I HAVE BECOME the new board chair of AACSB International at a time when the whole world has been disrupted by the COVID-19 virus. Many of the issues I had hoped to concentrate on during my tenure will become lesser priorities as the association focuses most of its attention on dealing with the fallout from the pandemic.
Yet I believe that, even—and perhaps especially—during these turbulent times, the association can serve as a powerful advocate for business education and a source of thought leadership for business school deans.
IN THE AFTERMATH
No one knows what to expect in a post-COVID-19 world, but it’s certain that higher education will look different. While there will be many permanent changes, some of them were coming anyway, albeit more slowly. I see three areas where the pandemic will have the most effect on our institutions:
Financial viability. In the near term, the fiscal challenges caused by the pandemic will cause schools to cancel programs and reduce staff and faculty positions. Over the long term, I think we will see more consolidations among institutions, and we’ll even see some for-sale signs on universities. I am part of a statewide university system that began a consolidation process about a decade ago, and I expect that the pandemic will put that process front and center once again. Because every school in the state was able to pivot to online instruction during the crisis, legislators will realize that we might not need to have an institution in every hamlet in the state. Legislators in other regions are likely to come to the same conclusion.
Online education. Because every school turned to remote learning during the pandemic, some industry observers believe that students will now find online education a far more acceptable way to learn. Others think that online education will be a less attractive option, because many students had bad experiences with remote learning—some were so unhappy with the experience that they are demanding partial refunds of their tuition. Whatever happens, I think that schools will not be able to simply dabble in online education in the future. They will be forced to develop real strategies around virtual learning.
The value proposition. For a long time, the public has been questioning the value of a traditional college degree, the length of time it takes to earn one, and the method schools use to deliver it. The experience of the last few months is going to make those voices stronger and more insistent about receiving answers. I believe that, in the future, business schools will be forced to re-examine the value proposition of their program and be much more strategic about what they offer.
As a member organization, AACSB will be affected by the same forces affecting our membership. We will feel the impacts as business schools consolidate, cope with fiscal challenges, or reimagine their value propositions—and we will need to continue to support our member institutions as they reinvent themselves.
The pandemic is having an impact on many of the services we offer and the roles we play, in large part because of the ongoing travel restrictions. For instance, it will be difficult for AACSB to act as a convener when people are prohibited from traveling or are reluctant to expose themselves to its risks. However, we have successfully managed virtual delivery of many of key events—including seminars, webinars, and our International Conference and Annual Meeting—and this has enabled us to bring members together online. In addition, AACSB members can connect over The Exchange, a global online network that allows them to share ideas and resources.
Linda Hadley in February 2020 at the Deans Conference
in San Antonio, Texas.
ONE OF OUR TOP STRATEGIES WILL BE TO PROVIDE VALUE-ADDED SERVICES TO OUR MEMBERS.
The pandemic has also caused us to pivot from our traditional face-to-face peer review accreditation visits to virtual visits for the 2020–21 academic year. These virtual visits have been well-received by the 15 schools that have participated in them so far. Peer review visits are essential for ensuring high-quality offerings and continuous improvement among AACSB-accredited programs; while virtual visits are not our first choice, they do preserve the integrity and quality of our process and allow schools to pursue accreditation without delays. How long we will be in this virtual visit system depends directly on our volunteers’ ability to travel.
Finally, because of travel bans arising from the pandemic, a large number of students are choosing to study at schools in their home countries. Many schools seek AACSB accreditation because it enables them to market themselves to international candidates, so AACSB accreditation might become less attractive to these schools as their international student enrollment declines.
For these reasons, we will spend a lot of time in the coming year responding to the fallout from the pandemic. One of our top strategies will be to provide value-added services to our members. For instance, over the years, AACSB has collected rich data from business schools all over the world. Although our objective is always to use this treasure trove to provide information, thought leadership, and advocacy to members, we now can mine it for information about how schools are operating during the pandemic. I see this as a real opportunity for the association to add value to members.
A NEW SET OF STANDARDS
In addition to responding to the pandemic during the coming year, AACSB will devote a great deal of energy to implementing the 2020 standards. The new standards, which operationalize our 2016 Collective Vision for Business Education, represent a reimagining of the accreditation process, particularly in terms of continuous improvement review. They are more principles-based and outcomes-focused than the 2013 ones, making them more appropriate for a global accreditor operating across many environments and cultures.
In the new standards, faculty qualifications are categorized by discipline, and schools are not held to ratios in disciplines for which no degrees, majors, or concentrations are offered. In addition, deployment of faculty is recognized as a strategic choice of the school. While both of these changes will provide members with more flexibility, schools still will require strong intellectual capital within disciplines where they offer degrees, majors, or concentrations.
Another key change will be the inculcation of societal impact throughout the standards. We are showing we believe that business education can be a force for good in society through the collective efforts of our nearly 900 accredited business schools in more than 50 countries and territories. During the near future, we will be highly focused on helping bring this vision to life.
STRATEGY FOR THE FUTURE
In the coming months, the association hopes to address other issues of importance to the industry. For instance, the Innovation Committee might look at the topic of microcredentialing and how member schools should consider integrating stackable certificates into their overall programs.
We will also look deeper into the future. Five years ago, the association developed its current strategic plan, which included a focus on becoming a more global organization. At that time, we brought in Tom Robinson as president and CEO, and he did an outstanding job in helping the association execute that plan.
WE'RE IN A DIFFERENT PLACE, AND IT'S TIME TO DEVELOP A NEW STRATEGIC PLAN.
But now we’re in a different place, and it’s time to develop a new strategic plan. It’s naïve of us to think that we can just grow infinitely, so we need to think about exactly how we want to grow, and we need to weigh that growth against what we can do to expand member services. We need to focus more on increasing member value.
I could not be more excited to have Caryn Beck-Dudley as our next CEO, and I’m thrilled to be board chair the year she takes the role. I expect she will do very well responding to the disruption we’re experiencing right now and helping us formulate a new strategy for the future.
I think AACSB is a remarkable organization. I’ve been involved with the association since the mid-1990s, and I’m proud of how far we’ve come. But we still need to take stock of where we are and plan for what we want to do next. While the pandemic has changed some of our immediate priorities, it has not changed our goal to help our members deliver excellent management education around the world.
Linda Hadley is dean of the D. Abbott Turner College of Business at Columbus State University in Georgia. She becomes the chair of the board of directors of AACSB International in July.