A Rank Offense to B-Schools?


By Louis Lavelle The B-school world is abuzz. Again.Just three months after University of Southern California professors Warren Bennis and James O'Toole rocked the B-school world with their Harvard Business Review essay, "How Business Schools Lost Their Way," two USC colleagues are about to issue a retort.

In a soon-to-be published article, "What's Really Wrong With U.S. Business Schools," husband and wife USC B-school profs Harry and Linda DeAngelo and the University of Rochester's Jerold Zimmerman lay the blame for B-schools' woes squarely at the doorstep of media rankings -- like those produced by BusinessWeek -- and the B-school deans who pander to them.

"DYSFUNCTIONAL RANKINGS." The authors maintain that U.S. business schools are in thrall to the rankings, so much so that they're abandoning the "rigorous, conceptual framework" that students need in favor of "quick fixes" to improve their place in the rankings, but do little to help students.(The DeAngelos' own school, USC, fell 10 spots, to No. 27, in BusinessWeek's 2004 rankings.)

"Unless they wake up to the dangers of dysfunctional rankings competition," the authors write.

"U.S. business schools are destined to lose their dominant global position and become a classic case study of how myopic decision-making begets institutional mediocrity."

MISALLOCATED RESOURCES? In the authors' view, the B-school reforms implemented in the latter half of the last century -- the hiring and promotion of research faculty -- is an unqualified success story, transforming B-schools from glorified trade schools into truly academic institutions.

But all that changed in 1988, the professors write, when BusinessWeek introduced its ranking of full-time MBA programs, and was followed by U.S. News & World Report, Financial Times, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal.

Confronted with a plethora of rankings that could influence everything from applications to alumni donations and their own academic careers, the professors say that B-school deans began diverting resources from research and undergraduate and PhD programs and showering them on MBA programs, while pursuing short-term strategies designed to boost their rankings.

"SELF-INFLICTED WOUNDS." The result: B-schools in constant turmoil, flavor-of-the-month curriculum changes, and admissions decisions based on job-placement concerns instead of academics. Those changes win higher rankings, the authors say, but at the cost of a sharply diminished educational experience.

Henry DeAngelo calls these the B-schools' "self-inflicted wounds." Instead of creating long-term educational value, he says, the rankings encourage gaming the system for short-term advantage. "We're advertising ourselves to the world as experts in managerial techniques, and we're managing our business schools 180 degrees away from what we're teaching -- we're managing for the short term," DeAngelo said in an interview. "We're being myopic and behaving stupidly, and we'll pay for it."

So what's his fix? The authors maintain that the rankings do a poor job of examining complex academic institutions, and that they lack the kind of statistical precision needed to accurately rank individual schools, arguments that BusinessWeek disputes.

MUST-READ PAPER. They suggest increasing the importance of faculty research in the rankings, surveying alumni who graduated between 10 years and 15 years earlier on the long-term impact of their education, and replacing the rankings with letter grades shared by groups of schools deemed to be roughly equal in stature.

Another alternative: simply refuse to participate in the BusinessWeek rankings, as Harvard and Wharton did in 2004. BusinessWeek has long maintained that an arms-length ranking independent of the B-schools best serves prospective students.

Reaction to the working paper was unusually intense. Seeking comments, the authors distributed it throughout the academic community, and were inundated with what they say were generally favorable e-mails. On the Social Science Research Network's Web site, where it was posted two weeks ago, it has been downloaded more than 400 times, with only five other papers posted in the last 60 days receiving more.

LAW SCHOOL'S EXAMPLE. But not everyone believes the paper is dead-on. Warren Bennis, for one, believes it's dead wrong. In his Harvard Business Review article with O'Toole, Bennis argued that U.S. B-school curricula have lapsed into irrelevancy, focusing excessively on narrow scientific research at the expense of real-world experience.

The result, they say, is a generation of B-school graduates unable to grapple with the kind of complex problems that bedevil modern companies. B-schools, they wrote, should be run on the law school model, striking a balance between conducting research and training practitioners in the everyday challenges they will face.

By calling for a return to the research-based model, Bennis says that the DeAngelos and Zimmerman are off base. "The point DeAngelo is missing is that a business school is a professional school," Bennis said in an interview. "It creates knowledge not just for the [academic] priesthood, but for the wide general public. The work of a businessman is to be a generalist -- to deal with messy data, ambiguities, and uncertainties. I don't think Harry DeAngelo understands that."

"COMPETITIVE TERRAIN." Ted Snyder, the dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and a former colleague of the DeAngelos at the University of Michigan, takes offense at the notion that deans pander to the rankings by making "quick fixes" that do students a disservice. Ratings provide deans with important intelligence about their programs that they can use to make much-needed changes to keep their programs relevant, says Snyder, who adds: "Rankings are part of the competitive terrain. Ranks are feedback. Rankings are not our identity."

For the DeAngelos and Zimmerman, though, the media B-school rankings are the tail that wags the dog. The question is: Who's to blame for the problems of B-schools today -- the tail or the dog? Lavelle is BusinessWeek's B-Schools editor


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