New Dean Focuses on Making UD Business School Authority in Multiple Fields, Producer of Must-Hire Graduates

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the Delaware Prosperity Partnership website on Feb. 2, 2024 and is reprinted with permission. 

Dr. Oliver Yao, who was appointed dean of the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics in 2023, says he’s excited at the potential he sees to put UD and Lerner on the leading edge of financial technology (fintech) and increased research productivity.

Yao came to UD after 20 years at Lehigh University, where his final role was overseeing graduate programs and graduate students. He was attracted to UD’s vision for collaboration on technological innovation, featuring researchers, industry and the community.

Yao sees UD and the Lerner College as a critical partner to the region’s economic growth. He says the College has a responsibility to the community to provide opportunities for economic development with startup companies and the ability to influence policy with cutting-edge research.

Lerner has 163 faculty members serving 3,300 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students, with 17 undergraduate majors and 16 minors, nine master’s programs and four doctoral programs. Yao expects those numbers will grow quickly over the next few years. In the interview with Delaware Prosperity Partnership that follows here, he shares why.

What have you been focusing on in your first months at UD?

We’re focusing on being innovative and entrepreneurial. We’re developing greater technology competency in our majors and minors in fintech, adding more experiential learning opportunities and more global perspectives. We’re also adding new workshops on topics around generative artificial intelligence (AI).

Our Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship (CEEE), Office of Graduate and MBA Programs and a cluster of faculty members have relocated to the FinTech Innovation Hub, which is located on the STAR Campus. We’re going to move the Ph.D. program to that building as well.

What’s the benefit of moving people into the Fintech Hub?

Fintech is interdisciplinary in our field. We have faculty from management information systems, finance and management to collaborate on research. We can also collaborate with our College of Engineering colleagues who are on the same floors with us and with companies on the STAR Campus. CEEE has access to resources to grow our economic education and financial literacy programs for K-12 schools in Delaware.

What are business and governmental leaders and alumni telling you they’d like to see?

They don’t really get into the curricular issues, but they want to help. We hope to introduce more leaders to our Executive Mentoring Program and Lerner Edge programs, which support professional and career development guidance for our students. They also are reinforcing the importance of being at the forefront of cutting-edge technology.

Everywhere I go, I hear businesses say they need people with generative AI skills. One executive said, “If you graduate any of them from Lerner, I’ll hire them.” So that’s a clear message to us. We need to revise our education to include high-demand market skills, including people and leadership skills.

What would you like to accomplish by the end of your first year?

I want to move Lerner’s research forward. Finding more grants and donations will be very important to support faculty research. I told my internal Dean’s Advisory Council that I want research to be the first thing we talk about when we meet, before we move on to other topics. That’s how I can show that this is my top priority.

Are you encouraging any particular research?

In general, I cannot tell our faculty what kind of research they need to do. But I can invest in grants for specific topics. For example, we’re going to appoint six FinTech Scholars and move them to the FinTech Innovation Hub. I do encourage our faculty to do more high-impact research that addresses grand challenges today. For example, I attended a research symposium about gender equity and equality where our researchers and faculty talked about their work.

What role do you see for Lerner outside the University?

Continuing to contribute, give back and being a partner with the local community. CEEE is a valued resource to the Delaware school system and in the state with programs such as Teach Children to Save Day.

The Lerner Diversity Council focuses on curricular and co-curricular transformation and strengthening community outreach and improving engagement. It partners with the Delaware LYTE program to familiarize high school students with the University and the application process.

We are also partnering with the new Center for Accelerating Financial Equity (CAFÉ) in the FinTech Innovation Hub that supports early- to growth-stage fintech companies creating innovative solutions to advance financial wellness for underserved and low- to moderate-income communities. The first cohort of companies will arrive in early 2024.

And we plan to use more adjuncts from local businesses, particularly for special topics that our faculty may not have expertise in and those that expose our students to an entrepreneurial mindset.

Tell us more about expanding experiential learning at Lerner.

Redefining creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship is a core part of UD’s strategic plan and central to expanding experiential learning at Lerner. The Geltzeiler Trading Center enables finance students to use the same commercial software that Wall Street traders use to analyze stocks and make transactions. The Blue Hen Investment Club allows 50 students to manage a real-dollar investment portfolio. They have continued to achieve their goal of outperforming the S&P 500 Index for a long time.

Vita Nova is a student-operated and -managed restaurant on campus. We offer hands-on hotel management experience in the Courtyard by Marriott hotel and teaching facility on campus. The top-ranked Horn Entrepreneurship program is the creative engine for aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs with its pitch competitions and much more.

We must provide enough opportunity for all students to have these experiences. That’s the challenge I’m going to take on over the next few years.

Are there any technologies you’d like to see students or faculty better leverage?

On a broad scale, I would say generative AI. Our management information systems (MIS) faculty are the most familiar with this technology. However, all your faculty and students need to know what generative AI can do because it impacts all facets of business and the economy.

We’re in the process of creating a graduate certificate focusing on generative AI for business. We’re starting new courses, and we’re going to do more workshops on generative AI to make sure our faculty, staff and students are familiar with the technology.

In the past, our students have used Excel and Python to create models to solve business problems, but those applications may soon be obsolete. When students graduate, employers won’t be looking for Python and Excel skills. They’ll be looking for generative AI modeling skills. I want our students to be able to list those skills on their resumes.

What do you want to hear people saying about Lerner in five to 10 years?

I want us to have three to five fields – we’re not large enough to cover everything – where people point to us and say we’re the authority. We have some great researchers, but I want Lerner’s research profile to rank among the most productive in the country. During strategic planning this spring, I’ll be asking our faculty to help me decide on areas beyond fintech. That could include finance, economics, leadership, corporate governance, supply chain management, accounting and compliance.

I would like executives from at least Boston down to Washington, D.C. saying they must go to Lerner and the University of Delaware to hire students. And we want a reputation that will attract more great professors, great faculty, great staff and great researchers to the University.

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