Cover Story


Masters of 
Critical Thinking

ECU’s MBA program adopts new tools to teach students
more efficient ways to integrate knowledge and solve problems.

By Marion Blackburn

hile copterserving in the Middle East, Air Force Capt. Robert “Rob” Main ’08 knew that underestimating the competition could be deadly. To assure air superiority for aircraft carrying soldiers and supplies, he studied a market powerhouse—Wal-Mart—for strategies on market domination.

Drawing from its delivery model, this air logistics officer and his colleagues designed an innovative hub-and-spoke system to bring soldiers into the region. Troops arrived and departed on schedule, ensuring the military dominated the airspace over areas in conflict.

Main attributes this out-of-the-box creativity to lessons learned in East Carolina’s master’s of business administration program. Every class, he says, inspired better solutions for his military challenges. “I have seen immediate return on each class, in the civilian world and in my military job,” says Main. “The MBA helped me look past the surface of problems and examine the core components.”

That’s the kind of thinking the MBA encourages—an ability to integrate all kinds of knowledge, make decisions and take the steps that lead to success. Indeed, critical thinking is a key focus of the program.

Old school quality, new school learning

While you’ll find expected material on finance, accounting and management, it’s what happens with the material that energizes students for the real world.

They enter the program from all walks of life to find their own path of study. What’s more, these days, more students than ever are completing their degrees online.

The MBA program is one of the oldest graduate programs on campus. Its graduates populate banks, small businesses and real estate enterprises, but they’re also in unexpected places, such as the military, education and medicine.

The MBA is available on campus, online or as a combination of the two. The first online course was offered in 2000, and by 2003 the entire program was online. These days nearly 80 percent of MBA students are earning the degree this way.  The MBA requires no business experience or prior undergraduate business courses, with a plan of study embracing up to 20 classes determined by a student’s background, experience and knowledge.

Its innovative approach has made ECU a national standout. It is the only MBA program in the state accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business offered fully online. For several years it’s been rated a “Best Buy” for accredited programs by, a consumer advocacy partnership of America Online and the Electronic University Network. And for the third year in a row, the business school was ranked among the best in the country by the Princeton Review.

MBAGrowth3“We have nearly 800 students, so that means about 800 programs going on at once,” says Frederick (Rick) Niswander, dean of the College of Business. “We aim to give people options for improving their education and their life, without having to stop everything else they’re doing.”

Since its beginning in 1966, the MBA program has adapted to and changed with the flux of business. While many courses would sound familiar to students 40 years ago, others, like management information systems, would not. Students can expect essentials such as finance, accounting and marketing along with the new tools of commerce—the Internet, rapid delivery systems and computer-assisted analysis. Likewise, students explore the new culture of business, including the global marketplace.

Information is the starting point, but pulling together key knowledge and developing solutions is paramount. “We provide students the critical thinking skills they need to survive in the business world,” Niswander says. “We want our graduates to ‘master’ the information, and think about their world in a different way. That way they are open to possibilities they hadn’t thought of before.”

That was certainly true for Main, who today works as an information technology infrastructure director for the N.C. Division of Public Health, in addition to his duties as a member of the North Carolina Air National Guard. When faced with this year’s uncertain state revenues, he accepted the challenge of doing more—with less—without sacrificing quality.

“We have to be creative in using the limited funds we have,” he says. “The MBA program fostered that creativity, that ability to maximize the funds you have, and know how to cut bait on a project when you see negative returns and shift to another project.”

Why BB&T recruits at ECU

One of the more appealing stories in banking is how three freshly minted East Carolina MBA grads—Henry Williamson Jr. ’68 ’71, W. Kendall Chalk ’68 ’71 and Kelly King ’70 ’71—took jobs at a little farm-lender in Wilson and played key roles in transforming it into the 10th-largest bank in America. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when BB&T goes recruiting for the best business school graduates, Greenville is one place it always looks.

“The MBA students from ECU I’ve found to be well trained,” says King, who’s now CEO of BB&T Corp. “We hire lots of students from around the country and the world. ECU students stack up as well as any students in the environment. ECU students also tend to distinguish themselves by having a strong commitment to improving themselves, along with a winning attitude.”

King and his two ECU classmates worked together at BB&T for three decades. Williamson and Chalk, an ECU trustee, both retired recently from executive positions at the bank. “We had a clear purpose, which was to help our organization grow, prosper and survive,” King says. “We felt there were changes that needed to occur to make that happen. We were able to accomplish something that has been successful.” The three were instrumental in creating the BB&T Center for Leadership in the College of Business. The center was established in 1982 and has received nearly $2 million in grants from BB&T since then.

Winston-Salem-based BB&T today is a market leader in the Southeast, with more than 1,500 financial centers in the Carolinas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.

BB&T’s growth took shape, in part, thanks to courageous advancement and a sense of community ideals, King says. “Having that ECU MBA experience broadened our thinking and our core abilities. It was extremely developmental. We had leadership experience, and that gave us a bit more courage and confidence to take on tough issues and make changes—and therefore, to make contributions.

“What I’ve found is that when leaders are passionate about accomplishing something, it may be bold, and it may be risky, but if it is pursued for the right purposes, versus for ego and personal gain, it tends to be much more successful.”

