Rao Unnava
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Q&A with Dean H. Rao Unnava
He shares about influences, the business school market, his vision

Rao Unnava’s experience in education and helping students goes back to the fifth grade. As a fifth grader growing up in India, Unnava helped his mom, who was a teacher, by tutoring third graders in math and science.

He went on to become an engineer and earn an MBA before selling computers in India in the early 1980s. He then got a call to teach in an MBA class. That went so well it prompted him to convince his wife, Vasu, that they should move to U.S. so he could earn his Ph.D. and start a career in teaching.

After more than 30 years at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, where he earned his Ph.D., Unnava joined the Graduate School of Management as dean last June.

Now, about nine months into his tenure leading the school, we asked Dean Unnava about his path to UC Davis, his research and his vision for the school.

Q&A with Dean H. Rao Unnava Brand Perception and Higher Education: An interview with Dean Rao Unnava with Tom Hinds, UC Davis Director of Marketing and Branding

What attracted you to come to UC Davis? What are some of the opportunities you saw here? 

If you had asked me in October 2015 about my future plans, I would have said I had two paths. Maybe go into research completely and forget about administration. Or do some research, which I’m already doing and start looking for a chance to use the experience I have accumulated over the years to do good someplace else.

My wife, Vasu, and I began to think of moving West given the progressive culture there. It was about that time I received an e-mail regarding the opportunity here at UC Davis. I had no idea what UC Davis was. So we went online to make sure this is a place where we could be happy at work.

For example, the first thing you look at it is:  who the faculty are and what they do. And we saw top notch faculty here. Almost everybody I spoke to in academic circles had somebody they knew at UC Davis and had good things to say about them. So I went ahead and sent my materials in. When I came here for the final interview I had a chance to meet with the faculty and staff. And it was a good meeting, meaning there was warmth in the building, you could see people were committed and happy to do what they were doing.

We then left a place that essentially meant America to us. I was embedded into the community at Ohio State. Leaving those friendships and the comfortable work environment—where I was being treated well by my colleagues, by staff, by the dean, by the university and of course the social circles—that was a pretty major decision for us.

What we now see here, is that this is a good move in our lifetime. We are working for a good school with good people. And to be able to serve, to make something good happen, is a nice opportunity in life. You don’t get those chances in many places. We happened to be at the right place at the right time. So that’s how things kind of fell in place.

What influences that have shaped you? Moments that made a significant impact on you either personally or professionally.

I can’t say enough times how lucky I have been to come across the people I have in my life. And they all have taught me things that became very important influences.

I had faculty members who were wonderful people. They took care of us and showed what it meant to be a faculty member and instilled a value system. A terrific group of friends who shared a common interest, helped each other out, and did not compete against each other.

I think my first real training started happening when I was interning between first and second year of my MBA. I was working for a private television company. After submitting my report at the end of the internship, my boss asked me: Tell me what you learned. So I shared with him the details of what I did.

He then said the one lesson he wanted me to keep in the back of my mind is to develop a high level of tolerance for variations in performance by people. He said it’s because not everybody is the same. But everybody is equal in terms of what they contribute to our organization. What you have to understand is that sometimes things are not done to your specifications. And if you can’t accept it, then you don’t belong in management.

And as a manager, you have to understand that people come with varying talents and you have to manage that variance. It was an interesting lesson that I never forgot. My job is to help every person become better at what they do.

The second thing I learned from my boss in my first full-time sales job was that nothing substitutes or beats the truth. There is no reason for you to lie to a client or co-worker. It’s just not right because the client is looking to you for a solution. And his or her job may depend on executing that solution. Making a false sale not only destroys another person’s life, but the whole organization may lose.

People think you can be slick and say things that customer wants to hear. And the answer is: No, that is not selling. Real selling is where you genuinely are a partner to that individual and solve the problem with that person.

What experiences and insights did you bring from Ohio State where you ran larger programs and at a greater scale? How is that translating here to UC Davis?

It’s more common than one would expect because both schools are land grant institutions. And, if you take it seriously, it just gets into your blood, and that’s how you think about what you do. It’s all about students. So you devote yourself to making students’ lives better.

