Oliver Yao

Oliver Yao is associate dean of graduate programs and the George N. Beckwith '32 Professor in Decision and Technology Analytics (DATA)

Q&A: Oliver Yao on Lehigh's MBA Programs

A conversation with Associate Dean of Graduate Programs Oliver Yao, the George N. Beckwith ’32 Professor in Decision and Technology Analytics (DATA).

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Lehigh’s College of Business offers two Master’s in Business Administration programs: a 1-MBA that allows students to complete the full-time program in one year; and a Flex MBA, that provides students with an opportunity to earn an MBA part-time—on campus or online. 

Even before COVID-19 disrupted higher education, universities across the country were rethinking their MBA programs because of declining enrollments. What happened?

There were three issues that disrupted MBA education. The first disruption, relevancy.
MBA programs have been around for decades, but many of the programs haven't changed much. The world has changed quickly and dramatically. The curriculum needs to stay apace with knowledge, practice and technology. Everything in the curriculum needs to be relevant to what students need in the real world. 

Second, there has been a technology disruption. Over the past 10 to 15 years, online education has increasingly become a trend. Some universities are taking their MBA programs online. They can charge less and deliver to a wider audience. These universities are making MBA education a commodity, often with a cookie-cutter kind of approach. That’s not what the MBA education is supposed to be. At Lehigh, we’re constantly thinking about differentiators. 

A third issue is the competition from
specialty master programs. The traditional MBA program focuses on general education in business. Students learn finance, accounting, economics, marketing, management—to become equipped with general knowledge. But over the last 10 to 15 years, many emerging programs have become specialty master programs, training students to become specialists in one area. And that became a huge competition to the traditional MBA program.

Given this changing landscape, how is Lehigh positioned?

We know the challenges, and we tackle them, one by one. Lehigh is a pioneer in online education. Eighteen years ago, when I joined Lehigh  University, we had already started offering students the opportunity to earn their MBA through synchronized online learning [FLEX MBA]. Only now the technology is different. 

At that point in time, we used satellite broadcasts. Today we use internet streaming. We’re one of the best online MBA programs in the country. Furthermore, we have full-blown services associated with online delivery: career services, professional development, advisors. 

When we designed our full-time MBA program, we wanted it to be a one-year,
accelerated MBA program, so that we could be competitive with those specialty masters programs. 

We continuously deal with relevancy. We review our curriculum every semester, and we see what our students are learning and what employers expect our students to know when they hire them. For example, we added business analytics in our concentrations for both MBA programs. Data analysis skills are huge right now for MBA students.

We’re also focused on experiential
learning. Students can not only learn in the classroom. They have to be able to learn by
doing. In the one-year program, they work with companies on real projects, applying what they learned in the classroom. 

How has the pandemic impacted, short term and long term, the College’s MBA programs?

The impact actually turned out to be very positive for us. We’ve seen growth in our programs. Opportunities always come with a crisis. The pandemic came, and what happened to everybody’s lives? We were confined to our homes, and everybody’s doing everything online. For the people who want to earn an MBA, the first thing they do is an online search: Which MBA program can I take online? When they search online programs, they find that Lehigh is one of the top programs in the country. [Lehigh has ranked in the top 10 for online MBA programs by Poets&Quants for three consecutive years]. 

What about the 1-MBA?  

1-MBA is residential. We’re focusing on those who want to switch their careers. Over the years, we have earned a reputation for offering a rigorous MBA program in an accelerated time frame. The pandemic might have become a catalyst for those students who thought it was the right time to further their education and reinvent themselves. In one year, they could find a better job. 1-MBA offers almost everything the student needs to jump start their career in an accelerated fashion. 

What steps are being taken to prepare for any future disruptions from the pandemic?

The pandemic demonstrated that what we have done in the past few years we did right. We’re going to keep doing what we have been doing, and continuously reviewing our programs and updating the curriculum, so that we can remain relevant and cutting edge with the curriculum.

We will continue to keep working on our online capabilities. In the past two years, we moved 95% of our Flex MBA classes online. Although we were online with classes a long time ago, it was only with one or two concentrations. Over the past two years, we moved almost every class online, and now students can do all concentrations online. We will continue to explore those types of opportunities and see how we can enhance our students’ experiences online. We want to explore offering a residential orientation and maybe global immersion programs to complement our online programs.

News articles have raised the question of whether the MBA has a future in a post-pandemic world. How do you respond to that?

My response to that is, absolutely yes. A general education in business should always have its own place in business education. MBA graduates are the people companies will want to continue to hire. They will develop into future business leaders. They will make some impactful changes to the business world for the years to come. 

Of course, not every MBA program will stay, only the quality ones will, only the relevant ones will. In our MBA programs, we focus on cutting-edge curricula and invest in our world-class faculty. No one knows what kinds of MBA programs will emerge in the next five years. We will always work hard to keep our curricula fresh so that our programs and our students’ knowledge remain relevant.

For more information on the Lehigh FLEX MBA Program, contact director Megan Van Voorhis at mab308@lehigh.edu. For more information on 1-MBA, contact director Kevin Ezzell at kje318@lehigh.edu.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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