Don’t Feed the Ducks!
Professor Ray Cao on Supply Chain Management & More
By Laura Wagner
Within minutes of talking with Professor Qing “Ray” Cao, you learn one thing: He’s funny. That trait must come in handy since his area of expertise is supply chain management, a topic some might consider … dry.
“The essence of supply chain management is two things: distribution of the physical goods and information management systems. But the focal point is the information systems,” he began, eyes lighting up. That passion is what’s kept him in the field his entire career.
The Path to Academia
While working as a quality control engineer at DuPont in Shanghai, where Cao grew up and earned his mechanical engineering degree, he met DuPont’s Chief Operations Officer, a Chinese American who, like Cao, was an engineer before earning his MBA (in Wisconsin, of all places).
Cao decided that was the dream he wanted, so he packed up and moved to Wisconsin, earned his MBA in operations management and management information systems (MIS), and adopted another lifelong passion—the Green Bay Packers. After obtaining his MBA, he worked in corporate America as an IT consultant. Those years served to confirm his true love was research. “That’s when I went to the dark side,” he joked. “Academics.”
He moved to University of Nebraska–Lincoln to earn his Ph.D. in operations management, with minors in MIS and computer science (CS). The leap from day-to-day operations management to research is logical, as Cao explained, “From consumer to retailer to wholesaler to manufacturer to vendors of raw materials—the entire chain is controlled by information systems. And from those systems comes big data that allows us to do research and analysis on operations optimization.”
A New Road
Leaving the corporate world behind wasn’t difficult for Cao. “I’m a scholar, first and foremost,” he said. (The proof is 72 published works with more than 6,200 citations.) His current research areas include supply chain sustainability (how well companies are coping with environmental, social, and economic responsibilities); artificial intelligence (e.g., identifying trends in product performance through sentiment analysis); and strategic alignment in companies (how the disparate parts of a firm can best align to work as a whole for greater success). “Research is about persistence and vision—you’re always looking for what’s coming next,” he said.
Before joining UHD as the Petroleum and Land Management Endowed Professor in the Marilyn Davies College of Business (MDCOB), Cao was Jerry Rawls Endowed Professor at Texas Tech. His wife got a job at University of Houston-Clear Lake, so Cao followed her. “Happy wife, happy life,” he said. “And I fell in love with Houston. Then when I got a job at UHD, I fell in love with the students.”
Teaching the Next Generation of Professionals
Cao connected with his students from day one, recognizing parallels with his own life. “The first thing I noticed was how hard-working they are,” he recalled. “And smart. My MBA students know what they want. They have a passion, like I do. Many of them are immigrants, like I am. Many are first-generation college students, have families, and work at restaurants or full-time jobs while pursuing their MBA, like I did,” he said. “The way they persist … you have to have that to succeed, because life is not very easy for them.”
Cao uses his research to bolster his classroom curriculum. “It helps them understand the relevance of the concepts we discuss in class when they see journals publish articles about these topics. And they see the importance of learning to write well, not just learning statistics,” he said, adding, “It also shows them that if I can do it, they can do it.”
Cao’s classroom approach focuses first and foremost on delivering high-impact, experiential learning. “In Shanghai, professors ‘feed the ducks’—they lecture, students listen,” he said. “I don’t do that. Lecturing alone is boring. The most important aspect of a leader is critical thinking, and that’s what I try to develop with my students. I want to help them think for themselves and express themselves.”
To achieve that, he includes an interactive component in every class, bringing in case studies and having students play the roles of the parties involved to simulate real-world experiences. He also uses the experiences of his MDCOB corporate fellow teaching partners, his students, and his own work history. “Students love it. Everyone participates in the discussion,” he said. “I set the rules for debate [be kind] and then encourage critical thinking in their responses. The goal is for them to learn to articulate their position and take this skill back to the workplace.”
“The process is reciprocal—I learn from my students,” Cao noted, adding that he’s grateful to UHD for giving him the opportunity to work with such a high caliber of learners on meaningful areas of inquiry. “I have the luxury to choose focus areas I’m passionate about and that I believe have a major impact on society,” he said. “That’s what I want to do: have an impact.”
Illustration credit: Ecelop/iStock
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.