The first thing I learned at Ohio State is that you, as an employee, become an ambassador of the school. For the students, you represent the school to them. And you realize it is not just about teaching in the classroom. Being a mentor and being ready to see students and talk to them when they need to talk to you for guidance is a huge plus in this profession. It’s a great opportunity that most professions don’t give you and you should take full advantage of it.

Although UC Davis is a slightly smaller school than Ohio State, the values are the same. In terms of running the college, which is where I am spending my time, I think the first truth to accept is that it’s not about you.

You are only a facilitator of what happens because it is the faculty who make things happen. You can obviously be creative and innovative. And when you do that, faculty will give you the support because they find it interesting.

The key is to understand that things don’t happen because you thought it should be done. They happen because a group of people believe that it is the right thing to do. So it’s not you, it’s the school or it’s the institution that makes innovations happen. It’s a big lesson to learn, and it’s easy to forget as well, and get into trouble.

The administrative position is not one of authority, as much as responsibility. I often tell people, that the only thing I probably have brought with me, in terms of the position, is the option for me to say “no” to an idea.

The “yes” part is not my saying it, it’s the other people saying it. And you can see now that things happen because other people want them to happen.

You need to absorb those alternative perspectives, integrate them into your own perspective, and come up with what could be a better idea than what you started with.

So it’s a very interactive process. The only way you can work with people is by being there with them, working with them, so you are one of them. To think otherwise is wrong. It doesn’t matter who you’re working with.

I may be working with admissions at 4 o’clock this afternoon, so I am partnering with admissions. Later on, I may be working with a faculty member on research, and I’m a research partner. Then I may go see a donor of the institution. And the donor and I are trying to work together as partners to make something happen that benefits the university.

It’s always a series of partnerships that you work with. No power games, that’s just the wrong way to think about the job. It’s more of a series of partnerships. And persistence is the other thing that you learn in universities. Things just don’t happen, again, because there is so much intellectual power in this place that debate is the norm. You learn that it is your job to execute, not stop with the debate.

You’ve done groundbreaking work in marketing research. What is your focus in the field?

The fundamental question I try to understand is: How do people gather information? How do they process it? How do they store it? How can they retrieve it? And how did they use it in making their decisions? It’s about information, so it’s very cognitive in that sense. I look at how a person, a stimulus, and the context interact to make consumer choices happen.

I have spent almost all of my life working in different situations, with different stimuli and different types of individuals. So you study variations of these three things to understand how they have an effect on the final decision you make.

You’ve been an award-winning teacher at Ohio State. Can you share about that and if you might teach here at UC Davis.

In fact this spring, I’m doing a freshman seminar. Next year, I may teach a course. It could be advertising and promotional strategy, or it could be an advanced course in consumer psychology.

One of the best things as a professor is that you see students, you talk to them, you spend time with them, you learn from them as they bring up perspectives that you’re not exposed to before.

It’s very enriching. And there’s an old saying:  If you hear you only get 5%, if you actually write it down you get 15%, but if you explain it to somebody–that’s knowledge. When you see understanding dawn on your student’s face, it’s a really interesting feeling. You can see the joy in their face, because suddenly, it clicked. You actually have made them think differently.

And students, if you do the right thing by them, they will continue to be there to assist you. If I have a student who needs a job, I pick up the phone and call a former student and say, can you help me? And they do, and that’s just amazing.

I won’t ever ask anything for myself. That’s one thing where I draw the line. Because the moment you ask for a personal favor from your student, you’ve destroyed the beauty of the relationship. That is a line that you will never cross.

What challenges are business schools facing as an industry? How can UC Davis adapt to meet the challenges?

Overall, I think the only thing that has changed dramatically from 25 years ago is that technology is much further ahead today than it was in the 1990s. The challenge is to understand how to use the fundamental knowledge, in this new context. For example, 25 years ago, network television was still a big deal for advertising. Today it is not. New technologies have taken over and our students are highly sophisticated in their use of these technologies.

The biggest challenge for the professors is to update themselves, so they can relate to this new generation of people. If I look at somebody who is 20 years younger than me, I don’t think I have anything in common with them in how we live our lives. So that’s one of the challenges. We are seeing things moving so fast that not knowing it would disadvantage us in the classroom.

