Back to School Amidst COVID-19: Q&A with Dean Richard Phillips

We sat down with Richard Phillips, Dean of J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University to discuss the factors that contributed to Georgia State’s decision to allow students to return to campus, some of the difficulties faced in making the best decision and more.

What factors contributed to Georgia State’s decision to allow students to return to school (campus?) for the fall semester? What precautions has Georgia State put in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19 for students and faculty on campus?

To provide some background, Georgia State is comprised of one main campus in the heart of downtown Atlanta along with six satellite campuses throughout the metro area. Ultimately, our goal was to de-densify these campus locations so that we could promote safety and wellness for our students, faculty and staff with the additional requirement of a face covering and by ensuring six feet of social distancing in classrooms. We decided the best approach to achieve these goals would be a blended teaching method, with 25 percent of students in class on any given day, rotating one-quarter of the students each time class meets.

Faculty members had the right to request to not have class in a blended mode and go online if they could demonstrate they fell into one of the Georgia Department of Public Health or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categories for higher risk for severe illness with COVID-19. Alternately, faculty could request to go face-to-face or take the class fully online for pedagogical or university-related reasons, for example to offer delivery format options to students across a course with multiple sections or to offer a face-to-face class for a small enrollment honors seminar.

Ultimately, we ended up with approximately 50 percent of courses online, 40 percent of courses in a blended mode and 10 percent of courses face-to-face. We estimate that on any given day, the aggregation of all these decisions led to us having approximately 10 percent of students on campus this fall relative to last fall. Since Georgia State’s downtown campus is vertical, social distancing and lower density of students removes additional problems such as crowding around elevators, figuring out where students go to study between classes, lines in dining halls, etc.

For campus offices that are student-facing, such as advising offices, the lower student density also means only a small percent of front-office staff are needed on campus to interact with students. The remainder of these staff are able to serve students online by teleworking from home.

These strategies have reduced the number of students in downtown Atlanta and the number of faculty and staff who are there. By doing so we are promoting the safety and health of our campus stakeholders and doing the same for those who live and work in the rest of the downtown area where our campus is located.

What were some of the difficulties faced in making the best decision given the trade-offs around costs, student experience, safety etc.?

One difficulty is certainly the trade-off between student experience and safety. Most undergraduate students attending Georgia State, like many universities, are between 18-22 years old. There is a lot of social and emotional growth that happens in this age range which is difficult to replicate online. Starting the fall semester with a blended approach to teaching has allowed us to strategically target our scarce capacity for face-to-face interactions on campus to where it is most valuably applied. For example, a large percentage of our face-to-face coursework has been reserved for freshmen and sophomore courses to help us engage students in the life of the campus. By de-densifying the university and allocating face-to-face interactions in these early grades, we are using a scarce resource where it has its highest value.

What measures has GSU (the University, the business school, and faculty members) put in place to ensure that the quality of learning is not sacrificed for students who are taking classes online or through a flex-hybrid approach this semester?

We have at least three main initiatives to ensure quality of learning is not sacrificed for students who are taking classes online or through blended teaching.

  • Georgia State’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) offers a Master Online Teaching Series (MOT), which is a mostly self-paced, asynchronous course to help faculty learn how to teach online. It existed prior to the pandemic, but another version was quickly created by converting the original course to an accelerated course for faculty to learn how to teach at a distance. In addition, CETL instructional designers created two new versions of the course, for those who were teaching during the summer and fall 2020 semesters, where they tailored (MOT) to the amount of time faculty had to prepare their courses. Another version of the MOT was created and made available for our part-time instructors, Ph.D. students and adjunct faculty to ensure they were able to transition their skills to the online environment.
  • Specific to the business school, we quickly created a group called the Robinson Digital Champions. We populated this group over spring break, when we knew we would be making the transition to teaching-at-distance, by identifying one or two faculty members in each department already adept at teaching online. That way, within a discipline or department, faculty members and adjunct instructors who had not taught online before had peer mentors with whom they had a previous relationship who they could go to for advice. The Digital Champions held a series of seminars and workshops to help faculty prepare for this new teaching method and provided a virtual esprit de corps that all faculty in the college rallied around during a particularly scary moment that none of us had faced before in our professional careers. The Robinson Digital Champions is a concept that many ARIA members will recognize as a crisis management best practice tactic.The work of the Digital Champions continues, although it looks different this fall as they are now focused on ensuring lessons learned are shared across the college and offering seminars on best practices while continuing to serve as peer mentors on an as needed basis.
  • Finally, the federal government passed the CARES Act, which provides relief to universities with a formula that allocated increased funding levels to universities with a higher rates of Pell Grant students. Through the money we received, we were able to reimburse the university for some of our Coronavirus-related expenses, invest in faculty training, and build several high-tech simulcast classrooms that we now brand in a strategy we market as Robinson Anywhere as it allows students to access their classes in person or virtually, whichever way they feel most comfortable and/or is most convenient for them.

Are there any best practices you’ve learned regarding teaching methods through these last few weeks that you can share? Any lessons regarding what NOT to do?

