Commencements ‘undeniably different’ in the era of coronavirus
By Dennis Kessler (re-published with permission from the Rochester Business Journal)
I’ve told my friends and family for the 20 years that I have been a college professor that my unqualified favorite day of the year is commencement. At the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, the commencement ceremony is held in the celebrated Eastman Theatre at Kodak Hall; names resplendent of another era. While all commencements are special for the graduates and their families, this one is particularly noteworthy due to the architectural brilliance of the hall and its tasteful elegance richly illuminated by a remarkable multicolored Chihuly chandelier. The inclusion of a sprightly ensemble, courtesy of the university’s distinguished Eastman School of Music performing Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, adds conspicuous distinction to the ceremonial character of the event.
Commencement this year will be undeniably different. In fact, acknowledgement of the completion of the rigorous M.S, MBA, and Ph.D. programs at the Simon Business School, known for its quantitative and analytics-based foundations, will merely be acknowledged by the receipt of a diploma delivered via the U.S. Mail. Hardly the tributes merited after years of successful academic study.
This semester, I have 71 students registered for my class: Entrepreneurship 423, New Venture Development. It is a particularly large class as I have nor restriction on the number of students who can enroll in my course. My view is that every aspiring entrepreneur should learn the skills, language, and risk mitigation techniques that I teach which may help turn their innovative dreams into an economic reality. Much of my lecture materials are a collection of experiences, both successful and those less so, as an entrepreneur in the franchise restaurant sector, real estate, publishing and cell tower industries. My hope is that this semester’s lectures, delivered from my home library via Zoom technology, were nearly as effective and impactful as they have been for previous Simon students whose faces and body language I could clearly see and often judge as indicators of comprehension of the material being taught.
Just last week, as the final class lecture and assignments are about due, I received a notice from a student counselor about Damien (fictitious name), a student in my lecture. Damien, a nurse in our University Medical Center’s emergency facility, had applied for “late permission to drop” the course. When I inquired about the reason, the counselor informed me that the stress of the work environment, family responsibilities and demanding MBA curriculum was overwhelming, especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic. I declined to sign the permission to drop form.
After the email exchange with the student counselor, I spoke with Damien in a Zoom session…now the preferred method of communication. Listening attentively, his internal dissonance apparent, I felt compassionate sympathy with his need to drop the course. However, I countered with the reasons why Damien had to preserve toward completion. While I clearly understood the pressures of work, family and a punishing MBA program, he was too close to the finish line to withdraw. This is a course in entrepreneurship, I exhorted. Being an entrepreneur is about overcoming obstacles, about adapting, about risk-taking, agility and determination and how to respond when a severe indiscriminate setback to your routine and finances forces you to swivel in a new direction.
While you are one of America’s heroes on the vanguard of the battlefield in the university emergency room, there is another epic battle waging which is the financial calamity that is destroying our economy, among others worldwide. I submit to you, show your mettle, demonstrate to your colleagues, family and classmates that you can do this, and in fact, as your professor, I will help you in the process. You will be granted an extension on your assignments just as businesses are making concessions for their consumers for late payments. We are all in this together; this is not your fight alone.
As most every American industry is suffering mightily, there are innumerable examples of how American ingenuity and entrepreneurship have responded. The new delivery economy has sprung up overnight spawning Instacart as a household term. The stay-at-home workforce is aided by the new Zoom frontier that many of us are adapting to. While it is somewhat unwieldy, it will improve because entrepreneurs will find a way to make it better or even develop a competing, more refined iteration. Auto dealerships are selling online and delivering to homes in a COVID-19-safe environment. GM and Ford are using their scale to produce face shields and ventilators. Small businesses across the American landscape have adapted to help in the fight. In order to survive, we must adapt. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently offered in a New York Times opinion piece: “To be human is to be tested over and over, and we usually need abundant help from others.”
As Americans, we will not give up fighting this pandemic. We have moral courage, intellectual competence and resiliency to obliterate this 21st-century plague. This is our authentication of human spirit.
The 2020 graduates of the Simon Business School will remember the commencement they didn’t have. They will also recall how they completed their studies without fanfare, without the customary pose-commencement revelry but indeed, they finished. They, too, will have their day in the sun. They will go on to achieve well-paying positions in industry and elsewhere just as graduates that came before them. They will also recollect how they embraced social distancing, food deliveries, lockdowns, shut-ins, masks, and all the fears inflicted by this insidious virus. They will hopefully also remember that they didn’t give up their dream to finish, on time, in May 2020 with a nascent entrepreneurial idea nourished in ENT. 423, New Venture Development.
Oh, and by the way, Damien has decided to remain in my course. Meliora.
Dennis Kessler serves as the Edward and Agnes Ackley Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School.
To learn more about this year’s commencement and degree conferrals, visit the University of Rochester’s Celebrating the Class of 2020 webpage.