Innovative Strategies and Best Practices from Across the Graduate Management Education (GME) Community
Stephen Taylor is the Research Director for BusinessCAS. This is the first post in a new blog series, in which he’ll explore the evolving best practices and strategies the GME field will need to adopt to navigate today’s crises and gain strength in the years to come. Stay tuned for more from Stephen!
The adage “you can never go home again” is meant to communicate the sense of nostalgia we develop for the past; there is a natural psychological tendency to see the past — either positively or negatively — in ways that make it impossible to recapture. Regardless of any shared nostalgia for the simpler days of campus life, however, colleges and universities across the country restarted operations this fall and were faced with the difficult task of creating a new normal. In the case of graduate management education (GME), “business continuity” is more than just a catchphrase that’s popular because of the pandemic, it’s a commitment to the creation of an environment and a culture.
Two leaders in the GME community stand out this year specifically for their success in managing the return to campus; not just in planning and execution, but in their attention to the texture, the details of the return and how they shape a program. Shannon Deer, Ph.D., Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs for the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, and Dee Steinle, Executive Director of MBA & MS Programs at the University of Kansas School of Business, agreed to share their experience with the BusinessCAS™ community in a widely attended webinar to kick off the semester. Their virtual conversation focused on two key areas that drive the business of business schools: creating a new campus culture and enrollment management.
Texas A&M University Mays Business School
For Dr. Deer at the Mays Business School, returning to campus wasn’t just about the esprit de corps or navigating multiple buildings for new students, it was about making sure everyone felt safe coming back during a pandemic. Because the University was taking comprehensive action on the public health front, Dr. Deer had a chance to focus on the foundational feelings of safety. To do so, Deer and her team worked to create a set of simple tips to create the right environment. Recommendations included unconventional tips like starting group emails with the opener “Dear Mom,” as a way of making setting the language and tone (to be replaced with something more appropriate to the audience prior to sending, of course). Also included are suggestions to “focus on empathy” when working with stressed students and staff, “don’t ask why” in an aggressive or challenging sense, to “over-listen” in small group communication to make sure people feel heard and to focus on the future in both mindset and operations. These recommendations come together to create a framework in which staff and students feel holistically cared for and start to relax enough to allow true learning experiences to take place.
University of Kansas School of Business
At the University of Kansas (KU) School of Business, Steinle looked at a different but equally challenging issue: enrollment management during a crisis. The School of Business at KU has a strong reputation for a culture of teamwork, small classes and open access to faculty, but the many challenges of the pandemic disrupted traditional student recruitment in a way that makes standard operations impossible. Steinle runs an MBA program whose enrollment management philosophy has focused heavily on institutional fit instead of growth, and while the program has a max capacity of about 45 students, the program traditionally has enrolled between 25 and 35 in order to make sure the candidates with the best alignment of experience, goals and program offerings are admitted. Steinle oriented her enrollment management practice to include partners who help generate leads and applications. One such partnership with BusinessCAS, the Centralized Application Service (CAS) for GME, allowed Steinle to maintain business continuity and generate awareness with new populations. Steinle’s program growth came from looking to enroll students with the right ‘fit’ to the program, and while the enrollment is currently at max capacity, the real success story here is in using partnerships to find new pipelines and pathways into the program.
The conversation with Steinle and Dr. Deer was so well-received, and there were so many questions, that both presenters agreed to respond to some of the highest-frequency questions after the webinar concluded to ensure full visibility into the “how we get through this” planning and execution process.
Both of you cite working with partners to support your success — have faculty been one of those partners, and if so, how? Should they be involved in these types of initiatives?
Shannon Deer (SD): Yes, faculty have certainly been partners for our success. Regarding returning to campus, faculty have been supporting each other as we all adjust to teaching courses via dual delivery (or fully online). Our faculty have been holding teaching development sessions to share best practices with each other. Faculty have also been instrumental in ensuring we have delivered high quality education to our students. Further, presenting a cohesive strategy with staff and faculty has been important in doing the best we can to meet and manage students’ expectations.
Regarding recruitment, we do involve faculty in very strategic ways to support our enrollment efforts. We may connect faculty to a prospective student if the prospective student has a specific interest aligned with the faculty member’s expertise. We also invite faculty to recruiting events. Students are interested in our faculty and what they do inside and outside of the classroom, so we involve them whenever possible.
Dee Steinle (DS): As Plato once theorized, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” When our international enrollments retracted in 2016, we knew we had to make some big changes. In order to stay viable, it was time to reimagine recruiting and our population in general. We desired a small cohort of full-time MBA students with outstanding admission credentials and high potential for career success. While we had relied on traditional recruiting avenues such as paid/unpaid media, international recruiting tours and marketing to qualified leads though GMAC and GRE, we had not looked at the qualified candidates in our own backyard. When we stopped to think about the smart students who were already at KU, we realized we needed to look at partnerships.
Although we had a long-standing relationship with our School of Law, we had not formed partnerships with other professional programs who attracted top talent. We started with our School of Medicine and, thanks to the leadership of our Dean, we gained an MD/MBA program. Other health-related programs jumped at the chance to partner with us soon after. We also worked closely with our Schools of Engineering and Architecture to “bridge” students from their undergraduate programs to our MBA. In addition to partnering with other Schools and campuses, we also formed a partnership with our Undergraduate Admission Office to identify and recruit talented students into the KU pipeline early on in the process. More work can and will be done with top talent undergraduates, but the key has been to “shop local.” We have great students who are already “sold” on KU and have proven to be successful in the classroom. We simply made it our job to inform them of the value of management education.
