P&Q’s Top Business School Scandals Of 2020

In a year of unrest and tense political battles, the controversies that led to a tumultuous 2020 for many people across the globe infiltrated business school communities and campuses. From controversial social media posts to student revolts over tuition to racist outbursts, below are the most popular scandals and controversies we covered in 2020.

Asheen Phansey, a former adjunct professor and administrator at Babson College

The “Part 1” refers to the fact that this wasn’t the only business school faculty member or administrator to draw negative attention from a social media post. Asheen Phansey, who was an adjunct professor and administrator at Babson College, made the mistake of trying — and failing — to make a joke about a bomb.

In case you forgot, back in January of 2020, outgoing President Donald Trump threatened to bomb cultural sites in Iran during a particularly tense week between the U.S. and Iran. In response, Phansey took to his Facebook account to jokingly suggest that Iran’s supreme leader “should tweet a list of 52 sites of cultural American heritage that he would bomb. Um … Mall of America? … Kardashian residence?”

We sincerely believe this was a joke. And Babson probably did as well. But in this day and age, when actual bombings and mass attacks happen on a way too-regular basis, this sort of comment crossed the line. It might be something you say in a WhatsApp group thread with your buddies. But not something you put on social media. Especially as a professor of a prominent business school.

“Babson College conducted a prompt and thorough investigation related to a post shared on a staff member’s personal Facebook page that does not represent the values and culture of the College. Based on the results of the investigation, the staff member is no longer a Babson College employee,” the college said in a statement back in January. “As we have previously stated, Babson College condemns any type of threatening words and/or actions condoning violence and/or hate.”

Classrooms are empty in business schools around the world as instruction moves online. Will prospective students still apply to join future cohorts?

Soon after the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic forced universities around the world to shut-down in-person learning and move to online education, students came out demanding tuition reimbursements or reductions. Lawsuits were filed. Petitions were signed. And this wasn’t just a few frustrated students and some random universities. More than 700 MBA students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business signed an online petition, saying that an online education is a “subpar classroom experience” and were demanding that tuition be cutback substantially for the new spring term.

At Columbia Business School, nearly 350 signed a similar petition. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, some 950 students signed a petition by mid-April. Students at Harvard Business School joined in days after the other schools. The frustration and pushback lasted into this fall when students at New York University’s Stern School of Business expressed anger when NYU raised tuition this fall.

As if would-be MBA applicants weren’t stressed enough, the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) didn’t help matters when it created its online version of the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) and left out the pen and paper scratchpad and replaced it with an online whiteboard feature. “With this new online format, the GMAT is about to become the first major standardized test to not allow students to take some form of handwritten notes,” one anxious test-taker told us after we broke the news about the scratch pad-less GMAT.

Soon after, also in April, hundreds of test-takers signed an online petition, demanding GMAC add back some sort of pen and notepad feature to the test. When asked for a comment on our original reporting, GMAC’s Vineet Chhabra, the global product and marketing head for the GMAT exam said: “We value market feedback and like all our products, will continuously explore ways to make the GMAT Online experience one that helps test takers perform their best on exam day.”

Eventually, the GMAC did add a physical whiteboard, which broadly appealed to most test-takers.

Chicago Booth MBA Amy Cooper charged a stranger and then falsely accused him of threatening her life in a phone call to the police

Sometimes, MBA antics go beyond our hyper-focused editorial coverage area and makes national — or international — headlines. That was the case for Amy Cooper, who graduated from Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and up until early this summer, worked as a vice president and head of investment solutions at Franklin Templeton Investments in New York City. Cooper was publicly fired on May 26 after a Memorial Day incident that went viral on social media.

The incident? An odd and disturbing videotaped encounter with a black man in Central Park who had asked her to abide by park rules and put her dog on a leash. When he whipped out his smartphone to video the incident, she charged him in a threatening manner, coming within inches of him. Cooper soon joined a growing list of white people calling police on Black people for simply … being Black.

Cooper initially refused to put her dog on a leash, instead threatening the 57-year-old man, Christian Cooper (no relation), a Harvard graduate who works in communications. She screamed that she would call the police to falsely report that he was putting her life in jeopardy. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She did just that. Mr. Cooper continued to film. And Amy Cooper became an internet figure and microcosm of an America with continued entrenched racial biases.

