Why Schools Are Saying No To Aspen

by John A. Byrne on

For Pat Palmiotto, a top administrator at the Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, the decision not to cooperate with the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes project was an agonizing decision. But in the end she decided Aspen’s biennial ranking that attempts to measure the “social, environmental and ethical impacts” of MBA programs just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Palmiotto, executive director of Tuck’s Allwin Initiative for Corporate Citizenship, wasn’t alone. MIT Sloan and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business also dropped out this year. They joined the Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth as non-participants in the survey which was released Sept. 21.

FIVE OF THE TOP TEN U.S. BUSINESS SCHOOLS REFUSED TO COOPERATE WITH ASPEN

In all, five of the top ten U.S. business schools declined to participate, along with a large number of major business school players that include UCLA, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, Southern Methodist University, Brigham Young University, the University of Washington, Michigan State, and the University of Rochester.

Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen’s Business and Society Program, says the group is not concerned about the number of schools refusing to participate in its survey. “We have 150 schools that do participate,” says Samuelson. “For them, it’s also a lot of work. They believe it’s worth doing and many schools will tell you it has been instrumental in driving change in their business schools.”

It’s not clear how substantially different the Aspen ranking would look if all those schools were in it. Nonetheless, this year Stanford’s Graduate School of Business came out on top, followed by No. 2 York University’s Schulich School of Business in Canada, No. 3 IE University in Spain, No. 4 Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, and No. 5. Yale’s School of Management.

Five U.S. schools rounded out the top ten in the Aspen survey which ranks 100 global schools in all: No. 6 Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, No. 7 the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, No. 8 Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, No. 9 the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and No. 10 UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

SCHOOLS SAY THE SURVEY IS TOO TIME-CONSUMING AND FAILS TO ACCURATELY REFLECT A PROGRAM’S COMMITMENT TO SOCIAL ISSUES

For most schools that opt out, it comes down to two basic objections. First, some B-school deans don’t believe the ranking accurately reflects a school’s commitment to social and environmental issues. That’s largely because the ranking fails to take into account a school’s extracurricular activities, institutes and centers, joint degrees and specializations in the environment, sustainability, ethics, or social issues. Aspen gathers this information but doesn’t factor it into the rankings.

Secondly, the Aspen survey requires a tremendous amount of data gathering and reporting. At Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, for example, it used to take three full-time staffers nearly the entire month of December to gather and report all the information required by Aspen for its survey.

“There has been a huge growth in the number of surveys we receive – to the point where we have to triage them in order to respond with the attention to detail they require,” says James Aisner, a spokesperson for Harvard Business School. “The Aspen survey is extremely time-consuming, and having examined it closely, we also have concerns about the effectiveness of its methodology and what it is trying to measure. Rather than focusing on the Aspen questionnaire, we are committed to incorporating topics relating to business and society, social impact, and environmental sustainability, and finding meaningful methods to evaluate our own progress toward those goals.”

It’s a similar story at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which was ranked 16th two years ago and declined to participate this year. “Fuqua is asked to participate in many surveys and rankings each year and we, unfortunately, do not have capacity to respond to every request,” says Kevin Anselmo, a Fuqua spokesman. “The Aspen survey is particularly time consuming, and we had a few concerns about the methodology used in their ranking. “

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  • http://www.mba.washington.edu Dan Poston

    At the University of Washington, we have taken a very different approach to sustainability that unfortunately does not align with the approach taken by the Aspen Institute. (The reason we withdrew from participation in this ranking.) Our university is deeply committed to a cross-disciplinary model of learning and model of addressing sustainability and corporate social responsibility. To that end, ALL graduate students, including MBA students, have access to an exceptionally broad range of courses, certificate programs, community connections, and other learning opportunities. MBAs are encouraged to (and do) pursue a broad range of courses in all dimensions of sustainability in the UW College of the Environment, School of Forestry, Environmental Management Program, School of Public Affairs, and School of Social Work as well as the business school. Our university scored 99 out of 100 on a recent rating of commitment to sustainability and was ranked No. 1 by Sierra magazine for green initiatives and commitment to education in sustainability. The opportunities on this campus are vast and the mixing of students across disciplines adds immensely to the learning. For example, it has generated multiple new green tech ventures developed through the joint efforts of MBAs, engineering and science students.

    The Aspen Institute model and metrics focus narrowly on business school efforts and business school courses. After many years of involvement in sustainability efforts I have come to agree with my university that sustainable solutions lie in collaboration across many fields. A focus on these topics within disciplines contributes to problematic “silo” thinking of much of higher education. Separate programs on sustainability in law schools, schools of public administration, engineering and elsewhere without pushing these groups together will delay solutions.

    In short, the University of Washington and the Foster School of Business profoundly support educating the leaders of tomorrow in sustainability. We support the same goals as the Aspen Institute, but we believe a highly cross-disciplinary model is preferable to the notion of a “sustainable MBA.” We applaud the efforts of the Aspen Institute in gathering and sharing various teaching tools, including articles, books and case materials, which help students in multiple disciplines learn these important topics more effectively.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Dan,

    Thanks so much for leaving such a thoughtful reply and explanation. Greatly appreciate what you had to add to the discussion.

    Best,
    John

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