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.


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.”


  • 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


    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!

  • I’m a current Darden student (graduating in 2011) and the author of Plan MBA, the blog referenced in this post. My blog was used to illustrate the stress of the second year program. While that stress does exist, I would encourage people to visit my blog and read the entries made since August. After the rush of SY recruiting ended, the focus returned to classes and since then, SY life at Darden has been busy but not extreme. The Promise of Second Year exists, it just arrives a little later than I anticipated.

    While no school is perfect, I want to emphasize that my experience at Darden has exceeded my expectations. I am a “poet,” one of those folks who didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, came from a non-business background and arrived unsure what I would experience. I have found a collaborative, energetic, intelligent community that cares about making the world a better place. I have discovered career paths I never knew existed. And I have learned to think in new and exciting ways.

    Yes, Darden’s first year is incredibly challenging (read any of my posts from last year to get a flavor). I came from a time-crunched, high-stress, deadline-focused work environment (newspapers), so perhaps I was better suited to the Darden first year than some others. But I felt like I was learning something valuable every single day and that made all the effort worth it. It definitely wasn’t busy work.

  • JoeJoe

    As a current second year student who is firmly in the “Mature-Ticket Puncher” category I’ll say this. I cared a lot about rankings when I applied to B-schools. I dont think anyone really cares anymore once you’re here. The same Goldmans, Bains and McKinseys come to Darden as they do to HBS and they probably recruit a higher % of the class here then they do at the bigger schools. If thats what you’re here for. No school is perfect, HBS is not, I am sure there are some dissatisfied customers there who in the end will leave with an HBS degree and they will be happy. I will be happy with my Darden brand, with the connections I made and the new things I learned. So far in my more mature job search having the Darden brand has only helped when applying for jobs with the “top MBA” tag. Thus, while I can complain around the sides, on the whole I am satisfied with my money’s worth.

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    Another thing is that one suspects that the satisfaction surveys are being gamed. The administration put outs the word that if students want their school to be highly ranked or to move up a few places they’d better make sure to respond to the surveys and to say good things. Then there’s the problem of comparing one person’s “I’m really satisfied” with another person’s “I’m pretty satisfied.” Those two might be the same or it might be that the pretty satisfied person is much more satisfied than the really satisfied guy. I strongly believe that the HBS folks are quite satisfied no matter how they answer the survey. Think about it.

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    Rishona, Peter and John. I’m not a Darden alum. The description of life at Darden is from a post on Wallsteetoasis.. See the link in my post.

  • Thanks Peter for that alternative view.

  • Peter

    As a Darden Alum, I hold a completely opposite viewpoint of Arthur who is currently a student. I firmly believe that an MBA experience is truly about the holistic experience and preparing students for a wide range of situations that may require a different way of approaching a problem. Who can build a country’s infrastructure? Who can build an economy? You said 90% probably won’t be able to and you’re correct. That same number applies everywhere else as well.

    There are members from the class of 2009 who started Husk Power Systems that are providing energy and resources to villages in India. They’re building the infrastructure. They’re building the economies. They’re providing energy to some of the most remote villages in India and the technology can be used in many other countries as well. They’ve won award after award and they deserve it. What Husk Power Systems provides is a life altering service to their customers.

    I’m sorry you didn’t have a positive experience, but it sounds like you didn’t need an MBA. I’m more concerned that you are not really prepared to begin your career. You seemed to have missed out on all of the wonderful things you could have learned from your classmates. Instead, you’ve chosen to look down on them because they are not as adept at Math. Have you offered to help? Just lending a hand to help someone get over the hump or understand a concept is the essence of the Learning Team model. And it’s more provides more enrichment to life than you could ever imagine.

    I hope that your last semester is much more positive than your current experience indicates. Some people don’t truly understand what they missed until they are gone.

    As far as the article is concerned, I think one of the most overlooked aspects of the rankings was captured in Robert Carraway’s comment about student leadership. The makeup of a class plays a huge role in the overall experience. Students are all responsible for the learning experience of all others. That, as much as any other factor, can make or break the rankings. Overall, great article.

  • Arthur, I really commend you on being so frank with your assessment of your MBA program. I think that it is very insightful; and it is a shame that both schools and students are so hung up on “brand name” that they cannot bring themselves to honestly assess their programs. That is part of the cause of the nightmare that applicants to B-school live through when trying to navigate and choose the right MBA program. Too many smoke and mirrors; not enough transparency into the programs; both during your studies and after graduation!

