Lights, Camera, Action! Behind The Scenes Of UC-Davis’ Forthcoming Online MBA

Kimberly D. Elsbach, a professor of management at UC-Davis Graduate School of Management, in a Hollywood studio filming her forthcoming online course

Kimberly Elsbach has taught the core course in organizational behavior to MBA students for 15 years. But getting all the material and exercises into an online format proved far more time consuming than she ever could have imagined.

Elsbach, a professor of management at UC-Davis’ Graduate School of Management, figures she spent roughly three months planning every minute of what will be ultimately be a 2,000-minute class, half of it asychronous and half synchronous, before she even walked into a Hollywood studio in early March.

“It was a huge amount of work,” she says. “In some ways it is work I should have done before because it has made me rethink a lot of the things I do in my live class. You have to organize your teaching in a way that makes you think about how to get this material across and how students will grasp and learn it.”


Among the faculty at UC-Davis’ Graduate School of Management, Elsbach is something of a guinea pig, the first professor to convert one of her classes into an online format for an online MBA that is expected to accept its first class sometime next year. Within two years of launch, Dean Rao Unnava expects it to be the school’s largest MBA program, eclipsing its full-time offering at UC-Davis and two part-time programs in Sacramento and San Ramon.

Though there has been an explosion of online MBA programs in recent years, with U.S. News ranking 267 different options at U.S. business schools this year, this will be the first online MBA program offered on the 10-campus University of California system and the first in Northern California.

For Dean Unnava, who assumed his job in June of 2016 from Ohio State University where he had spent 32 years, the decision was a no-brainer. “You can reach a broader range of students,” he says. “You can increase the diversity of the pool of students. You can reach non-tradiitonal students and those who don’t have access to what we now offer and can’t drive. California is a big state. Now they can come for this degree virtually. Our mission is education and an online degree helps us achieve that mission. That is the bottom line.”


Getting a top-notch online MBA off the ground, however, is no small undertaking. Every school opting to offer an online version of its MBA program must jump over a large number of hurdles, from gaining faculty support and cooperation to university approval. Along the way, there are dozens of decisions, small and large, that can influence the quality and the success of a new program. This is the story of UC-Davis’ efforts to create a standout online offering.

Once Dean Unnava decided that it was something of a no-brainer, he had to convince the faculty to approve it. One step was to get on board an enthusiastic champion for the idea. Unnava tapped Robert Yetman, an accounting professor who has been teaching at the business school for more than a dozen years since 2003. Winner of a half dozen teaching awards, Yetman also had created the first master’s of accounting program in the UC system so he knew the nitty-gritty of gaining the necessary approvals for a new program.

Besides, years ago he served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army as an intelligence analyst and a Czech interpreter. “I have this damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead attitude,” laughs Yetman. He has another personality trait crucial for the task: He’s obsessed with detail. “I want to make sure the courses are prepared and they are prepared on time. I want to make sure the technology is used to its full extent. I don’t sleep well. Everything, if it goes wrong, is my fault.”

Dean H. Rao Unnava of UC-Davis’ Graduate School of Management thought it was a no-brainer to do an online MBA


The dean didn’t have to convince him to take the job. “Good grief,” Yetman adds, “we are in Northern California and there really was no online MBA program in the cradle of technology. It seemed absurb. My point of view is what took us so long? We are sitting in the middle of one of the largest population bases in the country. We just want to be the best in our own backyard.”

The biggest initial hurdle? The school’s professors. “The faculty here are cautious, very cautious,” observes Yetman. “They are an amazing faculty who put quality first and foremost. But they had to believe that the courses are going to be as good or better or we won’t do it.”

There were obvious questions, too. “Some faculty said, ‘Why would we start an online MBA program at Davis? Why wouldn’t everyone just go to UNC or Indiana University? The evidence suggests contrary. Most online students, upwards of 70% or higher, come from a 300-mile radius. Why? Brands are local. If you are looking for a job in Walnut Creek, maybe there are some employers who want a top 20 MBA but most employers don’t. They just want it from a good school, and UC-Davis is known locally and it has local cache. That is the biggest surprise and that is what allows you to start an online program and not worry about any other competitor.”


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