The second challenge is that the students themselves, have to do two things. One is of course to understand how to make decisions and execute those decisions. But the second thing, which I think is more imperative now than ever before, is the ability to adapt because things are changing fast.

And so the student has to develop the ability to fuel the plane while flying. That is a skill that was not required of us when we were going through our education. Things were always the same, and we had to manage the process.

In terms of the demand for MBAs, business schools sprouted like mushrooms and now they are closing down because the demand for MBAs is surpassed by the supply. Facing increased global competition, companies are looking for people who can make a difference in their organization. So, the threat, as of today, to management education is for the lower tier schools, not for the top tier schools.

You have to continue to adapt to stay in the top tier. You have to work with the strengths that you have. You have to isolate yourself from the competition so they can’t beat you in your game. You have to do a lot more collaboration that had never happened before.

So those are things that we have slowly started. Which means student selection becomes important, too. Are we getting the right people into the programs?

What do you consider our greatest strengths and weaknesses as a business school?

I think the strengths are pretty obvious. It’s a very good and efficient group of people providing top-notch education experience for the students. And by that I mean intellectually the faculty are some of the top people in the world. The staff are functioning at very high levels and providing students with a lot of opportunities.

We’re part of the UC system, which is known all around the world as one of the best. I knew about UC sitting in India as a high school student. I don’t know whether there are weaknesses as much.

Any weaknesses are driven by what every state school is going through. The drying up of funding coming from taxpayer dollars. The drive towards having to raise our own money, either through philanthropy or through other means. And, somehow make good things happen in order for us to survive.

And I think that’s the one challenge that you constantly are backing up against in order for you to be able to provide an environment where the faculty and staff are able to do the kinds of things they want to do.

Share about your strategic plan and the areas where you believe we should concentrate our growth.

The plan was driven by a force, the drive towards excellence. We want to be one of the best in the world in doing what we do. And we have a mission statement that talks about how it will enable us to continue to be successful.

To get there, you have several things that have to fall in place. You have to get the right students. You have to have the resources to train them. You should train them better than anyone else can train them, which is why the students come here. Because you’re doing what you said you would do, companies are going come here to recruit them.

And because the companies find what they want to find here, they’ll come back and help you to get the right students. And it is toward this virtuous cycle we are trying to drive ourselves.

We also want to start using the strengths of the university to change how the MBA program is pursued by our prospective students. For example, our Food & Ag Program is built on our College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences being ranked No. 1 globally. Our program’s credibility therefore is instantaneous.

We also have to start looking at sources of revenue which are a little unconventional in the sense we haven’t seen before. And I think that’s where, again, our faculty have been very adaptive and supportive.

We’re coming up with some really different things that we have never done before. The collaborations are actually starting to click.

For example, we’ve partnered with UC Davis Extension on an online marketing research course.  

We are talking to international institutions to see if we can collaborate with them and offer joint degrees.

Our undergraduate accounting minor was just approved and we are exploring certificate programs for other units on campus.

We are talking to the College of Engineering, School of Law and School of Nursing to do some programs for them as well.

We’re also slowly increasing our executive education offerings. And these are all happening because the faculty and the staff are working to make them happen.

What about business school rankings? Can you talk about rankings and how you see them impacting the business school world?

Obviously they are here to stay. We know that. Rankings are one indicator students choose to figure out where they want to go. Companies use rankings to figure out which schools they want to recruit from. Alumni have a great sense of pride if their alma mater is a top 25 program and they want us to keep up the value of their degree.

I use rankings for information purposes. It tells me something about the school that I wouldn’t have known, because I’m sitting inside the school. And the rankings tell me what people outside the school are seeing and what they think we are doing here.

The second thing is that being a higher ranked institution is a good thing. But, if your strategy is driven by rankings, it means you don’t really know what to do. If the rankings media changes their criteria, you would have to change, too. So, it is pointless to build a strategy on rankings.

If your strategy is built on your strengths, rankings will follow because you gain reputation which is related to rankings.