How Darden Hit No. 1 in Student Satisfaction

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by John A. Byrne on

Virginia's Darden School hit the jackpot in the last BusinessWeek survey, taking first place honors in student satisfaction.

A little-noticed accomplishment occurred a few months ago with the release of BusinessWeek’s new ranking of the top business schools: the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business went to first from 14th in the magazine’s survey of MBA student satisfaction. It was the highest ranking the school had ever achieved in the all-important MBA satisfaction portion of the BW study.

Jumping 13 points to the top spot is no easy task, especially because BusinessWeek dampens down the impact of any one student survey by including the results of two previous polls going back to 2006. The huge increase in student satisfaction, which accounts for 45% of the weight in the overall BW ranking of best B-schools, helped Darden place 11th last year from 16th in the previous biennial survey in 2008.

Yet, there was no major overhaul of the MBA curriculum nor any major policy change that was made with much fanfare. Neither was there new leadership at the school. Robert Bruner, a finance professor at Darden for 24 years, became dean in 2005. In fact, under Dean Bruner, the school’s student satisfaction rankings plunged to 14th in 2008, from a very favorable sixth place in 2006.

HOW DID DARDEN GO FROM 14TH IN STUDENT SATISFACTION TO NUMBER ONE IN JUST TWO YEARS?

So how did Darden do it? The answer to that question provides a rare glimpse into how management education has dramatically changed over the years. Oddly, for professional schools, little attention had been paid to an institution’s positioning in the marketplace, its strategy, and the execution of basic business principles. That is no longer true as the story of Darden’s rise will show. But the answer to the question also provides a telling lesson on the quality of business school rankings as well. If a school can move 13 places in a single survey–even after that result is tempered by including earlier student surveys–the differences among the schools must be so small as to have little statistical validity.

According to Bruner, the secret lies in getting students more deeply engaged in the school’s operations and future direction. “In the past three years,” he says, “we have attended very, very closely to getting the basics right. We completed a major review of our mission statement that was conducted over 2007-08, aligning the faculty and staff around our purpose. Students had an investment in that process. They were actively involved at selected points during the review. We drew on them for numerous focus discussions. We employed students as researchers for field reviews. The students who graduated in 2010 really took the excitement of that to heart. It was our commitment to be the number one teaching school. The spirit was electric. Students responded absolutely enthusiastically.”

But there was something else, too, that led to some eye-opening insights and subtle changes that significantly improved the satisfaction of Darden students. Starting in the spring of 2009, a selected group of students were taken through an unusual process common in the design industry called “experience mapping.” The project involved extensive interviewing of second-year students that allowed the school to literally graph the feelings and emotions of students through their two-year MBA program at Darden.

“We wanted to improve the satisfaction of our chief stakeholders,” explains Jeanne Liedtka, a Darden strategy professor who was involved in the effort. “Instead of putting a group of faculty in a room to improve the curriculum, we used experience mapping to try to understand from the perspective of the students what was contributing to a good experience and what was getting in the way.”


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Air Time - Comments
  • Guggenheim,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Best, John

  • guggenheim

    To all,

    I am a complete, legit Darden Alum from the early ’90’s. Whew, way back then. Even in those old days the McKinseys, Goldman Sachs, top advertising agencies, P&Gs etc. recruited at Darden. Of course, Darden was ranked in the Top Ten of the US News and World Report lists long before so many like North Carolina, Yale et al played catch up. Georgetown, really? Which of course is the larger question, how and why did Darden slip at all?

    I am sure that most of you who are students, all of you who are real grads and a few of you who are candidates have heard this truth: The MBA experience as it relates to placement only holds currency during the first FEW years after graduation. Following that, and for most of people’s careers, recruiters and hiring managers will look at concrete professional, business accomplishments. Someone above said that accounting is the easiest course offered in business school. That person clearly has not been in the working world very long. Please don’t repeat that on a interview, it’s not true, especially to those who have NOT taken accounting and those will be most of the people for whom you interview and work.

    The MBA experience as it relates to your career is a different story. As a Darden grad, you will know so much more than many of your other B School peers, work colleagues and bosses. Don’t be so shortsighted as to not realize that. Also as time goes on, your degree from Darden will command respect and dollars as do the degrees earned from other major B-Schools.

    But hold on to your hats, especially you newbies , the MBA is often mentioned as a “preferred” credential, not a requirement as jobs move further upwards. I recently watched a 60 minutes episode about Tyra Banks the former model and media mogul pursuing an executive MBA at HBS. She has already built a pretty major media company of HER OWN BEFORE pursuing an MBA, only now that she has already has millions sans MBA she wants a better understanding of what those Wall Street folks are talking about as she looks to grow further for herself.

    So try to take a longer view. And average? There is nothing average about a Darden grad or a grad from any major, intensive MBA prgram. BTW, you should read up on the satisfaction surveys from grads of HBS. I’m not knocking HBS, it’s a great program in my view and I’m a Darden grad. But read what the people who went there say. It does not or will not rank with the student satisifaction achieved by Darden. It’s tough, but sometimes it really does help to start realisticaly looking further down the road.

  • James

    According to the satisfaction chart of the 4 personality types, I would assume that Darden is now less interested in the social enterprise types. Those students tend to be less satisfied than most, and therefore will rate the school lower.

  • Darden applicant

    Arthur-

    I appreciate your candor, but to be quite honest with you, I’m having doubts that you are a real student. I find it hard to believe that you were admitted into Darden with a 660 GMAT, 3.2 GPA, and at the age of 21. What did you do before b-school?

  • Bob

    Oh, God, PLEASE, no more MBA programs and MBA’s!!! America doesn’t need any more MBA’s who screwed up its economy through Wall Street shenanigans or through Main Street, with their short-sighted mismanagements motivated purely by greed and even more greed. When too many of their subordinates still complain of their unfairness, unreasonableness, and dbias, it’s clear that they graduated from the MBA programs without adequately learning perhaps the most critical skill in management, which is PEOPLE skill. Or, perhaps the MBA programs graduate too many MBA’s who were not cut out to be decent, practicing managers. Apparently the MBA’s who were involved the Wall Street scams forgot or ignored what they learned from their requisite courses in business ethics at their MBA schools. Enron, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, AIG, GM, Chrysler, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mae were all MISmanaged by the managers who graduated from some of the top MBA programs in America. They decided to offshore many manufacturing and service jobs overseas, mostly to fatten their already grossly inflated salaries or compensations, all the while claiming that it was necessary for the competitiveness or survival of their companies. Lastly, America already has a HUGE glut of MBA’s, of whom some, if not many, are probably currently unemployed or under-employed, in this horrendous recession brought on by themselves or their peer MBA’s.

  • Plan MBA,

    Thanks for weighing on. Really enjoy your blog posts. Good luck to you!

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