either. It’s just a powerful value proposition.”

The interview comes at an unprecedented time of uncertainty in both the world, the U.S., and in higher education. At a recent town hall with students, Levin explains, the anxiety and concern among students were tangible. “They just want to know how is this going to work?” he says. “We are all going into a new world of going to school during a pandemic. They want to understand how we will keep them safe and how they will get to know their classmates and the faculty. What they would love is certainty. How long will this last? It’s just like everyone. That is something that is impossible to deliver right now, unfortunately, so that makes for a tough situation for everyone.”

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview:

We spent a lot of the last couple of months trying to develop methods for hybrid learning, with half the students in the classroom and half online, with a rotation system. And in August, California came out with their higher education guidelines and the rules in California right now are in order to have indoor instruction your county has to be not on the state watch list. Our county—Santa Clara— has been on the watch list since July. So we are not allowed to do in-person, indoor instruction. So we are going to start the quarter with virtual instruction and a few outdoor classes and then there will be opportunities for outdoor office hours and interactions. Hopefully, we’ll come off and do more of a hybrid model.

Stanford also made the decision a few weeks ago not to bring undergraduate students back to campus. So one of the things that will happen on the campus for the fall quarter is that it will be a much sparser environment. There will be relatively few students and a lot of people working at home. And we have put in place testing protocols for students, staff and faculty. It is going to be an academic year like nothing anyone has ever faced before. Our students are just starting to arrive And we’ll have to do everything we can to keep people safe and still have a great educational experience which is the goal.

Every institution of higher education and also K-through-12 education as well is grappling with the same questions of how do you run an educational institution? What is ingrained in the way we do things is the idea of getting a group of students on campus, getting a group of faculty there, and putting them in close proximity. And a lot of the magic happens that way. When we set out to think about this one of the things we wanted to think about it was to what extent could we have that important interaction and marry that with health and safety. That is what everyone is wrestling with. We have an incredibly talented set of students. They are great problem solvers. We wanted to have a lot of student involvement. We’ve had two student leaders on our task force have done an extraordinary job of bringing in student input. We’ve had a group of faculty who have been terrific. There has been a lot of faculty innovation in teaching with the move to virtual. And all the staff to do our facilities and our teaching and learning support. That was the group we put together led by two of our senior associate deans. They met weekly for months and did a lot of consultation with the health care experts at Stanford who have been phenomenal. That was basically the process that we ran. And we’ve had to be incredibly adaptive because of the shifting state and county guidelines. Obviously, we have to operate within those rules. The county has been a very good partner for Stanford. We have pretty strict rules here but it has worked well from a health standpoint.

we made a decision at Stanford to go online and we basically made it on a Friday night and everyone was online Monday morning. It was crazy but it was sort of amazing to see people’s adaptability. On Saturday morning, we put up a Google sheet with all the classes and we asked all the faculty how would they get online and what would they do and could they do it? how would they do it. I watched the Google sheet populate in real-time. I just sat there and watched our faculty who came on and one said, ‘I’ve done a lot of online teaching. I’m experienced. No problem.’ Another person came on and said, ‘I have never used Zoom but on Monday morning I will know how to do it. I’ve got this.’ Everyone uniformly just said, ‘I can handle this. I can do it, I can figure it out.’ And sure enough, they did. It was pretty inspiring to see that happen. All credit to our faculty and staff for their support and to our students for being incredibly adaptable in making a transition like that.
” data-reactid=”76″>It was on our radar screen. We were thinking about the pandemic and then in March when we started to get cases locally, we made a decision at Stanford to go online and we basically made it on a Friday night and everyone was online Monday morning. It was crazy but it was sort of amazing to see people’s adaptability. On Saturday morning, we put up a Google sheet with all the classes and we asked all the faculty how would they get online and what would they do and could they do it? how would they do it. I watched the Google sheet populate in real-time. I just sat there and watched our faculty who came on and one said, ‘I’ve done a lot of online teaching. I’m experienced. No problem.’ Another person came on and said, ‘I have never used Zoom but on Monday morning I will know how to do it. I’ve got this.’ Everyone uniformly just said, ‘I can handle this. I can do it, I can figure it out.’ And sure enough, they did. It was pretty inspiring to see that happen. All credit to our faculty and staff for their support and to our students for being incredibly adaptable in making a transition like that.

Stanford GSB Dean Jon Levin when an in-person event was canceled due to the pandemic and he had to host the session online from campus

We use Zoom as our platform and here’s a shoutout to them for saving us and the Zoom founder is a Stanford GSB alum. What many of the faculty do is use breakout rooms. We know from 30 years of research in education that active learning, where people are talking and interacting, is better than sitting there and listening to someone talk. It’s actually hard to break people into small groups of four and another group of four in a physical classroom. But you can do that online and that is a great thing.