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    Not so fast. See:

    To wit:

    Moderate at best. I’m
    by bollywoodmba O (Chimp, 5 Points) on 4/1/10 at 11:16pm

    I’m currently a 2nd year student at Darden (graduating 2010). Before any of my classmates get all excited, let me preface this by saying there are many pros to the darden experience. Unfortunately, I have found them to be massively overweighed by the cons. Also, I’d like to mention at the beginning that of course most of my classmates and students at other schools will give positive reviews for the lone reason that brand value is SO important at MBA school (probably more important than what you learn), so most students feel they MUST give a positive review in order to increase (albeit ever so insignificantly) the brand value of their school on the internet, etc.

    Below, I’ll give a quick, and very honest*, overview of the major pros and cons:

    1) Professors: professors are good, they’re smart, funny, and interactive. They may not be world reknown, but I’m here to learn, not get autographs.

    2) UVA: the campus is beautiful, the weather is great, the student body is picturesque and ever so quaint.


    1) Job Placement: this is the killer. although I feel our curriculum is the same as most top tier schools and our professors are as good if not better, year after year we get housed when it comes to job placement. Just to throw out a few names, Duke, UNC, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, and even Georgetown often dominate top financial and consulting recruiting stats. Don’t get too excited by the stats you see on school websites, they’re all artificially manipulated in one way or another. Go to the schools, and randomly ask where students are going to work (and when they got their job), you will find many Darden students who simply answer with a tear. Why? maybe because of #2…

    2) Students: DON’T GET ME WRONG I LOVE MY CLASSMATES, they are funny, for the most part kind, and very supportive. The problem I see is Darden gets a lot of students who were simply average in their field or great in average fields. The worst problem is the abundance of overseas students who can barely spell the word “derivative”, let alone calculate the present value of one. I’m not saying I’m the next Donald Trump, but at least I can hold my own when it comes to basic algebra. Professors have to stop class numerous times to explain simple mathematical concepts, and let’s just say you will be beating your head against the wall if one or two members of your learning team have a hard time with accounting (the EASIEST subject in the history of business).

    3) ADMINISTRATION: no darden student will disagree with me here. the administration is in shambles. Admissions is a nightmare…have you tried to use their new IT system? Career services if full of a bunch of people who really couldn’t make it in the business world, hence they are working for around 40 G’s a year, and are trying to help students find jobs paying over 100. It just doesn’t make sense.

    4) The program: In general, the darden program is more busy work (reading far too many case studies for the time given, where a case study is never given it’s due time in analysis and debate) and GAMES than any real learning. After two years, I don’t really feel like I have a specialty in any useful subject, a I think most analytical ability is just natural, not forced upon you by reading 4 case studies per day for 2 years. The A-E sections, mascots, sports competitions, and other events are all good fun, but sometimes I feel like I’m in MBA kindergarten. If you put 90% of the students in a situation where they’d have to use real knowledge and skills to help build a country’s infrastructure and economy, they’d fail miserably. They only know how to “gamble” on the economy a bit better, and sound smart in meetings.

    There you have it. That’s the real story. Take it for what it is. You’ll never read a more honest assessment of a student’s own school.

    gpa: 3.2
    gmat: 660

  • Those are great and important points Lou. Thanks for making them.

  • Nice story, John. But I have to take issue with the notion that Darden’s impressive leap in BW’s student satisfaction rank “suggests that the differences in rank among the schools are so small that those differences may lack statistical validity.”

    First, Darden’s raw numbers show that student satisfaction increased nearly 11% in 2010 (over 2008)–one of the biggest changes we’ve ever seen. Second, this is a relative ranking, so any reduction in student satisfaction at rival schools will necessarily exaggerate the impact on Darden’s rank–something this analysis does not consider.

    Third, when it comes to ranks, small differences do, in fact, matter. An Olympic runner who finishes a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second ahead of a competitor is declared the winner; the guy behind him gets the silver.

    We don’t do this for the student satisfaction ranks, but for the final rank in our full-time MBA rankings we now provide an “index number” that allows readers to see for themselves just how close, or far apart, any two schools are. Some schools are very far apart (Harvard’s a distant second to Booth); some aren’t (Darden and Sloan are separated by a sliver). My point being that hard numbers separate the winners and losers, but that “too close to call” is in the eye of the beholder.

    Louis Lavelle
    Associate Editor
    Bloomberg Businessweek