UCLA Anderson Professor Gordon Klein
UCLA Anderson Professor Gordon Klein

UCLA Anderson Professor Gordon Klein

Gordon Klein, an accounting professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management for almost four decades, found himself in a controversy after an “extremely insensitive, dismissive, and woefully racist response to his students’ request for empathy and compassion during a time of civil unrest,” this past summer. Klein wrote an email that appears to mock a student requesting special accommodations over a final exam in light of the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests and riots throughout the U.S. The unnamed student asked the professor, author of a textbook on accounting and ethics, to “give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota.”

More than 17,000 people have since signed a petition calling for UCLA to dismiss Klein from the school. “Given his background in ethics and liability, one would expect Professor Klein to hold himself to a higher social standing, especially given his position as a steward within higher education,” according to the petition started by UCLA student Preet Bains. “However, his response to students was inappropriate, tone-deaf, and highly insensitive.”

The emails and petition created pushback from a free-speech group and led to police having to protect Klein after threats to his life.

Wharton had planned to have some in-person classes in the fall, blended with remote instruction, but changed to an all-remote plan in late July. Wharton photo

Many top B-schools took different approaches to how they planned on opening classes this fall. In-person. Fully online. Or a hybrid of both were the most popular picks. Regardless of the plan, the lesson from this fall was to stick to it. At Wharton, that’s where leadership failed. After planning on a hybrid approach for most of the summer, the school reversed-course about a month before classes began and moved to fully online courses. And incoming MBAs did not like it. Freshly minted Wharton Dean Erika James, took her fair-share of the flack, as incoming MBAs called her “a crisis management expert who can’t handle a crisis.”

Their biggest criticism: Wharton misled admits with poor communication throughout the summer, delaying announcements and moving back deadlines, then made its big announcement about going fully online to start the fall without also having a Q&A session or offering much additional information. Additionally, they say, the school has not brought students into any of the decision-making about the fall and has been unforgivably inflexible in granting deferrals or considering discounted tuition.

The school’s hybrid approach was originally communicated on July 6 and then reaffirmed in email messages to students on July 9th and 21st. Ten days later, on July 31, came official notification that all courses would pretty much be online. “There were countless promises and misleading communications sent out by the Wharton administration,” one admitted student told us in August. “International students, who have been fighting for months to secure visas to get here, have been especially pushed aside. To receive this surprise update right before school starts, rather than months ago, has disrupted and upended everyone’s plans.”

Boston College MBA Jeffrey Previte was caught on security video beating his dog. He has since apologized but is under investigation for animal abuse

At Poets&Quants, we’re dog lovers. When we did have our office before the pandemic, there was rarely a day when one (or more) of our canine family members wasn’t right there along with us. So this past August, when former Boston College MBA graduate Jeffrey Previte, 46, was caught on a security camera repeatedly beating his four-month-old dog Bici in a condominium building in Santa Monica, California, it hit us particularly hard.

In the August 22nd video, Previte can be seen grabbing the whimpering dog by the throat, choking, and slapping the dog. At one point, he slammed the animal against a wall. Only two days earlier, Previte was named co-CEO of EBI Consulting, a company founded in 1989 by his father, Frank, who is a vice-chairman of the trustees of Boston College. The privately-owned firm is in the environmental risk and compliance management services business and headquartered in Burlington, MA.

Ironically, Previte is an MBA graduate of Boston College, a Jesuit school that requires that its MBA students complete 20 hours of community service, in part, to further the Jesuit tradition of service.

Greg Patton, a business communications professor at USC Marshall School of Business, has been suspended by the school after students complained about a Mandarin word he used that sounded very similar to the N-word. YouTube

Months after UCLA Anderson experienced a long-term professor in the middle of a racially-charged controversy, fellow Los Angeles-based top-25 business school, the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business found itself in the same position. Greg Patton, a professor of clinical business communication, was removed from a course after Black students complained he used a word in Mandarin that sounded very similar to the N-word in English. Patton was given a “pause” and replaced by another professor while the school investigated.