Another one is chat. When I was teaching, I never let students use computers in the classroom. It was too much competition. I couldn’t compete with Facebook and their email account and YouTube and what have you. So they couldn’t have their screens. I never wanted that. But now you see that in meetings and classrooms having people on chat is fantastic. People talk in class who otherwise would have been quiet. It brings out lots more voices and lots more people who answer each other’s questions. it is actually a great way to engage in a multi-modality.

Another one is speakers. We bring a lot of guest speakers to classes. It’s a hallmark of the classes. If you want to bring someone in from the East Coast they have to fly across the country. They have to spend the whole day and they have to fly back. It’s a big deal. You want to bring them in on Zoom, they can come in and it’s 30 minutes out of their day. It’s sensational. We’ll find ways to actually improve our normal way of teaching when the pandemic ends. There are going to be many opportunities that come out of this experience because everyone is innovating and experimenting at the same time.

I was just on a call with a group of our alumni earlier today for an hour and there were people from four continents on the call. How would we have gotten that group together before? We would have had to make plans a year in advance to fly everyone to Stanford to have a meeting like that and now you can send them an invite a couple of days in advance and people take the hour and get online. What a great way to get everyone connected.

We had a planning task force for the fall that was set up to think about near term problems. And the other group we set up in the spring was a group to think long-term about the effects of the pandemic. We called it the Beyond Covid Task Force. It is still running and it is a group of alumni and faculty. And they have been thinking about what opportunities have been created by the acceleration of online. If you think about the potential for online education or virtual learning, you get a geographic expansion. That we understood well. And you get a scale extension. You can do online education for larger numbers than in-person education.

The other observation they made is that you can have a temporal extension because it is easier to stay connected with people either before or after they leave the physical environment of the campus. For example, this year with our incoming students, we started engaging with them and having meetings eight weeks before orientation which normally we wait for orientation. This has implications for lifelong learning to help people stay connected to a school after they graduate. There is so much greater opportunity if everyone is used to using a virtual environment. They can be connected wherever they live and wherever they go. I think that is something we will make significant investments in having seen this potential. That has been an interesting learning about what is going to be possible in education.

Stanford MBA & McKinsey Engagement Manager Benjamin Kohlmann

The classic two-year residential MBA still has incredible value. Where does the value come from? It comes from many things. It comes from getting a set of skills and building a set of relationships. It fundamentally comes being in an environment for two years that just opens up your aperture on the world. You just see more possibilities.

Stanford Graduate School of Business

I will give you one data point. We run a one-year, online program where you take the core curriculum instead of elective classes and we had our largest cohort in the spring. And in the fall, it’s very possible that it will be 50% larger than the spring cohort just because there are more people who are interested and more people who have the time available and more people who are comfortable getting online.

a racial equity action plan with a set of goals and aspirations to increase the representation of Blacks on the campus and have a more inclusive environment on campus and contribute to broader society beyond the campus We put that out and now we are trying to execute on it. We’ve got some exciting things on that front that I’m proud of.” data-reactid=”161″>When we had the George Flood killing and the other episodes of police violence in the spring, it just triggered so many discussions on our campus among the students, the faculty, the staff, and the alumni about what was going on. But also what could the school do to help not just our community but help the whole country move forward to understand what happened. To think about solutions, to think about what would be constructive and how can we move to a situation where we have less racism against Blacks in this country and more equity, more opportunity, and more racial justice. That arrived right in the middle of COVID, and we spent a lot of time talking to people about it. In the middle of the summer, we came out with a racial equity action plan with a set of goals and aspirations to increase the representation of Blacks on the campus and have a more inclusive environment on campus and contribute to broader society beyond the campus We put that out and now we are trying to execute on it. We’ve got some exciting things on that front that I’m proud of.

Stanford University announced this summer a very ambitious faculty search to try to bring in faculty who have an interest on the impact of race in America. I hope that will help the whole university build strength in that area.

And we are going to do something on the financial aid front that I hope will be important for us. Many of our students receive financial aid to help them come to the GSB. It is one of the things that help us build a class that is as rich and broad in backgrounds and experiences. We do financial aid based on an individual’s income, assets and circumstances. We are going to introduce another set of financial aid that is based on family backgrounds to reflect the circumstances from where people came from. We think that ought to have some impact in terms of racial equity because one of the well-known facts about wealth distribution in our society is that there is a very big racial disparity in intergenerational wealth. We will go at that problem and the general problem of wealth inequality in this country that disadvantages a lot of people from the start of their lives.

MEET STANFORD’S MBA CLASS OF 2021 or STANFORD GSB WILL NOW START THE FALL QUARTER MOSTLY ONLINE” data-reactid=”166″>DON’T MISS: MEET STANFORD’S MBA CLASS OF 2021 or STANFORD GSB WILL NOW START THE FALL QUARTER MOSTLY ONLINE

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