In my presidential address, I argued that business school faculty had an opportunity to partner with industry to conduct applied innovation research projects so that business partners could explore what’s possible with new technologies before making large scale investments in those technologies. To accomplish these partnerships, we built physical labs so that our faculty, students and partners could experiment and collaborate on their ideas. When Covid-19 happened, we thought we were going to have to cancel five projects that were ongoing in the spring semester as no one could come to campus and access the labs. Our faculty, however, asked that we try to continue the work and complete the projects virtually. It turns out we delivered each project on time by the end of the semester and every single corporate sponsor was extremely pleased with the result and grateful. We learned we were able to innovate at the cutting-edge of creativity and continue to keep our academic goals on track in these virtual settings. It was quite exciting.

In terms of what not to do, when some faculty members began teaching online, they thought they could replicate what they did in the classroom in a virtual setting. This didn’t work. Teaching in virtual settings requires new ways of engaging students and requires faculty to rethink the way they engage students, the way they teach material, and the way they are going assess how students are understanding and achieving the learning objectives of the course. Teaching online is really a different experience and requires a completely different approach. A lot of faculty around the world have learned this lesson in the last six months.

With students working at home, grades have skyrocketed. What strategies are you implementing to ensure academic integrity for online assessment?

This is a work in progress for a lot of universities and big a concern for faculty. This is true for Georgia State University faculty as we also need to rethink our own assessment strategies in order to maintain the academic integrity of our degrees in online environments.

In the Robinson College of Business, our Undergraduate Program Council passed a policy this fall requiring faculty to bring course proposals before the Council to move a class from face-to-face delivery to an online environment so they can evaluate the assessment methodologies to ensure they are appropriate for the delivery format. My view is that this change in faculty governance is quite dramatic and, at least in the short term, in order to maintain the integrity of our degrees, a healthy advance. Academic integrity requires investment by both faculty members and by the university to ensure appropriate methodologies, resources, and systems are in place. None of this will be solved overnight, but by putting faculty governance in place and through collaboration with university administrators, we will get this right. Longer term, we will see if this additional oversight remains necessary or if it becomes an inefficient impediment to curricular innovation.

What do you think will be the long-term effects on University /business school programs due to COVID-19?

  • First, we are witnessing a flash-bang where, quite literally, every faculty member worldwide is simultaneously innovating in the online space. We will see a tremendous amount of creativity in online programming in the next 10-24 months.
  • Second, online programming will become a standard offering in all markets. The market share of face-to-face tuition revenue over the next three to five years remains an open question.
  • Third, we know digital markets are subject to significant economies of scale. I expect we will see greater market share of applications and enrollment going to a fewer larger players. In addition, brand matters a lot in online markets, and brand is much more economically viable in organizations with larger asset bases. As a result, I expect universities with larger asset bases will have greater competitive advantage going forward than small or mid-tier universities.

How does COVID-19 play into what you talked about in your presidential address 3 years ago vis a vis the long-term outlook for Universities (e.g. brick and mortar)?

Everything happening in our current context only reinforces the trends that I discussed in my presidential address. In fact, COVID-19 creates an inflection point, where the digital technologies that I discussed that were already rapidly diffusing across the economy and society are now accelerating even faster.

To be successful in this forthcoming world, leaders must embrace, and we must prepare our students for this new reality while anticipating a future skills gap and working now to fill it. Top business skills of the future include:

  1. Digital acumen. During the pandemic, more and more of our lives have shifted online; now we handle everything from conducting meetings to ordering groceries on the internet. Profound digital transformation and revolutionary technologies have been affecting business and society for some time, but the diffusion of these technologies is now happening more rapidly and more broadly to all corners of the economy. Knowledge about these and forthcoming technologies and how they can be used and combined to create products and services to meet the needs of today’s consumer is more critical than ever. Knowing how to lead in a digital world requires competence with augmented reality, big data, cybersecurity, blockchain, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and more.
  2. Innovative mindset. A modern company’s success not only hinges on the awareness of new technologies, but just as important on the ability to recognize, pursue and successfully develop innovative technologies and approaches to doing business. The old way of doing things simply will not cut it anymore. Leaders need to know how to be creative and apply principles from design thinking systems, lean startup methodologies and even reverse innovation to approach and solve problems. Even more important, leaders need to enable their organizations to be innovation machines. Providing employees the ability and incentives to innovate, creating the constructs that permit new products and services to be developed, nurtured and scaled, and developing the mindset that the creative destruction process is continual and not “one and done” are all crucial skills that define a successful business leader.
  3. Comfort with ambiguity. There is no roadmap for unprecedented times. Business leaders must be comfortable with ambiguity, experimentation and failure. Just as important, leaders must nurture environments that create certainty for employees, suppliers, and customers, that encourage experimentation, and that celebrate failure as well as success even in the face of that same uncertainty they are facing themselves. This is an area where I suggest ARIA members have a comparative advantage to join with other disciplinary colleagues across the business school to train next generation business leaders.


We are curious about the liability piece of face-to-face instruction during COVID. There are talks of potential class-action lawsuits against universities if there are bad outcomes to having students physically on campus. What are your thoughts on this?

While we can’t be certain of anything, and I can’t speak for other universities, we have worked hard to reduce the risk to faculty, staff and students. Our default teaching model is consistent with CDC guidelines for educational institutions, our faculty and staff have agency to request an accommodation for those who fall into high risk categories related to COVID-19, we have de-densified our campus and are promoting teleworking, and our students have significant choice about the format of class they wish to take. Although we have tried to be as evidence-based as we could and to clearly communicate these strategies, at the end of the day there is no way to eliminate all risk. At some point, it will be up to each stakeholder’s discretion to make the best decision for themselves.