U.S. markets open in 7 hours 13 minutes
  • S&P Futures

    -71.50 (-2.17%)
  • Dow Futures

    -537.00 (-2.02%)
  • Nasdaq Futures

    -284.25 (-2.51%)
  • Russell 2000 Futures

    -32.50 (-2.09%)
  • Crude Oil

    -0.73 (-2.02%)
  • Gold

    +0.10 (+0.01%)
  • Silver

    -0.10 (-0.43%)

    +0.0007 (+0.06%)
  • 10-Yr Bond

    0.0000 (0.00%)
  • Vix

    -2.69 (-6.68%)

    -0.0015 (-0.12%)

    -0.4200 (-0.40%)

    -265.52 (-1.97%)
  • CMC Crypto 200

    +16.70 (+6.88%)
  • FTSE 100

    -1.05 (-0.02%)
  • Nikkei 225

    -303.93 (-1.30%)

‘The Fyre Festival Of B-Schools’: Wharton MBA Admits Say School Is Failing Them

Marc Ethier
·20 mins read

There will be no in-person classes when Wharton MBAs begin learning later this month. That has led to widespread dissension among admits. Wharton photo

Coronavirus has been the most talked-about element in higher education for about six months now. Some schools have undoubtedly handled the pandemic better than others. As The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania prepares for a fall semester that the school recently announced will begin fully online because of the continuing risk of the pandemic, MBA admits are coming forward to say that their alma-mater-to-be has fumbled its pandemic response at key moments — and has a Class of 2022 full of angry and disappointed students as a result.

The eruption of discontent comes after Wharton’s announcement late last month that plans for a hybrid approach this fall have been suspended in response to a national resurgence of the coronavirus Covid-19. The incoming MBA admits don’t spare new Dean Erika James, calling her “a crisis management expert who can’t handle a crisis”; as one tells Poets&Quants, he and his classmates are paying the price for a lack of leadership at the precise moment when the school needs it most.

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.


“There has been excessively poor communication between the administration and students, with many representatives of the Wharton administration urging students to move to Philadelphia right up until now,” one student says of the late-July announcement of an entirely virtual start to classes, which are slated to begin August 19. “Many students have given up offers at other schools, left their jobs, and moved halfway around the world to attend a program that is now very different from what they paid for.

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,” grouses on admitted student. “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.”

Like every school, of course, Wharton is struggling to navigate through an unprecedented health crisis amid great uncertainty. Re-opening a business school campus, moreover, is dependent on guidelines and rules from the Centers for Disease Control, the state government and the University of Pennsylvania. In communicating its change of heart on July 31, the school was clearly apologetic in its messaging.

“I share in your disappointment,” wrote Howie Kaufold, vice dean of Wharton’s MBA program. “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. It is now evident that rather than plateauing during the summer, as many health expert expected, COVID-19 has instead gained momentum.”


In fact, new daily cases of coronavirus in Philadelphia have more than doubled from July 6 when Wharton officially announced it would go hybrid, to July 31 when the school reversed its decision, jumping from 450 to 970 new cases a day. In that same timeframe, daily deaths attributed to COVID in Philadelphia rose from one on July 6 to 13 on July 31.

Nonetheless, these numbers are far below the peak of cases on April 9, when there were 1,989 new confirmed COVID cases, while daily deaths from COVID reached a peak of 554 on May 5 in Philadelphia. Wharton is the only M7 business school — that elite group including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Chicago, Northwestern, and MIT — that has thus far announced the fall will be online. All the other schools are sticking with their hybrid formats.

Fueling the frustration of students is their lack of involvement in the planning of a fall return. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business put students members on its faculty and staff task force. That did not happen at Wharton. In, fact, complain students, the school didn’t even informally consult with students on the plans.

“From our perspective, they didn’t survey us and they didn’t ask for our input,” says a second-year MBA. “They didn’t ask for students on the task force. Students proposed things and they largely went unanswered. I don’t know if it is flat-footed but it just doesn’t feel particularly innovative, forward-looking or responsive. They generally do not provide clarity on their decisions. They provide no backup or justification for their changes despite the fact that students have asked for it repeatedly.” A spokesperson for Wharton did not return phone and email calls for comment.


