A Business School Dean Looks 10 Years Back & 10 Years Forward

John T. Delaney, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business

John T. Delaney, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business

Being the dean of a mid-market business school is no easy job. And John T. Delaney, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, thinks it is only going to get tougher in the years ahead for many business schools.

Last month, Delaney announced that he would be stepping down from the deanship after an eight-year run in the job. He’ll keep his position until the university finds his successor—probably next spring or summer—and then rejoin the faculty.

One of the things he would like to get to as a professor is an academic paper on business school rankings. “I think there is a lot of cheating that goes on and I think I have a way to prove it,” says Delaney. “Starting out, if you just look at the statistical numbers that people claim each year in terms of their GMATs and you look at the number of people who took the GMAT, you can show mathematically that the numbers don’t make sense.”

‘IF SOMEONE IS COOKING THE BOOKS, THAT IS WHAT REALLY UPSETS ME’

Katz’s full-time MBA program is ranked 61st in the U.S. on Poets&Quants’ composite list, with the school’s highest ranking coming from Forbes, which puts the school at 48th. U.S. News & World Report, which weighs GMAT scores in its ranking, placed Katz 52nd earlier this year, up from 61 in 2013.

Delaney concedes he pays a good deal of attention to rankings and tries to parse them to drive improvement at the school. “If we’re on a level playing field and we are not doing well, we need to fix it,” he says. “If someone else is cooking the books, that is what really upsets me. If you focus on execution and the factors that are important to prospective students, you can move a place forward. It’s not the exciting stuff. It’s not the sexy new strategy as much as it is putting your head down and just working, pushing on the placement cycle to do well there and adjusting your admission pools so it syncs with your placement strategy.”

During his deanship, Delaney added several new master’s programs, increased the size of the undergraduate business population by 20%, and increased fundraising by a factor of three to about $6 million annually. “We were doing $1.6 million to $1.8 million when I got here. We also completed a $50 million capital campaign a year early in 2012 which helped the school.”

In a wide ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Delaney reflects on the changing nature of the job, on how competitive business education has become, why he thinks specialized master’s programs in business will decline, why Katz has put significantly more emphasis on experiential learning, how tenure will become a privileged status reserved for very few faculty, and what likely changes lay ahead for both students and schools.

So John why did you decide to call it quits?

I’ve been on the road a lot. I got back from one trip and decided I wasn’t going to serve more than ten years. That gives the university time to find someone and have a good transition. As i looked at everything, it just looked like it made sense now. I’ve learned a tremendous amount and I want to figure out how I can use that learning more effectively in ways that make a difference.

Of course, how long you stay depends on the person and the institution. After a certain period of time, if you haven’t gotten something accomplished you probably won’t get it accomplished so you have to be ready to step aside. I think it’s probably between eight and 12 years and for me i’m right in that zone. What is hard personally is you get to that point but when you have to pull the trigger yourself it’s a lot harder.

How do you see the competitive landscape for business education changing?

Just looking at what is happening today, it’s hard for me to envision a situation where a reasonably large number of schools don’t just have to abandon their traditional MBA programs. There just aren’t the numbers of students available to make those programs successful. I actually thought we would see more of a fallout by now.

If you look at the last U.S. News ranking where they give you the size of the program, for schools ranked in the high 40s down to 100, there are a lot of programs with less than 60 students and that is the program total. I just don’t know how you can make that work and be successful. We are coming to a reckoning one way or another, and no one thinks their chool is the one up for a reckoning.

GMAC recently put numbers out that show applications rising again for the full-time, two-year MBA program. But as you know this follows several years of decline. Why do you think MBA applications have fallen?

When you look demographically, going back 25 or 30 years, the pool of potential executives who needed to get an MBA was different. iI was a higher quality pool. Many had more work experience so it was different. Younger people are getting the degree today, and it has forced everyone to compete for that same group of students. When you look at that competition, it would be clear that the top ten schools have been able to enroll larger numbers of students. I’ll bet that the top ten concentration is higher today than it was. That has meant that most schools outside of that group are just fighting much harder.

Schools are offering just huge amounts of financial aid. The rack rate prices are huge and are a reason for concern. but a lot of people don’t pay the rack rate. For those top schools, it’s the ideal world where you can have your alumni pay the tuition for your students. The schools that don’t have that endowment or alumni strength have to sell the rooms at lower prices like a hotel.

One thing that I think is out there if you look at business schools, we haven’t been successful in enrolling women the way other graduate programs have. When you look at the domestic pool of college graduates, it is proportionally more women. We haven’t been attracting some parts of the pool in numbers that could help us but then there are all these other factors out there, too. It has made it much more difficult.

I find myself on the road a lot to do fundraising and alumni events and it takes away your ability to manage things back at the school. You have to rely on others to implement strategy. It’s not a bad thing but it means that the life of a dean is more complex.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.