The Quiet Revolution At A UC Business School

The Quiet Revolution At A UC Business School

UC-Davis Graduate School of Management Dean H. Rao Unnava

When H. Rao Unnava arrived for his first day as the new dean of the Graduate School of Management (GSM) at the University of California in Davis, what most impressed him were the smiles. 

“It was a very happy place,” he recalls of that day in mid-June of 2016. “Everyone was just smiling all the time. You heard a lot of laughter in the building.”

Bemused by the ever-present smiles in Gallagher Hall, the marketing professor and senior associate dean from Ohio State University would later discover that UC Davis was once rated among the happiest universities in the country.


Now, approaching his seventh year as dean, the faculty and staff, the students and the alumni have even more reason to smile.  Under his leadership, graduate enrollment at the school has soared by 300% in five years, and annual revenue has doubled and is expected to double again over the next five years. The school, which was in a deficit position for several years, is now consistently running surpluses. The faculty has grown from 25 to 34 and will likely increase to 43 over the next three years.

Behind those numbers is a burst of innovation in new programs and initiatives that amounts to a revolution of sorts for what is still a relatively small business school. Unnava launched a master’s degree in business analytics in San Francisco in 2017 that now has an enrollment of 100 students and an online MBA in 2019 with more than 500 students that is now larger than all of the school’s existing programs combined.

Davis is the only University of California school with an online MBA and soon it will be the only UC with a master’s in management. Unnava expects the new degree program for pre-experience students to launch this fall after final approval from the university. The initial cohort in the one-year degree program is expected to be 200 students strong. Also on tap is a portfolio of stackable, credit-bearing certificates, subject to final approval by UC Davis’ Academic Senate. Students taking one or more of the six initial certificates, each composed of four graduate-level courses,  can apply the earned credits toward an MBA degree.


By de-coupling the courses from degree programs, Unnava believes they will not only serve as a pathway toward a degree but also as an opportunity for professionals to refresh or upgrade their skills as needed. “The certificates allow us to give you what you need now in your career,” explains Unnava. “If you got an MBA five years ago, you would have had little to no exposure to how artificial intelligence will impact your company. And if you earned your MBA ten years ago, a lot of what you learned is out of date. The world has changed so dramatically that you need to know the latest thinking in strategy or business analytics or digital transformation. This is a chance to refresh your education.”

The first half dozen certificates will delve into such topics as leadership and teams, business analytics, management, marketing, finance, and operations. “This is not executive education,” says Unnava. “These are real classes. There are exams. Students will be sitting with others to solve challenges.”

This fall the school also will launch what the dean is calling a “lifelong learning platform” that will leverage the existing video components and homework assignments of its online MBA program, making them available to alumni for free. The platform also would make available short faculty videos on topical issues and a forum to allow alumni to engage with faculty. Unnava is working with edX, the online learning platform acquired by 2U Inc., to distribute its certificate content on the UC-Davis platform to the school’s alumni base.


To make his MBA program distinctive, Unnava also created a series of industry immersions in food and agriculture, sustainable energy, biotechnology, and finance for technology–all fields that leverage the university’s and the region’s existing strengths. The immersions uniquely bring MBA students together with graduate and doctoral students from other university schools and departments to work together on teams to tackle projects and assignments. Each immersion features elective courses, lectures and mentorship by executives in leading companies in the field, corporate site visits, an annual case competition, market research projects, and recruiter career fairs. The GSM also became one of the first three U.S. schools to gain STEM designation for its entire MBA program in 2018, not merely a track or two, which immediately made the school attractive to more international students.

No less important, all of these changes have been accomplished without the benefit of a major gift, like the $100 million donation that UC San Diego got in 2015 from billionaire philanthropist Ernest Rady. Unnava, no less, has made all this progress having to navigate a University of California system known for its slow-moving bureaucracy and complex organizational structure.  The hurdles are so bad that the provost of Berkeley has assembled a Reducing Bureaucratic Burden Taskforce to reform processes, policies, and operations that make innovation difficult.

When Unnava moved to California in 2016 after spending 32 years at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, where he earned his Ph.D., he not only walked into a school with smiling people. The business school was running a deficit and had just been through a round of staff cutbacks. Forever in the shadow of its higher-ranked UC cousins, Berkeley Haas and UCLA Anderson,  Davis was often underappreciated and overlooked. 


Yet, Unnava strongly believed the Graduate School of Management didn’t get the credit it deserved for having a superb faculty with rigorous academic programs and an envious California location just an hour and 15 minutes north of San Francisco and less than an hour from Napa Valley. His own calculations show that the research generated by the school’s faculty, when adjusted for headcount, would rank the GSM faculty among the Top 20 in the U.S. It’s small full-time MBA program boasts a 100% employment rate after six months and six-figure starting salaries.

But the student body was largely limited to a full-time MBA program with annual intakes of about 45 students, a pair of part-time MBA programs in Sacramento and San Ramon, with a total enrollment of some 270 students, and a master’s of professional accountancy, with an annual intake of fewer than 35 students. The school, moreover, was a relative newcomer, launching its first MBA program in 1981 with its first batch of 40 students. As a result, the GSM’s alumni base totals just 6,000 professionals, with 84% of them 45 years of age or younger.

His immediate goal: to establish a growth mindset and an environment where innovation could flourish. “I wanted UC Davis to be one of the first schools in the UC system to do things,” he says. “So we were running hard to do things first.

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