Former Emory Goizueta Dean Erika James officially began her term as dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on July 1, taking over from Geoff Garrett. Courtesy photo

Poets&Quants spoke with six Wharton admits to the MBA Class of 2022 and a second-year student in the Class of 2021. Five of the half-dozen admits considered deferrals but were either denied or declined to pursue one because they expected to be denied. A sixth admit, accepted to another school, has opted to go there instead, partly because of what she characterizes as Wharton’s missteps. All asked for, and were granted, anonymity to avoid potential reprisals from the school or colleagues. Much of their criticism is also supported by a student survey in July–before the decision to cancel in-person classes–based on the responses of 572 members of the MBA Class of 2021 (see This Survey Fully Captures MBA Discontent In The Age of COVID).

The survey found that 78% of the second-year students are not excited about the upcoming semester, and 94% of them feel the value of their overall MBA experience has diminished by at least 40%. When asked to rate their expectations for the fall semester on a scale of 1 (would rather defer) to 10 (very excited), 78% of the responding students rated it 5 or below. No less crucial, 86% of the students responding to the survey feel that Wharton has not incorporated student feedback in the decision-making process for this fall.

In the short-term, moreover, 31% of the students indicated that they are likely to request a leave of absence this fall, making Wharton’s planning for future classes more difficult. Over the long-term, 69% of students have changed their stance on donating to Wharton, and 48% of students do not plan on donating at all.


The students’ main criticism: They were urged for months to move to Philadelphia to attend some in-person classes, but on July 31 the school announced an all-online format to start the fall — by which time the deadline for deferrals had passed and it was too late for most to change their plans. Admits may still request a “leave of absence” through September 8, which is much the same as a deferral in practice; but those who spoke to P&Q say the difficulty they and others had in securing a deferral makes them skeptical that the school will be liberal in granting LOAs. They point to Harvard Business School’s blanket offer of deferrals for any admits who wish to wait until the fall of 2021 to enroll, contrasting HBS’s approach with Wharton’s, and add that Wharton’s plans to enroll its largest-ever class — the exact size of which has not yet been announced — show that Wharton’s leadership planned to be entirely online all along.

“Wharton has gone through four phases of what the delivery model for their fall should be,” one student tells P&Q. “First it was going to be in-person like everywhere else. Then they made a big announcement that it would probably be hybrid, without providing many details, and then they rebranded to ‘Remote Plus’ where they were going to offer very, very few in-person classes, most of them online, and everyone was annoyed about that. Then they switched it to completely virtual. So it’s like everyone’s been brought through this sequence of more and more and more and more virtual at every step of the way — and every time after all the deadlines passed, they would come out with something new.

“Wharton has also accepted one of its largest classes in history this year and I think it’s interesting because other schools have chosen the opposite approach. HBS decided to accept one of its smallest classes in history so that they could host in-person classes with social distancing. As we all know, to host a class with social distancing, you have to be able to fit fewer people into a room. What Wharton did is, they accepted one of their largest classes in history. They still won’t publicly release the numbers, but everyone knows it’s one of the largest classes because we can see the number of accepted students. Then they said our class size is too big to host in-person activities. So I think it’s interesting that they kind of created some of this problem for themselves.

“I know it’s kind of an inference, but the way I see it is, if they planned to admit so many people, it shows that they planned all along to do it mostly virtual because they always knew what the social distancing restraints were for the specific buildings that they host classes in on campus.”


Wharton’s official policy is to grant deferrals on a “case-by-case basis,” as Blair Mannix, director of MBA admissions, reiterated in an April post on the school website. But in practice, say the MBA admits who spoke to P&Q, Wharton’s deferral policy is only for international students who could not get a visa to the U.S. — a common problem in the Trump era.

The deferral policy works much differently for domestic students, the admits say.

“While they allowed you to apply for a deferral, they made it very clear that they would only grant one in very extreme circumstances,” one admit says. “I think the specific example given in a video live stream was someone getting deployed to Afghanistan by the U.S. Army. So they wouldn’t allow an open deferral the way HBS did just for people who think there’s a lot of uncertainty with COVID, or their parents lost their jobs, or their situation has changed. None of that was considered legitimate enough to grant deferrals to domestic students.

