Why Schools Are Saying No To Aspen


Increasingly, in fact, schools that drop out are questioning the way Aspen ranks MBA programs even though they may agree with the organization’s purpose of trying to get more business schools to focus on social issues. “For me,” says Palmiotto, “it was a very tough choice not to participate. I think the work of the Aspen Institute is magnificent. They really want to see business schools change and they want to see business leaders change. We are all in agreement on our end goals. But their philosophy on how you create that change is very different from the views of those inside these organizations.”

Aspen’s ranking essentially measures the number of courses that contain social, environmental or ethical content, the amount of faculty research in these areas, and the student exposure to these topics during the course of an MBA program. The greater the coursework, research and student exposure, the higher a school should ultimately rank.

“We agree that having faculty who are engaged in research and a good array of very strong classes is absolutely critical,” says Palmiotto.  “But there ought to be some consideration and weighting for what else is going on at the school. The third part of the stool is the co-curricular activity that comes from student involvement and the work of a center like ours. We don’t believe the ranking portrays a very accurate picture of what a business school is like and what the experience is like for the students.”


Not surprisingly, the Aspen Institute disagrees. Samuelson vigorously defends the organization’s methodology. “We are the only ranking that looks at content,” she maintains. “What else is more important than what is being taught in the classroom? The other rankings are mostly about selling magazine covers. We don’t care about that stuff.”

The ranking’s origins date back to a 1998 report by the World Resources Institute that examined the inclusion of environmental topics in 37 top MBA programs. A year later, the Institute partnered with the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program and expanded the report to “the teaching of social impact management.” In 2007, when the ranking was expanded to 100 from 30 schools, Aspen took over sole management of the survey. Unlike other rankings which attempt to measure the overall quality of an MBA program, Beyond Grey Pinstripes has an open agenda: to get more business schools to pay greater attention to social, environmental and ethical issues.

“This is about institutional change,” explains Samuelson. “The spotlight is on the faculty. That is what happens in the classroom and in faculty research. We know very well that business education is a 24/7, exciting environment and all of it deeply influences students who are still developing their attitudes about the role of business in society. But if you are talking about institutional change, you have to focus on what is being taught and you have to expose the disconnects that occur.”

Still, most of the schools that refuse to participate already have put substantial resources behind social and environmental topics. At Harvard, for example, the curriculum includes a required first-year course called Leadership and Corporate Accountability, numerous second-year electives (nearly a dozen elective courses focused on topics relating to social impact), and hundreds of case studies that are used in other business schools and organizations around the world.

At Duke, Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) has played a prominent role for the past 10 years providing its MBA students with a multitude of curricular, extracurricular, career, and global experiences related to social impact.  Two years ago, Fuqua also launched the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) which offers more programming focused on energy, environment and sustainability. The Aspen survey, however, gives no credit for such centers in its methodology.