The last time The Economist ranked the world’s best business schools, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School came in 15th behind York University and the IESE Business School at the University of Navarra in Spain. Harvard Business School managed no better than a ranking of fifth, while Stanford was eighth.
Not surprisingly, the influential magazine’s 2011 list of the top 100 global schools drew howls of protest and scorn from casual readers and subscribers alike.
“This does not pass the Smell Test,” groused one reader.
“These numbers are pure science fiction, unbelievable,” wrote another.
“This ranking has zero credibility,” said yet another. “The Economist should go back to what it’s good at and quit spreading misleading information.”
One thoroughly disgusted subscriber complained that the ranking was a “waste of my subscription money” and urged The Economist to instead spend the cash on improving its iPhone app.
‘IF YOU ARE GOING TO DO THIS, YOU HAVE TO ACCEPT IT’S NOT PERFECT’
William Ridgers, the 40-year-old journalist who puts together the annual ranking for The Economist, has heard all this before. The rants and snickers started with The Economist’s very first business school ranking in 2002 when Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management landed on top for the first of three consecutive years.
Ridgers is now in the midst of the heavy lifting that will allow for the publication of the 11th edition of the rankings next month on Oct. 4. He doesn’t expect the critics to go quiet.
Asked about the criticism over the years, Ridgers acknowledges “There is plenty. You have to take criticism on the chin because if you are going to do this you have to accept it’s not perfect and it’s right for people to point out the limitations. Some of the criticism is valid and thought out and we are fine with that.”
Ridgers joined The Economist 16 years ago, four years after graduating from university and just after a stint in public relations with a record company promoting Bob Marley and other reggae bands. For most of those years, he worked in The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, initially editing its cost of living survey and creating a ranking on the most livable cities in the world.
B-SCHOOLS AND CRICKET, AN UNUSUAL COMBO
For the past ten years, Ridgers has been the business education editor of The Economist and for eight years the editor of the “Which MBA?” guide. It was in 2002—14 years after BusinessWeek and four years after The Financial Times–when Ridgers helped to create the global business school rankings for The Economist. He’s been the magazine’s guru of the B-school rankings ever since. When he’s not working ranking schools or doing business education stories, Ridgers covers cricket for The Economist’s sports blog.
Over the years, he says, The Economist has surveyed more than 250,000 MBA students to determine why they study for an MBA degree. The most consistent reasons: to open new career opportunities or to further a current career, for personal development and the education experience, to increase their salary, and to gain the potential to be part of a valuable network.
The Economist chose to use those factors as the basis of its ranking, weighing each element according to the average importance given to it by students on its surveys. In short, the magazine attempts to rank full-time MBA programs on their ability to deliver to students the things they cite as most important.
Seems sensible enough, but controversy has always been an accepted byproduct of the project due to both the rather provocative results and the methodology. As Ridgers explains it, “To compare a one-year Danish program with a cohort of 50 students with a two-year American one with 1,000 is to court controversy. The lowly-ranked often feel misjudged, and say so.”
Over the past ten Economist rankings, from its debut in 2002 to the last in 2011, only five schools have managed to top the list: Besides Kellogg, which did it three times (2002, 2003 and 2004), IESE in Spain also has made it the top three times (2009, 2006 and 2005). The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business has been No. 1 twice (2010 and 2007), and IMD in Switzerland (2008) and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business (2011) has been atop the list for one year each (see The Economist’s Historical MBA Rankings).
IN TEN YEARS, HARVARD HAS NEVER CLIMBED HIGHER THAN FOURTH
There have been years in which Harvard Business School, which most educators agree has the world’s most prestigious full-time MBA program, was ranked 13th and 12th by The Economist. The school has never climbed any higher than fourth in the British magazine’s rankings. Just as shockingly, The Economist once ranked Wharton 21st in the world, and Columbia Business School 20th in 2009 and 21st in 2008–far below any other major MBA ranking.
In an interview with Poets&Quants, Ridgers explains how The Economist ranking is different, what it attempts to measure, why it has sparked so much controversy over the years, and how it’s similar to sports car reviews. Ridgers also confesses that he sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat after dreaming about the ranking he churns out each year.