Eventually — after a few weeks — the internal investigation concluded that while the students’ concerns were valid and sincere, the professor did not violate the school’s policies. Patton continued to teach in the EMBA program this semester and will be reinstated into his normal teaching next semester.

Mark Perry has been waging a four-year-long crusade against women’s only programs in higher education

In the age of #MeToo, the University of Michigan-Flint’s Mark Perry believes he’s fighting his own “social justice” war. The 67-year-old professor of economics, is at war against any educational program, club or initiative, including scholarship support, that is exclusive for women if there are no equivalent offerings for men. In the past four years, he has filed nearly 250 complaints alleging civil rights violations for organizations that support everything from coding camps for girls and scholarship awards for women to women’s only lounges on campus and faculty awards to encourage and support female professors.

His latest target: Business schools that offer programs for women. Since August, Perry says he has filed about 20 complaints with government agencies against a large number of business schools, from Harvard and Stanford to UC-Berkeley Haas and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“There is a lot of female privilege and payback in higher education,” Perry told us in October. “They like the fact that they are given a disproportionate share of resources at universities.”

Booth faculty member heading to class

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business was not the only top-ranked business school that had to make changes because of Coronavirus infections this fall (see below). Fellow Chicago-based school Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management also had to close and move classes online for similar purposes. But an off-campus party of Booth MBA students on Chicago’s North Side, led to one of the biggest changes. The gathering resulted in several full-time MBA students testing positive for the coronavirus with more than 100 MBA students required to quarantine for 14 days.

The shift to online learning from a hybrid format was announced in an email sent to the school community on Wednesday, Oct. 14 from Michele Rasmussen, the university’s dean of students, and Eric Heath, associate vice president for safety and security.

“Since the start of the Autumn Quarter, the vast majority of University community members have adopted the UChicago Health Pact and have made its requirements part of their daily routines,” the pair wrote in the email. “However, the Booth School of Business has learned that within the last week a large group of full-time MBA students congregated off-campus on Chicago’s North Side, many without wearing face coverings. Some individuals from that group have since tested positive for COVID-19.”

Facebook post by Paul Ewell of Virginia Wesleyan University
Facebook post by Paul Ewell of Virginia Wesleyan University

Facebook post by Paul Ewell of Virginia Wesleyan University

Continuing the trend of mainly white and male business school professors and leaders to say something dumb, offensive, or both in a public setting is Paul Ewell, a Virginia Wesleyan University professor of management, director of the school’s MBA program, and dean of the VWU’s Global Campus for online learners.

A passionate Trump supporter, Ewell created a firestorm of protest on both the school’s campus and the Internet after his private Facebook post went public in the week following the U.S. presidential election in November. In that post (see above), the professor and dean demanded that all Biden voters unfriend him. To be fair, in an increasingly politically-polarized climate and country, we’ve all probably wanted to unfriend someone on social media because of their extreme political stances.

But Ewell went off the rails. He denounced everyone who voted for the President-elect as “ignorant, anti-American and anti-Christian.” Ewell then accused them of corrupting not only the election but “our youth … our country.”

When we originally published the article, it was unclear if he’d face any sort of job consequences to go along with the immense amount of pushback. Less than a week later, we got our answer as Ewell announced his resignation.

Columbia’s first-year MBA students may graduate next year with STEM-designated degrees. CBS photo

In one of our most hotly-debated articles of the year, Columbia Business School disciplined 70 MBA students for violations of the university’s travel restrictions during COVID. For three weeks in November, the students were banned from campus and had to attend their classes online after traveling to the Turks and Caicos Islands during the fall break in violation of the school’s policies to protect the community from a coronavirus outbreak.

CBS used IP addresses to trace the students after receiving a formal complaint which led to an investigation and the disciplinary action. Columbia MBA students have been divided over the restrictions, though the vast majority of them have complied with the university’s compact to prevent a coronavirus outbreak on campus. A school official equated the disciplinary action to a “yellow card,” effectively a warning to behave. A second violation would result in a “red card” and a full suspension from the school.

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