First 16-Month Professional MBA Program in US Celebrates 25 years

May 2, 2023

When the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business launched its pioneering Professional MBA (ProMBA) program in 1998, some involved voiced concern that demand in Knoxville would be insufficient to keep the program going. In 2023, it’s hard to imagine there was ever such a worry. Among the 43 members of the ProMBA class slated to graduate in December, almost two-thirds come from outside the greater Knoxville metropolitan area.

“Over the years, we’ve had students who came long distances – one came all the way from Orlando,” Molly Kinard, director of the Professional MBA Program, said. “We draw well from in and around Knoxville, but students travel from all over Tennessee and the surrounding states to earn their MBAs. Despite some early misgivings, Haslam’s Professional MBA program has proved to be resilient and popular.”

John Gallagher, a ProMBA core faculty member in international business and leadership strategy, said the program was intended to replace night school business classes that might take students years to complete. Gallagher, who served on the group chartered to develop the program and acted as ProMBA’s first director, added that its 16-month framework – a first-of-its-kind prototype for professional degree programs – was designed to accommodate and attract young professionals.

“We wanted the program to be accessible to local students,” Gallagher recalled. “We knew that classes probably had to be on weekends and that students wanted to be able to complete the degree in a relatively short period of time.”

OAP: ProMBA’s Cornerstone

For the past quarter century, Haslam ProMBA alumni have used their degrees as a springboard to greater success. Fundamental to earning the degree is the Organizational Action Project (OAP), which every student must complete. Students use these projects to help their companies address significant issues, resulting in greater efficiency, cost savings or increased revenues. While the program has undergone some major changes, including augmenting the use of distance-learning technology and adding an optional international component, Gallagher points to two factors that have remained consistent: the faculty’s commitment to teaching current and relevant business concepts and the requirement that students finish an OAP.

“We build our curriculum around this project,” he said. “We decide what we teach and when we teach it based on information and knowledge that students need to complete each phase of their organizational action project. That has been consistent from day one.”

Students and their organizations have consistently benefited from OAPs. For example, Jennifer Monroe (ProMBA, ’19) completed a cost-benefit analysis on a mobile prosthetic laboratory for her employer. Its success led Monroe to a role with larger responsibilities at another company. With his project, Brian Conry (ProMBA, ’17) developed a more cost-effective way to ship bauxite from Atlantic-based mines to Pacific-based customers, which was projected to save his company $5.6 million in shipping costs over the first year.

Connecting the Dots

Another alumni who built success through the program is Jeff Simpson (ProMBA, ’01), now a partner at Deloitte Consulting LLP, the world’s largest professional services consulting firm. He was marketing director at the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation (precursor to Visit Knoxville) when he entered the ProMBA program. The Sports Corp was building the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and Smith’s OAP was the Hall’s first marketing plan.

“What the MBA did for me was connect the dots,” Simpson says. “I had been thinking in purely marketing terms, but it taught me the interoperability between the different business functions, between the role of finance, of merchandising, of IT.”

While he was in the program, Simpson’s changed perception was apparent in his work and drew the attention of Proffitt’s, which recruited him as vice president of marketing.

“There’s no question in my mind the reason I got recruited out of business school was because I had begun to demonstrate all those things I just talked about,” he says.

Simpson believes another important aspect of Haslam’s ProMBA is students’ ability to go to school while continuing to work.

“When Deloitte sends people to business school, they disappear for two years, and as quickly as the market moves, two years out of it is dangerous,” he said. “A professional program like ProMBA is unique because you work while getting your degree, so it keeps you connected to what’s happening. I couldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but I firmly believe that that MBA program was an accelerator for my career. I was able to apply what I was learning in real time, and as a result, I was successful.”

Twenty-Five Years of Advancing Careers

Gallagher believes Simpson’s experience reveals one of the reasons the program is so popular: It serves a crucial need in ProMBA’s target market, which is professionals with at least five years’ work experience, typically in their early 30s.

“A lot of professionals at that point in their career need the kinds of experience and knowledge that we provide in the program,” Gallagher said. “They know more of what they want in their early 30s than they do in their mid-20s. So, it becomes a pivotal point in their careers. It gives them what they need to achieve what they want.”

Kinard said the program’s commitment to teaching concepts that are immediately relevant both on the job and in their OAPs is as strong today as when Simpson went through the program.

“What students learn on Saturday in the classroom, they can apply in their workplace on Monday morning,” she said. “And the challenges they undertake in their OAPs will benefit both their companies and their careers.”

About the Haslam College of Business Graduate and Executive Education Programs

Haslam offers an extensive portfolio of graduate and executive education programs that prepare students to reach their full potential and advance their careers. At the master’s level, these programs include the Haslam full-time MBA, Online MBA, Professional MBA, Executive MBA (Global Supply Chain, Healthcare Leadership, Strategic Leadership), Aerospace & Defense MBA, Physician Executive MBA, Master of Accountancy, MS Management and Human Resources, MS Marketing, MS Business Analytics, MS Supply Chain Management Tri‑Continent and MS Supply Chain Management Online.

Haslam’s graduate programs address real-world challenges through an interdisciplinary approach that develops both analytical and leadership skills. Faculty are industry thought leaders, seasoned practitioners and accomplished researchers who work tirelessly to create dynamic, relevant and impactful learning experiences.


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist,