Canceling MBA Residencies was Never an Option

person using laptop

Canceling MBA Residencies was Never an Option

When Syracuse University made the necessary decision to pivot to online learning in March 2020, Amy McHale, assistant dean for master’s programs at the Whitman School, and her team suddenly had a big challenge on their hands. Just a few days later, 350 students enrolled in the online MBA@Syracuse program were scheduled to attend four different residency tracks in-person at various locations throughout the country. Due to the pandemic, that was no longer an option — but neither was canceling the residencies.

While students in the MBA@Syracuse program take their classes online from locations around the world, they are required to attend a minimum of three in-person residencies in order to graduate. These weekend-long programs are held both throughout the country and internationally, offering an intensive focus on pertinent business-related topics.

When the pandemic struck, students, faculty and guest speakers were quickly notified that the three spring residencies — Business and Taxes, Accounting for Small Businesses and Entrepreneurship, and Digital Storytelling — were being moved to an online format. Each was reduced to 40 students, prioritizing those who needed the spring residency to complete graduation requirements. The biggest challenges, however, were how to keep students engaged online for what were typically four-hour sessions over several days, while also making sure they had the opportunity for important networking and the chance to socialize. It took some innovation, according to McHale, but the spring tracks were successful, offering lectures and presentations interspersed with videos, recordings, breakout groups, small group discussions, frequent breaks and virtual social activities to keep attendees fully engaged.

Fast forward to June 2020, as COVID-19 continued to rage and travel restrictions remained tight. The MBA program made the difficult decision to pull the plug on an 80 student in-person residency planned for Stockholm (which has since been rescheduled for June 2021), while an on-campus orientation residency program was moved online.

“We knew we had to make it work this summer, and we had the virtual spring residency experience to build off of,” says Jenny Henderson, assistant director, student services and online operations. “It was never an option to cancel the residencies outright. Fortunately, we have faculty experienced in teaching through an online platform, and we were able to quickly tap into their expertise. Also, our students in the MBA@Syracuse program were used to online learning and already up to date on most of the technologies that we offer. That made this change less of a disrupter in terms of delivering a high-quality virtual experience.”

The summer program ultimately consisted of nine virtual residency tracks that took place over two weekends in June. The MBA@Syracuse program took the opportunity to tie the learning experiences into challenges that the students — most of whom are working professionals — were dealing with in real time due to the pandemic.

For example, Professor of Supply Chain Practice Patrick Penfield conducted a residency called Global Supply Chain, a topic that has drawn great attention as transportation and businesses were impacted in the wake of COVID-19. Adjunct Instructor Robert Florence led  Economic Health or Human Health, a residency where students discussed the pros and cons of reopening the economy while COVID-19 cases continued to rise; and Assistant Teaching Professor of Finance Fatma Sonmez-Leopold held Bonds 101, a residency that took a deep dive into bonds with a focus on investments in a time of crisis.

“We leveraged our outstanding faculty talent in order to make each track very applicable to what our students were facing in their jobs now. We were living the case study, and students could see the return on the investment in their degree right in front of them,” says Henderson. “Having the chance to ask questions and seek advice from faculty and their peers was a real advantage that made a true impression on those who participated.”

While reaction to going virtual was mixed — some were relieved they didn’t have to travel; others missed the in-person interaction that had been part of the traditional experience — overall, attendees were very impressed with both the logistics that went into creating the virtual tracks and the quality of information they received.

“I’m pursuing an MBA because I recently transitioned into an operations role and wanted to be able to speak the language across the organization, not just from a technology perspective,” says BJ Crane ’21 MBA, global program manager, SAS, who has an undergraduate degree in computer science. “I was disappointed when the in-person residency was canceled, but I was also glad that I didn’t have to travel at a time when things were very uncertain. The logistics of the virtual program were amazing. It wasn’t a free-for-all, but, instead, it was very open and communicative. Of course, face-to-face connections weren’t possible, but there was still a really good social dynamic.”

A residency slated for New Orleans has been postponed until fall 2021, but the MBA@Syracuse program is hoping to resume in-person residencies in 2021.