With the arrival of new Dean Oliver Yao, the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics has gained an experienced researcher who has both taught as a professor and worked in university and college administration. (UD’s soccer teams also gained an enthusiastic fan — Yao is passionate about the sport.)
Yao is the former associate dean for graduate programs at Lehigh University’s College of Business, and also served as interim deputy provost for the university as a whole. He has published a number of papers on research in supply chain management and information systems.
We spoke to Dean Yao about his vision for Lerner and opportunities he sees for the college.
Lerner: What attracted you to the dean position?
Yao: I’ve been living close to Delaware for half of my life, basically. So I’ve been hearing a lot of things about UD. I just never really stopped by. So when I saw the [job] ad I thought, maybe it’s time for me to check it out.
What really attracted me, number one, is President Assanis’ vision for bringing science and technology innovations together with industry and the community. That’s what this STAR campus is about — science, technology, advanced research. And then we’ve got a lot of industry and community partners. That’s really a very innovative idea.
I believe in innovation as well. So I thought, I can bring my vision about innovation in research, education and student experience as well to Lerner. My goal is to lead Lerner to be a top public [business] college in the nation.
The second thing is, I value research very much. As a top researcher myself, I know how to do that. And I appreciate that for more than a decade we’ve been on the upward trajectory in research at Lerner.
The third thing is the quality of the students. During the interview process I talked to two groups of students, undergrads and the graduate students, and they impressed me very much. They ask the right questions. They are motivated, they are intelligent, and they know what they want going into their career already. I thought, Those are great students. I want to be their dean.
Lerner: What are some of your goals for Lerner College?
Yao: I would like to take Lerner to the next level. We will need to innovate our educational programs and curricula, so that we can educate future business leaders who will be “Lifelong Lerners.”
We have a wide variety of educational programs. Many of them are in strong positions, some of them may not be. And so there’s room for us to improve and also to think about new programs.
A second goal is, like I mentioned already, we need to keep producing high impact research. There are some big challenges today in the business world. I want us to be at the forefront of that and address those challenges.
I did a calculation to measure top journal publications, and we publish roughly 10 papers a year [in those publications]. That’s really good actually, but to me, that’s not enough. It does not give us a leading position. I want us to, in five years, increase that by a significant number, say 50%. Anytime you’re in a top position as a research college, your reputation will follow.
Overall, we are actually doing pretty well. I would say we’re on an upward trajectory right now. I think Dean Bruce Weber did a wonderful job. He left a very strong college for me.
Lerner: What are major challenges business colleges are facing right now, and how can Lerner address those?
Yao: To me, the biggest challenge today that business schools will face is the AI technology revolution. We have seen what ChatGPT can do, but ChatGPT is just one model. There’s many different models in all different areas. Right now, we’re at the beginning of this revolution, but the whole thing may take another two decades.
Think about the internet revolution that happened in the mid 1990s, and see how our lives and businesses have been changed. I cannot imagine what our life will be in 20 years. But I know that our students need to be exposed to the AI revolution, they need to understand the technology. They need to understand the implications of those technologies on business, how AI may change our theories, and how AI may change companies’ behavior. Many jobs will be redefined.
If we come up with a new program that can incorporate this revolutionary technology, that will give Lerner students a unique competitive advantage in the job market.
Lerner: What are the changes you’d like to see in this area?
Yao: So we need to do a lot of things. One is, we need more experiential learning components in our programs. For example, we have Vita Nova [restaurant for hospitality students]. I toured the restaurant the other day, and I was told that students have no problem finding a job after graduating. So that shows you how important experiential learning is.
We should be teaching them not only the theories in the classroom, but also bridge the theories in the classroom with reality. I’ve often heard from employers, company executives, they will tell us that “We had to train [students] for half a year before they can really start working.” I don’t want the Lerner students to be like that. I want our students to be able to hit the ground running on day one. In order to do that, they need to possess theoretical knowledge plus a lot of experiential learning experience. We have Vita Nova for hospitality, we have the Michael and Rosann Geltzeiler Trading Center for finance major students, we have JPMorgan Chase Innovation Center, Horn Entrepreneurship Center, for example, and we can do more.
That’s one component. The second component is the foundation of [the AI revolution] is data analytics, because large language models are based on data. If they don’t have data they cannot train the model.
Our students need to possess core competency in data analytics. I would like the college to review, and possibly make that a requirement so all Lerner students when they graduate will have data analytics competence. The definition of competency can vary from major to major.
Lerner: Back to the personal angle, what drew you to your career?
Yao: At the very beginning, honestly, I just didn’t even imagine myself as a professor. I was a mechanical engineer by training, then got my MBA, and then went to Maryland to get my Ph.D.
What really got me into this job is that eventually I developed my passion for research. At the University of Maryland, I analyzed the impact of electronic commerce on supply chain performance as my dissertation, and I felt like I could make a difference. My research published in top journals, being cited by others, then reporters came to us. I was able to make contributions to human knowledge, one step at a time.
And then later on, after I got tenure at Lehigh, my department asked me to be the department chair. Professor and administrator — quite different jobs. They asked me multiple times, and I thought, I just want to be a professor, I just want to be a researcher. I didn’t want to be an administrator. But they asked me a few times more and I thought, all right, let me do it and if I don’t like it, I will just step down in a year. After that, department chair, associate dean, deputy provost, now dean, so I never looked back.
The way I look at it, I was given the opportunity to lead my colleagues, students and everybody forward. One option is that I move forward by myself, the second option is that I lead a group of people moving forward. And I feel more accomplished by doing the second option. And so that’s why I’ve been taking on more responsibilities and never looking back.
I feel if I can support our faculty at Lerner, our students, and our staff to make this a better place, that’s a pretty good career I’m in.
Lerner: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in higher education since you started?
Yao: Higher education actually has been changing dramatically in the past decade. The “demographic cliff,” which is supposed to be in 2026, means that the incoming high school students going into college, the total number is going to drop significantly.
Some colleges are in trouble today because they couldn’t get enough students. We just don’t have enough 18-year-olds going to college. So that’s a huge challenge for higher education.
And the second part is, we should consider the relevancy that I mentioned earlier, how we can educate our students with something they can use right away. They need to learn something relevant to the real world. Of course, they will need to learn the theoretical stuff in the meantime, but they need to be connected with the real world experience while in college so that we can prepare them better for their career.
Lerner: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Yao: That’s actually an easy answer. I’m a soccer player and a soccer dad, so almost all of my spare time is dedicated to soccer-related activities. I’ve played soccer all my life, and my son’s a high school soccer player. I’m always joking with my friends, either I’m on the pitch playing soccer, or I’m on my way to the pitch to play soccer. So that’s my passion.
I watch a lot of soccer as well. I look forward to watching the University of Delaware soccer teams play.
It’s the teamwork I enjoy the most, and making friends. When you score a goal, when you win, that makes me happy for a week. There’s coordination, there’s a mutual understanding, and there’s a resolution of conflicts. There’s the leadership as well — how do you deal with it when you’re winning? How do you deal with it when you are losing?