‘I WANT SOMEONE LEADING ADMISSIONS WHO HAS A HEART’
He lives that memorable Pink Floyd line, investing heavily in the senior leadership team he has built at Darden. “He is known to write performance reviews that are two to three pages in length and then spend two to three hours giving feedback to us,” says Dawna Clarke, executive director of admissions at Darden. “To take the time to write an evaluation like that is remarkable. It makes people feel valued, and it is a tangible example of how caring he is. I have never worked for anyone who more highly screens for values and collaboration,” adds Clarke, who has worked for nine business school deans over a lengthy career in admissions.
Beardsley’s initial meeting with Clarke in 2016 was to last all of one hour at his vacation home in Maine. “We talked for four hours,” recalls Clarke. “One of the things he said to me is, ‘I want someone leading admissions who has a heart.’ That priority really resonated with me because it was clear he himself has a big heart. I was so struck by his energy and warmth and felt I really wanted to be part of this.”
It would be a fortuitous pairing. Clarke, the former head of admissions at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, had strong ideas about the overreliance of business schools on standardized tests for admissions. When the pandemic struck, Beardsley was made sure Darden was among the earliest business schools to get out ahead of the calamity. He was the first dean to recognize that the pandemic and the recession it would cause would open the doors to a flood of new MBA candidates, some newly unemployed, others who saw their opportunities for advance scuttled by the downturn and the health crisis.
A 364% JUMP IN ROUND THREE APPLICATIONS TO DARDEN’S MBA PROGRAM
In late March, Darden not only became one of the first schools in the world to extend its application deadlines and put into effect a more flexible admissions policy, but it would also push out its final deadline by more than three months to July 15th. Darden began to accept undergraduate entrance exam scores on the SAT and ACT in lieu of a GMAT or GRE. The school even opened the door to consider CPA, CFA, and other certifications as evidence of a candidate’s academic merit, along with scores on the LSAT, MCAT, and Executive Assessment. Then, in June of this year, Beardsley announced that Darden would make MBA admissions test-optional for this coming admissions cycle.
“We have just come off one of the most robust job markets of the post-World War II era and now there is a greater degree of uncertainty for some people,” Beardsley said at the time. “Maybe now is a good time to go back to school. I think an MBA will be a very strong option for many people who are unsure of what will happen in the next few years. For some people, the opportunity costs of attending school have just dropped. So we want to be able to be here for some of those outstanding people.”
The result: Darden saw a remarkable 364% jump in MBA applications for its extended round three. The increase drove a 25% jump in total applications for the 2019-2020 admissions season to roughly 2,730 from 2,283 for 2018-2019 for the 338 classroom seats in Darden’s full-time MBA program. To provide applicants even greater flexibility, he began a January intake for candidates who weren’t quite ready to start the school’s hybrid format in the fall. Next month, 60 new MBA students will arrive to take advantage of that opportunity for the first time. Meantime, MBA applications through the school’s round one deadline are up another 30%.
DROOLING ON THE VERBAL ANSWER SHEET AS A TEENAGER IN ALASKAThose bold moves have been informed by Beardsley’s personal experience and his concern that standardized tests have been over-indexed by business schools. When he was a senior in high school and sat for the SAT exam in Anchorage, Alaska, Beardsley says he got through the math part of the exam and then fell sound asleep. “I drooled on the verbal answer sheet,” he recalls. “I got a very bad score on the English section because it was all blank. And I was one of the top students in the school. I often thought should your whole life be linked to a standardized test? In my case, it wasn’t.”
Just as critically, however, Beardsley is deeply concerned that the tests can be inherently unfair. He points out that prospective students from low-income families are less able to pay for prep classes or tutors who can cost up to $500 an hour or can take time off from work to study for the exam. Students who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, born to uneducated parents, tend to score lower regardless of whether they are tutored or not.
“If you look at the data for the SAT and ACT by ethnic group, it is absolutely shocking,” he says. “It shows that underrepresented minorities score between one to two standard deviations below the average. If you Google standardized tests and racism, it is very well documented. I don’t want to reward only people who spend tons of money or have tons of time studying for standardized tests. We appreciate the people who have gone through all those hoops as well. But there are many indicators of success. If you graduated with the highest honors in engineering from Carnegie Mellon, I don’t need a GMAT to tell me you can do the math in an MBA program.”