The KU School of Business is small by comparison to other AACSB-accredited and publicly ranked schools. Faculty and administration must work together at every level to make it all come together. I work closely with the Associate Dean of Graduate Programs to ensure that program goals and faculty goals are aligned. In a small school, administration and faculty responsibilities blur. Partnership with faculty is essential.
Dee, how do you make this enrollment success repeatable for KU? What are the things you know you will need to keep doing to maintain this level of excellence?
DS: I think the key to maintaining enrollment success is to never get comfortable. Always think about your next partnership or next recruiting tactic. The world of GME has changed so much in the last several years. You can no longer count one type of student population to always show up for admission.
Joining BusinessCAS has shifted the game for KU. We simply couldn’t afford to do the type of marketing that would move the needle on our own. As a member of the BusinessCAS Community, we engage in a form of cooperative marketing by using the Centralized Application Service. It has served us well and delivered results, as I mentioned in our webinar.
If there is one strategy I would recommend for maintaining business continuity, it’s joining BusinessCAS. It is not a silver bullet, but it will serve you well. Beyond the technology, the service and the cooperative marketing, you also become a part of a team of GME administrators who work together and share ideas. The relationships I have formed with other folks using BusinessCAS has been invaluable.
Dr. Deer, how are you seeing expectations shift with regard to being on campus? For staff? For faculty? For students? How have you met communicated with stakeholders about those expectations?
SD: Expectations have had to shift for everyone. Fortunately, for the most part, all parties have been understanding. We have found it easier to manage expectations this fall, because incoming students knew the format would be modified this fall, unlike the continuing students who experienced an abrupt disruption in the spring. Furthermore, we have been able to bring in all students who wanted to be in-person. That has made it much easier to better meet expectations, even though in-person is not exactly the same as it used to be. All students also have the option to join the courses remotely. Of course, like all schools, we have had our fair share of managing expectations from all parties. Here are a few ways we worked to accomplish this:
- Communicate. The primary way we have managed expectations and maintained business continuity is through communication. We have made sure the communication goes both ways from the faculty/staff to students and from students to faculty/staff.Here are some examples of enhanced communication:
- We have done several student surveys to determine their delivery preferences (in-person, remote), how courses are progressing, etc. Students are missing the informal options for communication (i.e., stopping us in the hallway), so it is important to provide more formal opportunities to provide feedback. We have also reached out on an individual basis when a students’ expectations don’t seem realistic (i.e., a student who says all events must be 100% in-person this fall or they want their money back).
- One program director held one-on-one meetings with every student in his program. He was able to address the students’ concerns individually. It was difficult physically and emotionally for him, but it was an investment the director felt was important to make.
- We have also tried to continually communicate choices to the students. We have worked to be much more flexible as we are asking them to do the same.
- Adjust quickly. We have tried to respond quickly to faculty needs. This means technology needs, but also needs related to teaching locations. For example, all of our MBA classes have an in-person option. If a faculty member was not comfortable teaching in person, we had to quickly find another faculty member to take their course for the semester or develop an alternative teaching accommodation. Things are changing quickly, so the rapid changes have required quite a bit of juggling.
- Be understanding. We can’t meet all expectations we normally set for ourselves or others right now. It is important for us to be understanding of each other and our students during this very challenging time.
What’s one thing that absolutely must be rethought now that we’re in this era? Enrollment expectations? Relationships and student development?
SD: The most surprising thing the current environment has required us to rethink is what content is most important and what is the best way to deliver that content. Before 2020, we assumed in-person and synchronous was the best delivery method. For us, 100% online is not the answer either, but the pandemic has required us to, first, be very particular about what is delivered. Then, if it needs to be delivered, what method is best — fully online (asynchronous, synchronous), remote synchronous, dual delivery or in-person.
DS: I concur with Shannon. We have definitely learned a lot about course delivery and how we can do things differently and more effectively. As a school, we took some time this summer to learn about online course delivery from our faculty who teach in our Online MBA program. The tips and tricks shared among our faculty have been very useful this fall as we adjust to different modalities. Although we still see a lot of value in face-to-face instruction, especially in our full-time program, it is great to have options for continuous learning. On the plus side, we may never be slowed by a snow day again!
Maintaining Business Continuity in the Years to Come
On a broader level, we must now rethink how we prepare our students for work in a post-COVID-19 world. This time of unrest has certainly shown us where the weak spots are in the private and public sectors. As future managers, our students must be much more adept at risk analysis and contingency planning. They will need to be project managers extraordinaire. Exposing them to case studies and real-life management issues is so important. There has never been a time that calls for experiential learning more than now. The virtuous circle is that this type of “real time” instruction creates value for our students and value for our programs. If we get this right, we create value for our GME industry. Out of crisis, we can create opportunity.
It’s clear that business continuity will remain an ongoing issue for leaders in GME as traditional models are disrupted, and innovation will be at the forefront for those who find success in the current moment. Partnerships – considered holistically across the entire value chain of activities related to students – can be a key driver to support growth during a crisis, as we have seen. If you’re interested in seeing how a partnership can support your school’s goals this year, contact me here.