The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have reached every corner of the world, increasing poverty, inequality, and social vulnerability, even in wealthier countries. As Michael Castellano, International MBA student at IE Business School, explains, business schools have a fundamental role to play in addressing these problems and repairing societies – if they do their job right.
How to Survive a Pandemic and Other Classes You Missed in Business School by Michael Castellano.
Results of Pandemics May Vary
In October 2020, Fareed Zakaria penned an opinion piece in the Washington Post noting “pandemics should be the great equalizer,” but COVID-19 was not . Although 95% of all countries experienced economic contraction due to the pandemic, it became painfully clear as the crisis dragged on that the virus disproportionately impacted certain communities over others. Instead of affecting all people equally, COVID-19 deepened socio-economic divides around the world and brought an additional 97 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 alone .
Now, more than two years since the onset of COVID-19, we can see how the world has forever changed. The experience demonstrated that our systems were much more fragile than we knew, and the pandemic aggravated issues around injustice and inequality that were already bubbling below the surface. As a result, many have cast aside hopes of returning to pre-pandemic normalcy, advocating instead for a new normal that remedies the former system through innovation.
Education as the Great Equalizer
The virus may not have affected everyone equally, but education can serve as an anecdote and a true equalizer in society. Education can equip all people with the tools to lift themselves up from their circumstances. The pandemic also underscored that business contributes meaningful solutions in times of need. Consider the ways that business principles transformed the course of the pandemic, from rapidly scaling up production of life-saving vaccines, coordinating complex supply chains of personal protective equipment, or marketing risk-mitigating behaviors to the public.
Business schools occupy an important position at this intersection between business and education, and therefore have an essential role to play in guiding the response during the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, trends indicate that conflict, uncertainty, and instability will continue to define global affairs, meaning business schools will have a unique opportunity to create the leaders of tomorrow. Arming students with a well-rounded business education will prepare them to tackle future issues and generate a ripple effect with the potential to transform companies, communities, societies, and indeed the world.
Business School 2.0
The insecurity of recent years has encouraged many individuals at all stages of their careers to rethink their relationship to work and question their contributions to society. This has led to an unprecedented wave of career changers and new enrollees in MBA and other continuing education programs. Yet, as the world economy shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic, how did business schools respond? Did academic institutions continue teaching an antiquated paradigm of maximizing profit at all costs, or did they innovate to meet the moment? The following section offers three high-level recommendations for how academic institutions can forgo the old methods of operating and re-envision a business education amid crises.
- Teach a Pandemic Pedagogy:
A wise professor once said, “We don’t need more accountants or financial analysts: we need leaders.” The Millennial generation currently comprises the bulk of the workforce , and as they rise in corporate ranks, they carry with them the countless experiences of crises, recessions, and conflict that have defined their generation. To prepare younger generations to lead in an increasingly uncertain world, business schools must revise their curricula. This involves developing a “pandemic pedagogy” and philosophy of education that is rooted in the present, yet designed for the future. A business school curriculum should become crisis-proof, prioritizing soft skills, critical thinking, and resilience strategies for the future of work.
Above all, business schools must integrate Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles into academic studies, as well as classes in business ethics and humanities that coach students to become more empathetic and just human beings. This can include service-learning components, in which students employ business principles to uncover tangible solutions to real-world problems, while deepening their awareness of socio-economic inequities. At IE Business School, courses such as “Marketing Strategies for Sustainability” and “Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Investing” attract as much interest from students as other traditional business courses.
According to Dr. Rachida Justo, Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at IE Business School, “The escalation of human-made socio-environmental challenges has pressured the business world to deemphasize individualistic, profit-prioritizing, and sometimes unethical mentalities. Business schools have the power and responsibility to develop the capabilities of future entrepreneurs in using business acumen to solve environmental, social, and/or economic problems and apply scientific and technological innovation for impact.”
- 2. Diversify the Campus Community:
To repair societies and eliminate social inequities in the aftermath of COVID-19, business schools must not only change what and how they teach, but also who they teach and who teaches. For example, in the United States, every generation is more diverse than the last; however, recruitment into top MBA programs has not kept pace. Although individuals who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) comprise 39% of the US population, they represent less than 25% of students enrolled in US MBA programs . To truly foster a more equitable society, educational institutions must embrace diversity among the campus community and seek out students from underrepresented and/or historically marginalized backgrounds.
According to Paula Fonseca, an International MBA student at IE Business School, “Diversity enriches the educational experience because we are able to derive our learnings not only from business cases, but from the lived experiences of our classmates and colleagues.” Diversity of lived experience not only brings perspective to academic material, but also offers a nuanced understanding of overlapping concerns that effect a particular community.
In this sense, universities should not only promote diversity among the student body, but also among the faculty and visiting lecturers. Instead of being an archetypal ivory tower, business schools should uplift the first-hand experiences of atypical instructors, such as visiting lecturers from disenfranchised communities leading seminars on topics related to social and economic equity.
Consider the 2022 viral tweet from a professor at Wharton School of Business in which she remarked that 25% of her students believed the average salary in the US exceeds six figures, when half of all Americans earned less than $35,000 USD in 2019 . Even a top-notch education cannot prepare students to be leaders if they remain disconnected from the world in which they will lead.
- 3. Measure Achievement through Impact:
Finally, if colleges and universities want to make a positive difference in the world, they must measure institutional achievement through impact. This means adopting a new set of performance indicators. Prominent rankings of business schools and MBA programs have historically evaluated institutions based on metrics such as the average starting salary and bonuses of recent graduates and mean GMAT scores of the student body.
For MBA students in the class of 2022 and 2023, studying for the GMAT meant multi-tasking during a pandemic, political crises, and other unprecedented hardships. In fact, for students in certain regions of the world, sitting for the GMAT may have been their first time in public after the onset of the pandemic. Standardized tests have long been criticized as biased and poor predictors of a student’s performance, but the pandemic makes an even stronger case for eliminating the exam and other barriers to entry for certain students.
Furthermore, if business schools are to be thought leaders and foster more equitable societies, perhaps salary-based indicators are not the best measurement of success. Instead of awarding accolades based on earnings, universities should consider non-financial indicators that bear in mind the positive contributions of graduates to their communities.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, as the world grapples with social, economic, and political challenges, encouraging students to pursue non-traditional, less lucrative vocations, such as public policy or elected office, non-profit leadership, or social entrepreneurship might not garner top rankings, but is certainly a laudable achievement. Rather than deemphasizing these careers, business schools should create a pathway for future transformational leaders and put people and the planet before profits.
Reimagining a More Equitable Future
In a follow-up opinion piece leading up to the release of his book Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, Fareed Zakaria optimistically observed, “The pandemic upended the present, but it’s given us a chance to remake the future” . Although COVID-19 disrupted ways of life, toppled economies, and amplified social vulnerability, it has given the world a chance to change course.
At this moment in time, business schools have a unique opportunity to leverage their expertise at the intersection of education and business to derive efficient and productive ways to advance economic empowerment, alleviate poverty, and achieve social objectives. By teaching timely course material, incorporating historically marginalized and underrepresented individuals, and assessing achievement through social impact, business schools can prepare the leaders of tomorrow and reimagine a more equitable future for all of us.
A full list of references used in this article can be viewed here.
- Link up with Michael Castellano on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: Responsible Management Education: Moving a cow out of a ditch
- Discover IE Business School
- Apply for the International MBA at IE Business School.
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.
- ESSEC Business School, France-Singapore-Morocco
- FGV-EAESP, Brazil
- School of Management Fudan University, China
- IE Business School, Spain
- Keio Business School, Japan
- Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa
- Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
- Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.