                                                                              —Marion Blackburn

Entering the Internet age

The online option is more popular than ever, and the entire program is seeing dramatic growth. “Students are not having to choose between getting their degree or working. They can do both,” says Robin Armstrong ’03 ’04, assistant director for graduate programs. “That’s especially important in this economic climate.” They chip away at their degree while continuing to work and spending time with their families.

“Before the online program, working students were usually attending night classes, and driving into Greenville, sometimes from an hour away,” she says. “Now we have students who are deployed in Iraq, and students have moved abroad with the military. They don’t have to interrupt their education when life throws them a curve ball. They can keep going with it.” Armstrong says people whose employers transfer them to North Carolina from other states also can complete their degree at ECU.

The online growth reflects a sound business plan for the College of Business itself, which recognized a need for this type of flexible program. “In 2000, we had about 330 enrolled and it was all face to face,” says Len Rhodes ’82 ’99, former assistant dean for graduate programs and currently interim director of institutional research for the university. “It was the same format as had been offered since the 1960s.” The business school identified a market that was underserved—the working adult—and expanded online as a flexible, high-value, degree path.

“Students can choose their pace. It allows them to squeeze education into their life, rather than put their life on hold while they complete their degree,” Rhodes says. Growth continues, with a waiting list for admission.

Whether studying online or in person, MBA students develop real-world solutions as a  part of their learning by directly working with participating businesses. These kinds of on-the-ground experiences mean graduates take part in field work, too. One recent project had a group of students spending time at a local marina, where they devised a plan to strengthen the business. Their fixes ranged from simple steps such as erecting more visible signs to improvements on collections.  

Training better doctors

Just how powerful is the MBA experience? Ask Dr. Paul Brezina ’04. He’ll tell you it may have been the deal maker in landing a prestigious fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. Only one fellow is accepted each year for this competitive three-year program in reproductive endocrinology and infertility.

“When you’re going up against other very qualified doctors, having anything that makes you look different is huge,” Brezina says. “You have to justify why you’re going to be an asset to their program. The MD-MBA degree is that kind of asset.”
Brezina completed his medical degree at the Brody School of Medicine and the MBA through the distinctive MD-MBA, a five-year course of study. Medical students complete the first two years, then take a leave of absence to complete the MBA program before returning to complete their third and fourth year medical school rotations.

Brezina was drawn to the promise of learning business basics while sharpening his decision-making skills. After all, physician practices are small businesses, with employees, management, cash flow and inventory decisions for supplies, medicine, even gowns and gloves.

“A business background can enhance any career path you choose,” he says. “Whether or not you want to administer within a large hospital system—or run a small business, which a private practice physician’s office is—the skills you learn with an MBA are paramount for succeeding.”

Beth Everett

Preparing for the future

For Beth Everett ’83 (above), who grew up in Robersonville, N.C., completing the MBA brought a new understanding of leadership. Growing up on a farm, she watched her parents and grandparents make decisions about planting, harvest and transportation, while facing the uncertainties of weather, demand and yield.

“Farming families faced challenging decisions daily,” she says. “They were juggling many balls. As landowners, every year they determined the land’s highest and best use. They had to make the best product possible, with the ultimate goal of maximizing its relative market value. We do the same thing in today’s business world.”

Realizing business was in her blood, she entered the MBA program and has since worked for Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies. After experience with Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Development and Merrill Lynch, she also participated in the startup of two new companies.

More recently, she is engaged with a planned community in New Bern called Carolina Colours. When completed, it will be home to about 1,500 families. The complexity of this project, she says, makes good use of her degree.

“Every time you develop a community, you are starting up a new business. You are applying business concepts for startup, financing, production, marketing, selling and ultimately closing out the community. The MBA helped me learn to integrate all these functions into a coherent whole.” She also feels comfortable using the web, and social media Twitter and Facebook for her business.

“The program teaches you how to think, and how to make decisions,” she says. “You learn the process of thinking and analyzing. The MBA degree gives you the toolbox, and you make the choices of which tools to use, given the business situation you’re in.”

Likewise, it also means having the tools to discover a new career path. Richard Kerns ’73 held a Ph.D. in physics when he entered the MBA program. “I worked in physics labs, run by physicists,” he says. “I thought I had a talent for management. I had no training, but I thought I could learn.”

Just out of graduate school, he joined Terminal Communications, a subsidiary of United Aircraft, now United Technologies. One of his first tasks was to develop a quality control system for computer terminals manufactured there. “I applied what I learned in the program to their products and environment,” he recalls. Using approaches learned in quantitative methods, he helped develop a model for obtaining and measuring quality, and formatted a plan to improve it, economically. Quality control had never been systematically studied before.

Today Kerns is associate dean for computer services for the College of Business. Part of his role is to keep the MBA online program running smoothly, and find other beneficial applications of technology.

When graduates grow with the business world, keep up with changes and flourish, the program is doing its job, says Stan G. Eakins, associate dean of the College of Business.

“Our approach is to come up with a bundle of skills flexible enough to allow students to adapt to whatever comes along,” he says. “Some skills, such as communication, are needed no matter what happens. If you can think clearly, that, too, transcends any environmental condition. People who use reason to find the best solution will succeed.

“If we could have a single legacy, it’s that our students, five or 10 years from now, would say, ‘I learned how to think, how to solve a problem accurately,’” he says. “That’s a tremendous part of our effort.”