“A lot of people were kind of held hostage with no other option. Yeah, Wharton will say that they had a different policy, but in practice, it was for international students only. I think all of us would have definitely considered it if we had been given an open deferral policy like HBS, which we were never given. All of us got into other schools, too. Them doing this at the last minute really prevents anyone from going anywhere else.”

One international admit who spoke to P&Q says she intends to be in Philadelphia this fall, barring visa problems. But she, too, was stunned by the school’s announcement that in-person classes had been nixed.

“Definitely it was surprising for us to know, given we were told it’ll be hybrid when we made the enrollment versus deferral decision,” she tells P&Q. “But apparently the reason for going virtual is that 40% of all the Covid cases in the U.S. since the pandemic started have been reported only last month. While the classes will be virtual, they are including small in-person requirements like studio classes, lab requirements, and clinical trials to ensure internationals can still make it to the U.S. in fall.”


Wharton’s new dean, Erika James, is known as a crisis management expert — she even co-authored a book on the subject. But James’s handling of the biggest crisis to hit graduate business education in generations is being questioned by Wharton MBA admits and second-year MBA students who say she is at least partly to blame for poor communication and widespread misunderstanding between the administration, students, and admits. They also don’t spare her predecessor, Geoffrey Garrett, who served as a lame duck dean through June. Of course, it could not have helped that there was a leadership transition in the middle of the pandemic, either.

“Erika James, our new dean, considers herself an expert in crisis management,” one MBA admit says. “To everyone in our class, the school keeps touting how she’s an expert in crisis management and how she’s the best person to lead Wharton forward through these unprecedented times — so it’s really funny for everyone to see how little she’s been involved. I mean, her first public address to the student body was the announcement the other day when she said everything was going virtual. Until then, we had not seen her face or heard from her besides one email.

“The student perception of her is someone who’s very uninvolved so far, who is being touted as an expert in crisis management, but then clearly isn’t. I don’t want to blame it all on her because I think she inherited a lot of the problem, and a lot of the problems we’re talking about were in place before she came. I think a lot of the misleading came from the admissions director and from the vice deans who would constantly host these live streams. So it’s definitely not all the fault of the current dean, but yeah, she inherited a problem and I think it’s kind of funny that she’s a crisis management expert and then can’t really handle this crisis.”

Another admit, referring to James’s video announcement of the school’s plan for an all-online format, adds: “One story that I don’t get at all is that Erika James is getting so much praise when she’s ignored students for the last six months. She went on a publicity tour. She calls herself a crisis management expert. She read a scripted message from a Word document that she typed out. It came off extremely broken and insincere.”

Tip For The Wharton Team-Based Discussion
Tip For The Wharton Team-Based Discussion

The Wharton School


Wharton announced in April that, for the first time in years, it would not hike tuition this year. In that way the school avoided the ire that has been leveled against other top B-schools, such as the Stern School of Business at NYU, where students are currently protesting a planned tuition increase. Wharton also reduced the price of its Pre-Term, which is entirely online due to Covid, and which gets underway August 15.

But for some MBA admits, that raises the question: If the school can reduce the cost of Pre-Term because it will be conducted remotely, why can’t they reduce tuition? Even with no tuition hike this year, Wharton has the highest tuition of any business school in the world, at more than $80,000 per year.

“Our Pre-Term was going to be online due to COVID, and they actually reduced the price,” one admit tells P&Q. “I think normally it’s a couple of thousand dollars and it’s only $800 this year. A lot of people saw that as a precedent for a potential tuition reimbursement if the whole fall were to go virtual, but now they’re claiming that that’s just for Pre-Term.”

Adds a second-year MBA student who believes, with many others, that the school should discount tuition due to the shift to online learning: “It’s incredibly unrealistic to say the MBA experience isn’t massively diminished by what we are going through. For the school to not recognize that and pretend as though that is not the case feels pretty disingenuous. The school is reacting more like a business than a mission-driven academic institution. The flat-footedness, lack of desire to take care of students and the lack of empathy is what is really rubbing people the wrong way.

“If they cared about the students, they would say, ‘we totally hear you. We’ll give you a fifth semester or we’ll give you a semester of relief or make it really easy to give you a leave of absence.’ Instead, we’ve gotten nothing more than emails filled with hollow, corporate PR language.”


