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How Darden Hit No. 1 in Student Satisfaction

The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia

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.”