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Wharton MBA Program Shifts from Hybrid Model to Mostly Remote Learning for Fall 2020

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In light of recent surges in Covid-19 cases in Philadelphia and around the U.S., the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School announced on Friday, July 31st, that the planned hybrid models in place since June were no longer viable. Instead, the fall semester will be conducted remotely, with a few exceptions.

Wharton MBA Class of 2022 students received the news about remote learning in a virtual town hall hosted by Dean Erika James, who officially stepped into her new role as dean on July 1st. The town hall was followed up by an email from Vice Dean Howie Kaufold that clarified the decision-making process and provided extensive details on how the virtual plans would unfold. The statement read in part, “For the past several months, we concentrated our efforts on creating plans for an in-person experience for you, but as the developments unfolded over the last two weeks, it became clear that what we could deliver would not be sustainable amid the shifting situation, nor worth the heightened risk for those of you attending.”

A little more than a month prior, a more hybrid class model still seemed feasible. On June 25th, the university had announced official reopening plans for the fall—though administration did note that the hybrid class model was dependent on any changes in the public health situation. The “Remote Plus” hybrid plan would have allowed Wharton students to alternate between in-person and virtual classes for courses seating a maximum of 48 students, allotting only 24 students or less in class together at a time. All classes larger than 48 students would have been conducted online regardless. It was stressed that contingency plans would be developed should the need for further restrictions arise—and, unfortunately, it did. According to the New York Times in a July 29th report, the University of Pennsylvania has the ninth most Covid-19 cases out of all public four year institutions, private Division I members, and elite research institutions in the U.S. to date.

How Is Wharton Accommodating Student Needs?

Not all classes are being held remotely. The school has made provisions for classes “where it is essential to have an in-person experience in order to meet curricular and/or pedagogical requirements,” according to Vice Dean Kaufold’s message to students. To ensure first-year international students do not face any obstacles in coming to the U.S., Wharton is issuing a support letter confirming that they are attending a hybrid program.

In anticipation of students with no alternative to living on campus and those who are living in Philadelphia, the university-wide Student Campus Compact outlining behavioral expectations and conduct standards for Penn students that was issued in June is still in effect. All students and any individuals who frequent the campus are required to participate in the PennOpen Pass testing and contact tracing program.

While there are no plans to reduce or refund any tuition costs, the Wharton MBA Financial Relief Fund has been established to aid any students with costs related to Covid-19 disruptions. Acknowledging that many students now have to shoulder non-refundable travel costs, technology expenses, moving expenses, insurance, and rental issues, the fund promises additional financial assistance for these and other “urgent needs.” All students, the statement emphasized, are encouraged to apply.

Wharton has long-maintained an upper-limit GPA of 3.33, however, this will not be enforced for the fall semester. Academic performance standards still stand but LT indicators (lowest 10%) will not be applied to student records. Students now have the option to request a leave of absence until September 8th in order to take a semester or an academic year off, provided they return to complete the program within five years of their originally scheduled graduation date. The downside to this option is that during a leave of absence, student status lapses, which students will have to address with any lenders they may have student loans with.

The Office of Student Life is pledging to work with the Wharton Graduate Association to retain the community experience despite the cancellation of co-curricular activities on campus. Student feedback is being requested to design virtual engagement plans. In the meantime, the “Remote Together” initiative has been launched in an effort to improve the remote learning experience to be more engaging and productive. Designed to connect both first- and second-year MBA students in different cities to study, socialize, and conduct interview prep along with local alumni, the program facilitates virtual activities but will pursue in-person interaction where possible.

Community Reaction 

Back in July, Penn’s newspaper The DP reported that most professors were wary of in-person instruction and, especially in light of the danger that the still-unfolding pandemic represented, were looking positively at virtual classes.

Ayoola Oladipupo, Wharton MBA Class of 2022, is approaching his first semester with positivity. “To be precise,” Oladipupo said in a statement, “there’s been active communication via different mediums on key topics as they unfold. In addition, the school has been supportive in different ways, including providing additional MBA funding fellowships for many of us and also providing sufficient support for international students seeking visas/travelling to campus. While there may have been opportunities in the timing of some communication due to the volatility in Covid impact, overall, my experience has been positive.”

In choosing to go forward with his MBA program, Oladipupo summed up the reasoning shared by many of his fellow students: “Part of the reason I decided to continue with my enrollment into the MBA program at a time like this is that I wanted to give myself an opportunity to face real life ambiguity at one of its toughest points and have myself successfully navigate the associated challenges. Essentially, I want to build my ability to make the most out of difficult life situations.”

Meanwhile, students in social media groups seemed resigned to the shift to remote classes, though were frustrated at how long it took to come to it. Reacting to a comparison of the school to the Titanic, one second-year student commented, “Much like with the Titanic, less damage would have been done by running headfirst into the obstacle [if I remember correctly] rather than trying to avoid the iceberg and doing more damage in the process.”

The student reaction on MBA subreddits was also a mix of cynicism and pragmatism. First-year Wharton student PeetaBread remarked that remote learning and a lack of campus life actually meant that “The school fully knows that students will still be meeting up…the school gets to earn all its tuition and have no liability. Win, Win!” A second-year student commenting as bdiggity18 countered, “Universities are saying you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You can pay for the education, but you can’t pay to force the professors to risk their health (by making in-person attendance optional), and you can’t pay to force the school to risk everyone else’s health to satisfy your preference.”

For Redditor Caliwillbemine, a military vet and first-year student at Wharton, the reality of the situation was tempered by his expression of empathy. “I don’t expect the experience to be awful. Hopefully things can be handled this fall throughout the country intelligently so there can be some form of in-person experience this year. I feel way worse for the second-year students because they did not elect to attend with this as even a possibility. Everyone going into this just needs to have an open mind and make the most of the situation.”

Classes are scheduled to begin August 19th.

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.