By Omar Sofradzija, communications manager
The year was 1978. Disco was a thing. Tom Izzo, not long out of college, was coaching high school basketball in Ishpeming, Mich. Eli Broad’s name had yet to adorn the College of Business, which at that time consisted of just one building: the Eppley Center. And there, a young professor named Glenn Omura, who had worked at Boston University, began to teach an introductory business class at MSU.
“I remember the first day of teaching. There was a student in the back. I’d started talking about the class. He has the State News wide open … I couldn’t see him, other than his knuckles. And I’m talking and engaging with the class, and he’s got the paper wide-open, and I can’t see him, which just set me off,” Omura recalled recently.
“I remember one of the evaluations that came at the end of the term because I had mentioned several times I had just come from Boston University. One comment in the evaluation was, ‘Go back to Boston.’ I think it had a lot to do with my blowing up at the attitude of students back then,” Omura said. “But it was just one student. Fortunately, I have not had that same experience in the years that followed.”
Since then, massive changes in both the business college and business education itself were witnessed by Omura, who at the end of the Summer 2018 semester retired from his post as associate dean for MBA and master’s programs at the Broad College.
“I think you have to conclude that all the changes, including the perceived changes among students over these decades, has really been driven by the environment, and the environment dictating how business schools form themselves, what they focused on, how they taught, and so forth,” Omura said.
Before Omura’s time at the business school, business education saw a move away from vocational training and toward theory. This shifted dramatically as his career progressed at MSU.
“The argument around the ’90s, in my era, was that there was too much theory and not enough application … mostly the argument came from the employer that began to complain that the students were great in theory, but they didn’t know how to apply the theory to practice,” Omura said. “About that time, MBA programs started to make the turn towards marrying theory with practice.”
“In order to make sure that the students coming out of MBA programs are totally equipped and can hit the ground running, as opposed to learning and figuring out how to apply particular tools, most MBA programs – certainly including ours – began to focus more on business-practical problem-solving,” Omura said.
One way the Broad College Full-Time MBA Program builds a problem-solving mindset is through its “Extreme Green” experiential case competition, which Omura helped create. During the two-year MBA program, each student participates in four such competitions, themed on confidence, problem-solving, innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Extreme Green focuses on creative problem-solving. Creative problem-solving can be applied to any field; business or otherwise. It can be applied to solving a problem in your house or solving a problem with social relationships. But all of our application examples obviously focus on business applications,” Omura said.
“In a sense, it is a good way to teach business problem-solving, because you cannot predict what kinds of problems our students will have when they hit the marketplace and in business,” Omura said. “But here’s a range of different kinds of problems that you’ll face, and here’s a collection of tools you can use to solve those problems, and you’ve got to find the best matchup between the tools and the problem on the fly.”
“There is no right answer. I don’t think any professor worth his or her salt today would argue that they know the right answer for every problem that’s out there,” Omura said. “We just don’t know.”
The depth and range of what professors must have a handle on have exploded since Omura’s start four decades ago.
“When I got my doctoral degree … I swear I knew everything there was to know in marketing, by the literature. I read everything. And I could do it back then. You cannot do it today,” Omura said, adding that the much greater volume of published research and increased interdisciplinary overlap has created a knowledge bucket that is bottomless.
“You can no longer say that you have mastered the knowledge. What you have to focus on is the mastering of critical thinking,” Omura said. “You have to be able to master how to structure new information in new ways to solve old and new problems.”
While Omura’s physical presence will no longer grace the halls of the Business College Complex, his name will live on here. In November, alum Manoj Saxena (MBA ’91) — the first general manager of IBM Watson, who studied under Omura and calls him his mentor — donated $1 million to create the Omura-Saxena Endowed Professorship in Responsible AI, which will work to ensure artificial intelligence is used ethically, and to benefit all.
It’s a deserved award for never having gone back to Boston.