On November 11, 2010, the deans at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business were on edge. BusinessWeek editors were online, releasing the magazine’s biennial ranking of the best full-time MBA programs in a live countdown from the lowest-ranked school that year to the highest.
As Cox administrators gathered around their computers, they watched No. 18–Cox’s rank in 2008–go to New York University’s Stern School of Business. A few more schools were announced, but still no SMU. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business came in at No. 14, followed by Cornell University’s Johnson School.
Where was Cox, they wondered anxiously. Had it cracked the top 10? Finally, the school popped up at No. 12, its highest rank ever in the BusinessWeek survey. Indeed, it was the highest rank ever achieved by the school in any of the top five most influential rankings of business schools. Cox’s staff indulged in a brief celebration and drafted press releases trumpeting the school’s six-point rise.
BusinessWeek, however, was less satisfied with the results, even slightly embarrassed by them. “Everyone was saying it didn’t pass the smell test,” explained BusinessWeek associate editor Lou Lavelle in a 2011 interview with Poets&Quants. “We looked at why that was happening and the reason was we had some schools, like SMU, which had very few recruiter mentions–not a really deep base of recruiters–but that small base was wildly enthusiastic about the school.”
FLABBERGASTED OVER A 17-PLACE FALL TO 29TH FROM 12TH
The magazine then changed its methodology to favor schools with larger, and sometimes less enthusiastic, recruiter bases. As a result, SMU’s business school slid 17 spots to No. 29 in 2012. Nothing at the school had changed: not the MBA program, not the faculty who teach it, or the quality of students enrolled in it. If anything, the program had gotten better thanks to the higher rank BusinessWeek assigned the school two years earlier, which brought the school more applicants than it otherwise would have received.
RANKINGS ARE IMPORTANT TO THE MARKET, AND SO IT’S IMPORTANT FOR US TO PARTICIPATE
But now SMU’s MBA program had plunged in an unprecedented way: from 18th in 2008 to 12th in 2010 to 29th in 2012. Cox officials were flabbergasted. “We were absolutely astonished because the methodology was changed after everything was complete,” says Marci Armstrong, Cox’s associate dean of graduate programs. “While that’s certainly legal, and they certainly have the right to do it, to me it seemed incredibly unethical…It was stunning to be really honest with you–not that we would move in the ranking, but that they would make a substantial change in the rankings because they didn’t like how we were ranked.