University of Tennessee

In UT’s Professional MBA Program, Life Comes Full Circle for the Millers

March 3, 2020

The wheel of life pauses at fascinating points. Consider the case of Haslam College of Business Professional MBA graduate Ian Miller. Awaiting his moment to stride across the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Student Union auditorium stage to receive his diploma, Miller was focused on the ceremony’s progress.

“I had been watching carefully every movement across the stage, thinking, ‘OK, I must stand here, then I must do this,” he recalls mentally rehearsing. 

When his turn came, however, the proceedings did not follow the prior order. Associate Dean for Graduate and Executive Education Bruce Behn reached out to shake his hand first, switching the sequence from previous graduates.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing?’” Miller says. A moment later, his father, Alex Miller, William B. Stokely Chair in Management at Haslam, was standing before him beaming, ready to bestow a hood upon his unsuspecting son.

“I was completely taken by surprise,” the younger Miller says. “But my immediate reaction when I sat down was, ‘That’s the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.’”

The elder Miller was pleased with the occasion.

“I am so proud of this program and what it means to so many people, and it’s especially important now that it means something to my youngest,” he says. “It was a special moment.”

Alex Miller has reason to be proud of the ProMBA program. He watched his father, a first-generation college student, labor through evening school for nine long years to earn his degree with the GI bill. 

“My father was the inspiration for my becoming a professor in the business school,” Alex Miller says. “His struggles to get his degree in evening school motivated me to teach in our old evening MBA program. When I saw the stress that program placed on students and families, I joined others in pushing for a different model.”

In the late 1990s, Miller led the UT faculty team that pioneered the concept of the Professional MBA program (ProMBA), designed for local working professionals to complete at an accelerated pace with Saturday classes and online sessions. It was launched in 1999.

Initially, there were some concerns within the college about whether there would be enough local demand to carry ProMBA for more than a few years. Those misgivings proved unfounded. The ProMBA program celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019 and is now the largest of the seven MBA and EMBA programs offered by Haslam. Other universities have adopted the concept, and similar programs now are found across the nation.

At UT’s ProMBA graduation ceremony, Alex Miller pondered the significance of his son’s departure from the program.

“There’s a certain closure to this, I suppose,” he says. “Or maybe it’s not closure. Maybe this is the beginning of a tradition that each generation in our family will have something to do with the program. I’d like that!”

It remains to be seen whether a new tradition was born for the next generation of Millers but, within that moment on stage, one phase of life came full circle for three generations of the Miller family.


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist (865-974-3589,