Yung-Jae Lee is the kind of educator who responds to a colleague’s challenge (“This problem might be too tough for your students”) with the exclamation, “That really pushed my buttons!”
What usually then follows is a course of action to prove the person mistaken. Thriving on a professional challenge is part of what Lee is all about.
That was the reason he moved on, after 21 years at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, to take the position of dean at the Barowsky School of Business at Dominican University of California in San Rafael.
“I had launched successful programs and did what I wanted to do,” Lee explains. “You like to go where you think you are needed, and Dominican needed my background and my talent.”
Lee, who assumed the post in August, has just finished launching a new degree program at the business school — a Master of Science in Business Analytics. Students will get the tools to organize data so it can be accessed, analyzed and then communicated about effectively to solve real world business problems, the university states. This MSBA course is the first of its kind in Marin and Sonoma counties.
During Lee’s years at St. Mary’s as associate dean of graduate business and global programs, and interim dean of the School of Economics and Business Administration, he was responsible for five graduate programs that led to accreditation and re-accreditation by the Association of Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. He intends to do similar things at Dominican, estimating that the Barowsky school will have its accreditation by the end of 2020.
After the business analytics program is up and running, Lee plans to initiate a master of science program in accounting. It will be a one-year degree with a boot camp at the beginning so that people who do not have an accounting background can have a pathway.
“I will disrupt the market by offering the degree at a competitive price, with the result at the end of the program that everyone has a job. As a small private school with connections, we have no problem placing our graduates,” Lee says.
You might say Lee, 58, is a disrupter in the best sense, but it has not always been so.
His undergraduate degree was in English from Korea University, a private research university in Seoul. He was good at math, but preferred the humanities and social science track and took political science courses of interest.
“What I was trying to do is find the best job in Korea, maybe sell Samsung products around the world,” he said. “But I didn’t have the high level GPA or the quantitative skills these kinds of companies wanted. I settled for something less than the ideal job, but then I wasn’t satisfied. I like to move around and meet people and make things happen.”
So in 1988, Lee decided to study for his MBA in the United States. He sold his small apartment and came to the University of California at Irvine in Southern California with his wife, Soon-ok Lee. The plan was to return to Korea upon completion of his master’s degree in operations management.
That is it was the plan until the afternoon his professor, Bruce Lamar, called the soon-to-graduate Lee into his office.
“He told me I was his best student and did I want to do a Ph.D. under him?” Lee said. “I was shocked and said, ‘No’ because I needed to get out of school and make money. But when I got home and told my wife, she said, ‘This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Go back and tell him yes!’”
Lamar’s response to those protests of unworthiness have stayed with Lee as a baseline of his own education philosophy.
“My professor insisted that I was the top performer in my class and that I could learn the bit of math I needed to continue. He gave me books to study on my own and trusted my ability to do a doctorate in applied mathematics. This was a man who somehow believed in me more than I was believing in myself,” Lee said with a hearty laugh. “That was the turning point.”
An educator needs to believe in students no matter what their background. Lee is even proposing that admission to the new business graduate programs be based on an interview alone. He has seen that gathering letters of recommendation is often a barrier to students; it takes so much time that they drop out of the process.
“I can figure out how much an applicant knows in an hour of conversation,” he said.
In that same hour, Lee can also encourage, motivate and interest the student in what a program has to offer by sharing stories that illustrate how exciting such a course of study can be.
“If you are a professional educator, you should be able to bring a student from one level to a higher level within a certain time. If you cannot do this, maybe this is not the job for you.”
Lee is also sensitive to the marketplace. He knows how students these days want to learn: they need a short time frame, the ability to keep their internships and jobs, and a clear return on investment. He also knows what business leaders want: To advance their knowledge in order to solve practical issues. This is why Dominican’s MSBA is a yearlong “hybrid” program.
It will be a very intense year with evening classes and virtual seminars as well as every-other-Saturday sessions at the campus. Lee estimates the program will attract participants from a 50-70 mile radius, as well as international students potentially looking for jobs in the Bay Area’s tech industry.
At a recent meeting of business school leaders, Lee was struck by comments by a dean from the prestigious Hult International Business School who said traditional schools focus on what the students will learn, whereas at Hult they base their courses on what the students are able to do.
Lee continues the thought, “If you say, ‘I know this theory,’ that’s boring. If you say, ‘I can do these things, and in order to do those things, I learned this theory,’ then it’s connected. If you combine this along the way with other transferable skills, like communications and literature, then your students will be successful.”
Always listening to students
Yung-Jae Lee started his career as a regular faculty member, teaching classes and writing papers, but over time, because he was outgoing and tended to get involved with myriad activities, people gave him more and more to do.
“So naturally.” Lee said, “I became an administrator.”
It may not be such a “natural” thing, however, to be both dean and professor, as well as a curriculum developer and the chief marketer and spokesperson for the business school programs, as Lee is currently at Dominican.
His colleague, Denise Lucy, is professor of business and organizational studies, and executive director of the Institute for Leadership Studies. She has been at the university for 27 years. From her perspective, it is “admirable and courageous” for Lee to be a teaching dean, considering the extent of his responsibilities.
“In a short time, Dr. Lee has built a great learning community. He knows the students and the students know him. At one of our campus events, he was interviewed in front of an audience by a group of undergrads and he had them laughing and thoroughly engaged. He also treated them like real journalists, giving of himself generously and showing them respect.”
Lucy says Lee has been welcomed thoroughly at the Barowsky School because of the “ vast experience and wisdom he carries after his time at the beloved and revered institution of St. Mary’s.” She says that he is an example of how to run an academic business.
“Dr. Lee is a leader who has inspired our faculty team and engendered trust, so that even when we disagree, we can come to a resolution because real trust is there. He is an authentic, acute and very competent man, but he is also charming and funny.”
The assistant dean of the business school, Daniel Cassidy, has had many occasions to observe and interact with Lee. According to Cassidy, his dean is a consummate networker, maintaining connections nationally and as well as internationally, and staying in touch with his former colleagues who “miss him quite a bit.” Cassidy says Lee has made a huge impact on students who take advantage of his open door policy and report how much they like him.
“Yung-Jae is all about sharing information, collaborating, seeking other people’s input,” Cassidy says. “His attitude has invigorated and empowered the faculty and staff to be part of the trajectory of the school. He is challenging the faculty to think of new ways of doing things, and I believe he has won over some of the doubters.”
Cassidy notes that Lee has strong confidence in himself, yet he is humble, “which is very disarming.” If there is a critique of the dean, it is that he puts in an inordinate amount of time at his job. According to Cassidy, this is probably the opinion of Dr. Lee’s daughter, Sarah Lee, who has been an assistant professor of management at the Barowsky school since January 2019.
Karla Hernandez Navarro is a first-generation college student and the first woman to graduate from high school in her home town in Mexico. As a senior majoring in business, she attends Lee’s course in spreadsheet modeling, which she describes as a way to use Excel to simplify data analysis. Even though the class is from 6 to 8 p.m. following a long school day, attendance is 100%. Lee makes himself available on weekends too. He recently met with Hernandez Navarro and her team on a Saturday night — via Zoom video conferencing — because they had a homework question.
“He is always seeking feedback from the students, which I feel is unique for a professor,” she said. “In class, every time he finishes, he turns around and asks ‘was that explanation helpful?’ If he senses that someone in class is being left behind, he slows down. He tells us, ‘It is my goal to help you reach the goal you came in here with.’”
Hernandez Navarro’s ambition is to start a nonprofit for educating women in rural communities; she has often discussed this with the dean.
“Dr. Lee can be working on his computer, and if you walk in, he stops what he’s doing, pulls up a chair, faces you being fully present, and listens,” she said. “He is an exceptional human being who is going to make an amazing impact on this school.”