Program Innovation At UC-Davis Graduate School of Management

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

In the University of California system of superb schools, the UC-Davis Graduate School of Management has become a true innovative standout.

In the last six years, the school has launched a highly successful MS in Business Analytics program, the first and only online MBA option in the UC system, and a series of innovative industry immersions that puts MBA students on interdisciplinary teams with graduate and Ph.D. students from other schools and departments at the university.

All of the new initiatives have been led by Dean H. Rao Unnava who joined the Graduate School of Management in June of 2016 following 32 years at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, where he earned his Ph.D. and served as the W. Arthur Cullman professor of marketing.


The school’s MSBA program currently admits 100 students every year. The program is distinguished by its year-long corporate analytics project that has attracted some of the brightest students from around the world. Most recently, QS world rankings recognized the program as the top program in the world for return on investment. The program also boasts a series of wins in the prestigious Adobe Analytics Challenge (finished third, third, second, first, and third in the last five years) that is unmatched by any other school in the world. Starting salaries for the most recent graduating class (2022) hit $131,000 plus average $19,000 signing bonus. Students go to the best of the best companies (Amazon, Meta, Google, Microsoft, McKinsey, BCG) and continue to do well. (

UC-Davis’ online MBA has grown rapidly to more than 500 students and continues to do very well. Recent P&Q rankings place the program in the Top 20, with residential experiences ranked #2. The program, moreover, boasts the highest ranking on the West Coast for student willingness to recommend the online MBA to friends. The program distinguishes itself with residential course experiences that touch on the strengths of UC-Davis: food and wine in Napa locations, biotech in San Diego, platform technologies in Silicon Valley, and sustainability in Tahoe. Quality is tightly controlled by tenure-track faculty who record the lectures and coordinate multiple sections of each class. The program is also the only one in the country that offers a deferred tuition option which allows students to defer the second half of their tuition until after graduation and pay it back with no interest over as many as ten years (

One of the first of the many innovations at the school under Dean Unnava was the introduction of industry immersions in the full- and part-time MBA programs. They offer students distinct industry-relevant experiences that are unparalleled. Relying on the strengths of UC-Davis, the MBA program developed industry-focused experiences in the areas of food/agriculture, sustainable energy, and biotechnology.


The food/ag industry experience, for example, starts with a field trip course that exposes students to the food and agriculture ecosystem in California, where a third of the country’s vegetables and three-quarters of fruits and nuts are grown. During the following quarter, senior executives from the food/ag/wine industry visit with students and present them with business challenges they are currently facing. MBA students sit in a class with doctoral students from programs linked with food and agriculture (e.g., food science, nutrition, molecular biology, international agriculture development) and work on business challenges in interdisciplinary teams.

This is followed by a seminar at which experts discuss the challenges of the future such as feeding the global population, managing nutrition in underdeveloped economies, developing food that is sustainable, and climate change effects on the food ecosystem. The immersion is managed by GSM faculty and guided by an advisory board of senior executives from multiple food and agriculture companies. The executives provide projects to work on for students, offer internship experiences, act as mentors, and sponsor an annual case competition based on the challenges faced by food/ag companies which is the only one of its kind in the U.S.

“Over the last six years, we have seen about 30% of the MBA class go into careers in the industries represented by the immersions, setting us apart from other MBA programs that don’t have the university strength in these areas,” notes Dean Unnava.  (

All of these initiatives are putting UC-Davis front and center in business education innovation.

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