A petition signed by 539 members of the MBA Class of 2021 was delivered to the administration on July 30 but, according to one student, has yet to receive a response. It formally calls for tuition and fees relief for the upcoming semester,​ “​commensurate with the diminished value of our MBA experience,” as well as subsidized continuing educati​on opportunities post-graduation​, including an optional fifth semester on campus.

The petition, says another admit, is as much a signal of student frustration and discontent. “I think it’s more of this feeling that we want Penn to know that they can’t do stuff like this to students without people speaking up about it or without there being negative media attention — because if no one says anything when they mislead people, then they may feel comfortable doing it again in the spring, and doing it again next fall,” the student adds.

While the school has stated there will be no tuition reduction, it has established a financial relief fund, from which eligible students may receive stipends.

Blair Mannix of Wharton: Wharton photo

Blair Mannix, Wharton’s director of MBA admissions, spoke to P&Q in April about the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. She said the school wanted to bring students to campus but would always act in students’ best interests.

“I’ve been a member of the University of Pennsylvania community for almost 15 years,” Mannix said, “and I know in my soul that Penn would never — and could never — take the easy way out on this. I think Penn will figure out the best possible solution to get the most amount of students on campus for the most amount of time, to deliver the most content and curriculum in-person as humanly possible. That is who the University of Pennsylvania is, and I know right now we have top health experts working on this at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

“And I do think the entire university ecosystem in the United States — colleges and universities across the United States — are moving toward this. It’s in everybody’s best interest to figure out creative ways to get students on campus. And I do believe we’ll be a leader in that charge.

“But unfortunately where we are right now is, we’re going to have to ask our students to make some decisions with incomplete information and some unknowns on the table. I think a lot of universities are saying this: ‘We want to support you. We want to make sure we can give you enough information to make those decisions with incomplete information.’ We’re trying to make decisions with incomplete information and it’s a tough time for all of us, but that’s what we’re going to ask our students to do.”


One of the Wharton admits who spoke to P&Q decided to accept another offer to join an elite MBA program, a decision she says was made easier by Wharton’s handling of coronavirus.

“I was honestly really shocked by the news about going fully online,” she says. “I think it definitely did influence my decision. I mean, I was leaning toward the other school, to be honest, just because for my interests the other school fits a little bit more. But I think seeing how they handled it, that definitely did push me over the edge, made me feel a lot more comfortable in my decision. It was just really shocking with how transparent they seemed, at least in the beginning — the community has been great. Blair, who’s the dean of admissions, has been so communicative. She’s been awesome. She’ll respond to messages immediately, she will do a Q&A every single week. She’s been phenomenal.

“But I guess after it transitioned out of the admissions team and more to the actual full-time program faculty, and then this happened with no Q&A after, and dead silence from any faculty in the forums for the next two-plus hours, that’s scary. People were posting like, ‘Hey, I just landed in Philly, just got off of my 14-hour flight from, like, Sweden, to this news. Oh shit, like I just moved my life across the world and this happened?’ It’s crazy.”

Another admit, who will enroll at Wharton this fall despite misgivings — saying he has no choice after quitting his job and packing his belongings for a relocation to Philadelphia — hopes that Wharton will commit to more transparency going forward.

“I don’t expect for them to go back on their plans for this fall, but the question is, are they going to be more transparent when they plan for the spring?” he says. “Are they going to be more receptive to students? Are they going to include students in the conversation? And up until now, they really haven’t been transparent or communicated with anyone at all.

“To my knowledge, it is one of the only schools that’s really, really misled people. I think other schools were more upfront about what they were doing and didn’t wait till the last minute. I think other schools also had more liberal deferral policies and just less uncertainty overall. Maybe part of the issue is that Penn was too optimistic, but that in itself misled a lot of people.

“People in our class call it the Fyre Festival of business schools,” the admit adds, referencing the disastrous 2017 luxury music festival. “There’s a meme going around that that compares Wharton to Fyre Fest — so that’s kind of the mindset of a lot of students.”


The post ‘The Fyre Festival Of B-Schools’: Wharton MBA Admits Say School Is Failing Them appeared first on Poets&Quants.