Educating through the pandemic

“Dean Samba” reflects on his first 18 months at the School of Business.
0521 Execprofile Issue 1
Photograph by Paul Newby III, UW–Madison

Eighteen months after starting as the Albert O. Nicholas Dean, Wisconsin School of Business, Dr. Vallabh Sambamurthy, who prefers, “Dean Samba,” leads with a calm demeanor and a determination to implement what has been learned throughout the pandemic.

From India, Sambamurthy most recently worked at Michigan State University. He accepted the UW–Madison job in January 2019 and started eight months later, spending the time in between reaching out to university alumni anxious and curious to learn about the new dean.

In a recent conversation, we learned more as well.

How did the pandemic impact your role?

It was broken into two parts. In my first six months, we had started the strategic planning process around Roadmap 2025, our vision for the next five years. We already knew things were changing and agreed that learning and education had to become more convenient, flexible, accessible, and more personalized as we look to the future. The pandemic accelerated that, but it also kept me from going back on the road to communicate our plan to different stakeholders.

Our new Professional MBA program, which launches this fall, is an example of that. It’s a hybrid of online and in-person classes designed to be more flexible so students don’t have to juggle coming to Madison every week with the pressures of a young family and work.

Take us back to March 2020. How did the business school adjust?

We had to move 400 classes online within four days. We sent the students home for spring break and promised they’d be online the Monday after.

Of course, not all of our courses were ready for online instruction — in fact, 40% to 50% of our courses needed to come a long way to provide a quality learning experience online, and we had to train many professors on the fly to teach virtually. I call that our resilience mode. We didn’t think we’d do a terrific job, but we didn’t want to hurt the learning of the students. Kudos to my colleagues for making it happen.

What did that pivot entail?

We conducted surveys and learned three things: First, teaching online is not the same as teaching in person, which isn’t surprising. Since then, we’ve learned all about instructional design online and invested a lot of money over the summer to enhance the quality of online courses. We’ve trained professors to conduct lively and nurturing learning experiences online when the student doesn’t have the benefit of give and take and eye contact that usually happens in a classroom setting.

Secondly, we learned that about 15% of our students lacked adequate technology, like a good Wi-Fi router or webcam, so through the generosity of our philanthropic alumni, we created hardship scholarships to level the playing field.

Third, learning is social. We learn from each other, and that’s been the most challenging part of this. We did not do as well in this regard.

How were student learning experiences impacted?

The pandemic rendered the traditional classroom lecture hall invalid. I’m a big believer in the digital economy, where technology has fundamentally reshaped many of the things we do. We can seize on those opportunities, but we also understand there’s no substitute for the human connection and human aspirations.

In the business school, a lot of learning comes from analyzing case discussions, and that has improved. With Zoom, we can now schedule 18 or 20 executive alumni into half-hour virtual discussions to gain insight into how corporations handle specific challenges. We could never have done that before. We might have been able to invite two or three.

In our new normal, professors are also exploring artificial intelligence as a way to improve classroom discussions, which can be a wonderful tool.

Looking back, could you have done anything differently?

Long ago I learned a lesson: Have a plan but don’t be constrained by it. We were forced to plan month to month. We brought students back to campus in late August but within two weeks infections spiked and we had to shut down and switch to online learning for another two weeks. After bringing things under control, we had to reassure the faculty and students that such a spike wouldn’t happen again and that we could return. It was a lesson learned about being ready for three or four different scenarios. That’s what the textbook says, but there’s no substitute for learning while doing.

Now, like most companies, we are reexamining space needs in the future. We need to be smarter about how we use buildings because some of our colleagues may continue to work virtually. We hope to lead the campus on reconfiguring our workspaces.

What would you like the business community to know?

My goal is to strengthen the connection with businesses. We want to be a partner in the talent transformation. The Professional MBA program designed for working professionals is one way.

We’re also developing “badges,” which are short courses designed to help working professionals learn new skills. For example, there may be a badge for project management, or data visualization, and we’re looking to partner with local businesses on that. Professionals often don’t have the time for a two-year degree, but they can learn useful skills over six weeks or so to enhance their careers. We’ll build this out over the next six to 12 months.

Finally, our business school education model focuses on applied learning, where small groups of bright students work on projects for companies. We’re always looking for more partnerships in that regard as well.

What’s been the most challenging part of the past 18 months?

The anxiety and disruption that students and faculty had to go through. We told them almost overnight to start working from home. It may have sounded attractive early on, but sharing space with your family, spouse, and pets is not that easy. We’ve seen fatigue, stress, and economic challenges.

This pandemic has had a huge economic cost and the university has taken a huge financial hit. We’ve had to do furloughs and we’re working through budget cuts and trying to make hard decisions with as much respect and empathy as possible. Imagine the stress and anxiety it’s causing at home.

It’s been tough for me to be the cheerleader while also stating the truth. In my leadership role, I’ve had to be an optimist, yet also be pragmatic enough to say we don’t know everything about what the future will bring.

What are you most looking forward to as things “normalize?”

Seeing and meeting people again! I have 300 colleagues and was just beginning to learn their names when COVID struck.

What else surprised you since taking the helm?

If someone would have predicted last January that one month later there would be a pandemic that would completely upend everything, I would have had a panic attack. Now I marvel at how we’ve survived. I’ve learned that I can maintain a calm, yet deliberate sense of progress, and that’s not easy. You can only find out about yourself once you’re in the middle of it.

A year ago, our culture and systems were not as well equipped for our staff and faculty to work virtually 100% of the time. We made some very tough decisions and I learned just how collaborative, supportive, and empathetic my colleagues are. I could not have done that without their support. I always knew Wisconsin was a community. Now I know more clearly what that means.

What might people not know about you?

I’m a huge Seinfeld fan! Seinfeld is a show about nothing, and that’s what life is all about, actually. If you take it in that spirit, it can help you get through the good and bad days. I’m also a huge Hamilton fan. I’ve seen it four times.

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