‘I AM ALWAYS ASKING MYSELF WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP SOMEBODY?’
While he and Clarke have talked about the overreliance of the GMAT and GRE for admissions when they first met in Maine in 2016, COVID and its hardships made it the right time for the move. “When the pandemic initially hit, I went to Scott and said I think we should extend some flexibility to our R3 candidates because test centers were closing down,” says Clarke. “It was Scott who said we should accept SAT and ACT scores and extend the deadline into July. He is data-driven and we are in the process of gathering data to look at alternative factors that correlate with success at Darden. Scott invested in the research and that allowed him to pivot to text flexibility and a test waiver.”
It was a bold and courageous move, but it was an inclusive one, too. “He is deeply personally committed to diversity, equity and inclusion,” adds Clarke. “At a time when all leaders should be looking at policies, this change is highly relevant to what is going on in society in looking at policies of systematic racism. Going test flexible and offering a test waiver is an inclusive way to evaluate candidates. He was very committed to ensuring that Darden was highly sensitive to the predicament our admits were facing during a global pandemic and in particular to our international students. He conceived of the January start date to accommodate students who would benefit from an alternative in the wake of visa issues.”
Beardsley starts from a simple premise that goes back to that Pink Floyd lyric. “I am always asking myself what can we do to help somebody? It was clear to me that students couldn’t take a test. A lot of testing centers were closed and we had been questioning just how important are the tests, anyway. Should your whole life be determined by a test score? Or can we innovate here? Is there something we could do? COVID is the greatest health crisis in the last 100 years. We had never seen anything like this. You have to be compassionate to people and be willing to adjust. You have to understand that when your context changes, you need to change, too. I felt we really needed to adapt to the circumstances and be thoughtful, caring, and compassionate but fair while still upholding our own values of merit.”
‘FOR HIM, EVERY CRISIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY’
The school’s test-optional admissions policy, which has since been adopted by MIT Sloan, Michigan Ross, Carnegie Mellon and other business schools, does not represent a dilution of admission standards. “We are simply broadening our admissions decisions by letting people show alternative evidence that they can strive at Darden,” insists Clarke. “It’s 2020. There are Coursera classes. There is Harvard Business School’s online CORe. There are CPAs and CFAS who apply. And we know that the interview correlates with academic success. When people apply for a test waiver, only about 22% are granted one. I feel strongly that this is a progressive approach to admissions.”
Beardsley immediately saw the crisis as an opportunity to innovate. “For him, every crisis is an opportunity,” says Woodfolk. “His feeling was going that COVID would be a bump but it was not going to impede our forward progression. God made him for crisis, You hope during a crisis that you have someone who is leading who is action-oriented and plan focused. Scott went into what is Scott mode. He began asking, ‘What are the things we must protect?’ First and foremost, that starts with the students. COVID has been a defining moment and era for the school. He worked with others to outline a plan and then there are execution marching orders. He put the most talented people together to think about this with safety being the first priority. Everything became a protocol from a lockdown of the building to getting the faculty to think about what it could mean.”
The dean gets high marks from students for the changes. “The Covid pandemic is the biggest defining event since the Great Recession if not in our lifetime,” says Alex Gregorio. “I can’t think of something that has fundamentally shook the higher education industry as much as COVID has. it didn’t surprise me that a business school with a dean like Scott would see it as a chance to hammer home that we are not just about GPAs and test scores but are more focused on you the candidate. It made sense to lower the barriers for students to apply.”
THE COVID MBA EXPERIENCE: ‘I CAN’T THINK OF A BETTER WAY TO DO IT’
He also believes the school has dealt well in converting a highly social program during the pandemic. “When the traditional model of education had to be switched online in two weeks, the school was really nimble in dealing with tough logistical questions. Over the summer to this fall the faculty have been really well prepared. Classes have been organized. I have been both on the internal side on the TA side as well as on the student side and things are working very smoothly. I can’t think of a better way to do it.”
