The Manager of Graduate Programs for the Craig School of Business at California State University, Fresno, Tom Burns, discusses the origination and development of the Executive Masters in Business Administration (EMBA) program.
In the last couple of years it seems I cannot pick up a California newspaper without seeing a story like “CSU may cut 10,000 students next year” (published by the Sacramento Bee, March 2011) highlighting the various effects that budget cuts have had on the California State University (CSU) system. Having graduated from CSU schools for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I knew continuing success stories existed in a struggling CSU system. With that knowledge, I sought to learn about the work of starting these successes and how they were developed. From personal experience, I believe one of these bright spots is the Executive Masters in Business Administration (EMBA) program at Fresno State’s Craig School of Business.
To find out more, I accompanied my friend Tom Burns, Manager of Graduate Programs for the Craig School of Business, to a restaurant across the street from the Fresno State campus. This eatery called the Dog House Grill is the same location my executive MBA cohort would dine during lunch breaks from our weekly Saturday class sessions. It is also conveniently named for Fresno State’s mascot, an English bulldog. The next week, Tom and I had a subsequent follow-up meeting for further discussion on the EMBA subject.
Tom shared that he started with the Executive MBA project in 2003 after the preliminary planning of the initiative had moved through the committee process over the prior few years. The initial design of the EMBA project was managed by Professor Mark J. Keppler who went on to become the Executive Director of The Maddy Institute in 2004. 
Once the EMBA initiative was approved, then current dean of the Craig School of Business, Dr. Fred Evans, asked Tom if he would “take a shot” at launching the program. Tom remembered fondly how Dean Evans mused “there is no capital to start this project and you don’t get paid unless it goes.” The dean’s statement did not turn out to be exaggerated, and Tom had to put up $5,000 of his own money as a deposit for the first EMBA cohort trip abroad to study in Europe. Tom laughed as he quipped “the school would probably not have been very happy if they knew at the time” when mentioning his personal out-of-pocket expense.
The EMBA program is distinct in that it is self-funded; the program is fully funded by EMBA tuition and special projects for MBA students. There is also an opportunity for the EMBA program to contribute additional funds back to the business school, which Tom highlights as a particular mark of accomplishment. He points out that the program has worked because it was “approached more like a business,” but he also notes the importance of “maintaining the sanctity of the classroom.”
The business mentality comes out in “how I market to and approach a prospective student” Tom states. Whether it is a phone conversation, or as Tom prefers, a face-to-face, he relays the need for intense focus on personal connections and “trying to understand what my customer wants because I was once a customer.” Tom then shared his own experience in the Pepperdine Executive MBA program where he learned “an executive MBA student may not have recent experience in a traditional college setting, but they often bring an emotional maturity and are for the most part engaged.”
One of the observations that Tom found interesting while developing the EMBA program is that the first five years he often heard “I did not know you had a program” from prospective students, and now he encounters many people who say “I hear you have a great program.” He attributes this shift in community perception to the growing base of students that have gone through an EMBA cohort, but this observation does not diminish his desire for further development.
An area that Tom sees as a potential growth opportunity is building an agriculturally focused Executive MBA program. Another potential growth opportunity is an online MBA program for the Craig School of Business. To Tom, the argument that these proposed initiatives could “cannibalize” the existing EMBA program is not adequate justification to stop development. He presents the argument that “this region does not have a lot of choices for an AACSB  accredited business school, so we need to accommodate and provide value for the people who live and work here.”
According to Tom, prospective Executive MBA students will often ask “can I do this?” based on anxiety caused by course content or time constraints. Often, Tom’s response to these types of questions is a philosophy he relates to the experience of building an Executive MBA program – “the trick is just doing.”
Mr. Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.