Ranking B-Schools By Specialization

Close your eyes. Ask yourself this question: What words come to mind when you hear Wharton?

Chances are, CFO or banker flashed across your mind. No surprise: Wharton has been a synonym for finance for generations. How about Ivy League? That’s a fact, even if it can be a dog whistle for privilege. Of course, there is always runner up, as in Wharton plays the Quaker Coyote to Harvard’s Road Runner.

Sound about right? Maybe if you chummed around with John Sculley or Robert Crandall! These days, Wharton has emerged as a leader in high tech and entrepreneurship, as connected to Sand Hill Road as Wall Street. You’ll find as many hip hop lyricists as blue blood elites in Huntsman Hall, where liberal arts majors outnumber quant jocks by a near two-to-one margin and women nearly equal the men. Wharton student arrive in Philly with higher GMATs than their Charles River rivals — and leave with higher starting paychecks too. If the original Generation Y — Yuppies — wanted to earn their first million by 30, Wharton Millennials are hell bent on making a social impact by the same age.

Reputation matters in business schools. It is a measure of how well schools can push their message to those who matter. It can also inflate a school’s strengths, reinforcing long-held beliefs that can open doors for those with the right stamp of approval. When it comes to reputation, few MBA programs can match Wharton.

STANFORD MAKES THE TOP 10 IN EVERY SPECIALIZATION

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business

Look no further than U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of school specializations. Here, Wharton shined across the 10 concentrations evaluated by U.S. News: accounting, entrepreneurship, finance, information systems, international, management, marketing, nonprofit, production, and logistics. Overall, Wharton ranked as a top ten program in eight categories, continuing its reign as the top finance school while finishing as the runner up in both marketing and accounting.

As impressive as this feat is, it only ties Wharton for the silver. For the second consecutive year, the Stanford Graduate School of Business finished in the Top 10 in every specialization, a tribute to its across-the-board excellence. While Stanford didn’t rank as the top program in any category, it placed 2nd in entrepreneurship, management, and nonprofits, with its lowest finish being 7th in both information systems and logistics. Although Stanford dropped to 4th in U.S. News’ overall ranking — tying it with MIT Sloan and Northwestern Kellogg —the specialization ranking shows that Stanford’s academic reputation hasn’t slipped…at least among the business school deans and directors who voted.

Not surprisingly, Harvard Business School also fared well in a ranking where name recognition has its advantages. Placing among the Top 10 in seven specializations, Harvard upheld its “West Point of Capitalism” moniker by ranking 1st in management. U.C.-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business nearly matched Harvard with six Top 10 finishes, crowned by a 2nd place ranking in nonprofits. At the same time, New York University’s Stern School of Business and Columbia Business School each notched five specializations in the top ten, capped off by 3rd and 4th place finishes respectively in finance. MIT’s Sloan School of Management also appears in the top 10 five times, including top billings in operations and information systems.

GENERALIST APPROACH FITS MODERN BUSINESS ETHOS

Every ranking tends to have its outlier, that unexpected gem that turns convention on its head. Among MBA programs, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business stands out when top-to-bottom excellence is measured. Ranked 11th overall by U.S. News, Ross is viewed as being among the very elite by MBA royalty. It features nine of its concentrations being ranked among the top ten, led by operations (3rd) and logistics (4th). The program also ranked a respectable 15th in information systems.

Tucked in Ann Arbor, Ross is part of one of America’s largest research universities. Flush with resources and driven by an interdisciplinary, experiential learning model, Ross is a template for how MBA programs can achieve consistent and widespread superiority across its various specializations.

This performance is an extension of a vision chartered by the school over 40 years ago. Like Harvard, Ross bears the reputation of being a “general management” school. However, that has worked to the school’s advantage as business has evolved towards a generalist approach, says Dean Scott DeRue in an interview with Poets&Quants. This ability to understand the ground level while operating from the big picture has given Ross graduates an advantage, DeRue adds, particularly when leading people in functional areas where they are not necessarily the expert.

Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

“We’ve been able to develop a reputation for not only developing functional specialists, but a reputation for developing business leaders who can integrate across functions to make effective business decisions and mobilize people and resources to achieve results.”

A STRUCTURE AND CULTURE DEVOTED TO INTERDISCIPLINARY PROBLEM-SOLVING

Such outcomes are also the result of Ross’ focus on culture and structure. In recruiting and rewarding faculty, DeRue looks for candidates who bring a “passion and curiosity” beyond their own functional areas. Call them renaissance scholars who are seeking to diagnose and solve highly ambiguous and intricate business problems from a wide range of vantage points. For example, DeRue cites Eric Schwartz, an assistant professor of marketing, who has been partnering with Facebook and Amazon to identify ways to reduce the cost and risk inherent to fixing Flint, Michigan’s tainted water supply. At the same time, Jun Li, an assistant professor of technology and operations, has been conducting research to help Airbnb reduce owner bias when it comes to choosing clients for their properties.

“Culturally, we’re looking for people who have a shared commitment to excellence across these different specialties along with an appreciation for the different approaches that those functions or specializations bring to solving problems,” he adds.

Ross’ structure also reinforces such principles. Along with the usual organization by academic area, Ross has also created what DeRue calls “cross-cutting structures” that level the traditional silos and foster interaction among various functional experts through research, teaching, and intellectual property. One example is a weekly meeting of an interdisciplinary committee focused on organizations, which boasts representatives from across the school, including psychology, sociology, and economics. DeRue even views the school’s signature MAP (Multidisciplinary Action Projects) program, where student teams partner with leading firms on hands-on projects, as another built-in structure that supports this teamwork-driven, interdisciplinary mission. “Companies are looking for people who are not only functional experts, but can work across those functions to create business value,” he notes. “Across our undergraduate and graduate programs, that’s not only our aspiration, but it’s also our commitment.”