Gregorio had taken one class with Beardsley and is set to take another, Corporate Strategic Leadership, this coming year before his graduation. What most impressed him in that first seminar with 16 students in Pavilion I was the dean’s view that learning is a two-way street. “He wants to learn from us as much as we want to learn from him,” says Gregorio. “He really wants to engage with students and invites them to his Pavilion. It’s another piece of evidence that shows he is really interested in knowing his students.”
Through it all, Woodfolk says he has never seen Beardsley lose faith. “I never get a feeling from him that this is a job. Not once. On the hardest days, I’ve gone to talk to him ready to go negative at 6:30 at night and he will say, ‘But imagine if we could do this or that. We were in a conversation once about a very large donor who could potentially fund the full master plan. After investing a lot of effort, it wasn’t to be. I was saddened by that. But Scott looks at me dead in the eye and says, ‘That is okay, Michael. We just have to keep fishing. There are other people out there, and we just have to find the next person. And maybe it won’t’ be the full thing. It might be a piece of it, but we will do this. We really will.’ That typifies the man. One door closes but he believes that three more will open and we just have to find them.”
When Beardsley expanded the school’s presence in the Washington, D.C., metro area by securing a major gift to open in 2018 a new 40,000 square foot classroom and conference space on the upper two floors of an office building, he wanted the school’s name prominently featured on the building in Rosslyn, Va. “The landlord said you probably need to lease more of the building to get your name on it or it will cost you a bunch of money,” recalls Greg Fairchild who helped to lead the expansion. “It was a healthy six-figure number with more than a one at the front of it. Or he said we had to lease four floors instead of two. We got that news and I said, ‘Oh well, I guess it’s not going to happen.’
‘SCOTT JUST DIDN’T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER’
“Scott just didn’t take no for an answer. He wanted the university name on the building because it would add a veneer of prestige that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Scott recognized that there were relationships between the property company and our donor whose offices were in the next building that was also managed by the same property company.”
When the new facility opened its doors, Beardsley had gotten his way.“As soon as the name went up on the building in the first week of July (in 2018), Darden alums starting texting us photos they took from airplanes they were in getting ready to land at Reagan,” laughs Fairchild. “I was reminded that academics might not have been figured out a way to keep plugging to find different solutions. He pushes you and himself to keep asking for things that might not seem possible.”
The health crisis reinforced Beardsley’s belief that this second act in his life is the right one. “The nice thing about a crisis is that it reminds you about what matters,” he says. “And what matters is the mission and staying true to your values. More than ever, COVID gives you an opportunity to change people’s lives because the external context is difficult. In that context. I do believe education is an essential service to society. Society needs education and the world needs responsible leaders. I salute all the business schools out there that are continuing to operate. Every university has had to work so hard to keep the trains running. It is the basic things that matter. Education matters. Although it has been difficult, we are privileged to try to help the world be better in this way.”
‘YOU MAY LOSE A TENNIS MATCH 6-3 BUT IT MAY HAVE BEEN THE BEST MATCH YOU EVER PLAYED’
“I never would have predicted that the things I would have had to deal with were the tiki-torch march down the Lawn and COVID crisis,” he muses. “But that is what makes leadership roles interesting. You have to operate with the hand you are dealt with and the context you are dealt with. It is one of the things I teach in my class. Your achievements are only a function of the level of obstacles you overcome. You may lose a tennis match 6-3, but it may have been the best match you ever played. So in a way, I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do what I can do. Every crisis is an opportunity to improve yourself, to stretch yourself, to find your limits, and to see if you have a new gear.”
Over the next four years of his second term, Beardsley will build on his long list of accomplishments, opening the doors to Darden’s newest building and its commitment to lifelong learning. But number one on his agenda is ensuring that the student experience at Darden is never second to any other rival and maintaining the excellence in teaching for which Darden is renowned.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “the strategy is about excellence and being outstanding. And there are a lot of things that go into that. I want Darden to stay the best teaching business school in the world. We are locked in on that. And we have new ways to do that with technology. I am excited about future collaborations with the University of Virginia. I am just excited about the possibilities. There is lots more to do. I feel the best is yet to come but I have a lot I need to improve upon.”