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Duke’s Dean: We Won’t Adjust Our Strategy For A Ranking

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding

Is this what you call providence?

One day you’re discussing the importance of values, saying you’d prefer knowing you’re educating good leaders and fine team players over getting a good ranking. The next day you come out No. 1 in Bloomberg Businessweek’s ranking of full-time MBAs.

It happened this week to Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business Dean William Boulding, who was in Dubai for the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda, when news broke that his school came out on top of a widely viewed MBA ranking for the first time in its history.

A MARKETING COUP FOR DUKE’S FUQUA SCHOOL OF BUSINESS

Just one day before gaining the biggest PR boost to his school ever,  Dean Boulding sat down with us for an wide-ranging interview in the Arabic Peninsula. During the session, spoke about the importance of attracting and forming team players, something that is at the core of Fuqua’s purpose – even if that focus might have a negative impact on some of the business school rankings.

A marketing and leadership professor who has won accolades for outstanding teaching, Boulding says he likes to attract a widely diverse range of students, including those who come from or go to (low paying) non-profit jobs, which tends to dampen the kind of compensation data used by U.S. News, The Financial Times, Forbes, and The Economist in their rankings of business schools. But that doesn’t matter, he says, because “although rankings are important, there is a red line: the line is that rankings should not drive our strategy.”

A Swathmore College grad, Boulding dropped out of Wharton’s MBA program after one year in 1981, only to ultimately enroll in the school’s PhD program. He joined the Fuqua faculty in the fall of 1984, two years before earning his PhD from Wharton in marketing. Boulding has been dean of the school since August of 2011 and has, among other things, tried to leverage the university’s schools of public health, medicine, law, public policy, and the environment to bring greater diversity to the business school.

EIGHT APPLICANTS FOR EVERY SEAT IN THE INCOMING CLASS OF MBAS

In a typical year, Fuqua receives eight applicants for every one of the available 437 MBA seats in a class. The school puts great emphasis on attracting as diverse a group of MBA students as possible, and a recent incoming class included an activist who raised more than $200,000 for cancer research, a novelist, an environmentalist who lived in a rain forest for five years, and a trapeze circus performer who trained at the Circus School of Moscow.

Fuqua’s most famous alum, of course, is Steve Jobs’ successor at Apple, CEO Tim Cook, who is a big supporter of the school. Apple is one of the school’s top ten employers, having more than tripled the number of Fuqua MBAs it hired since the mid-2000s. This year, for example, Apple brought aboard nine full-time MBAs and a half dozen interns. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Class of 2014 had its most successful pay and placement year since the Great Recession, with slightly higher starting salaries and a solid increase in job offers at graduation and three months later.

The No 1 ranking will likely gain the school increased attention from applicants and recruiters. Typically, application volume swells when a school rises significantly in a prominent ranking. Interest from hiring companies and organizations also goes up, and alumni tend to open their pockets a bit more when their alma mater achieves broadly recognized distinction.

‘FUQUA STUDENTS ARE EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD AT WORKING COLLABORATIVELY’

Good things apparently come to those who put their strongly-held beliefs ahead of playing the rankings game. A revamped methodology by Businessweek this year played into Boulding’s strategy. Corporate recruiters clearly saw evidence of that team focus, telling the magazine that Fuqua students are “exceptionally good at working collaboratively.” Businessweek said that students reaffirmed the importance of it. “The word ‘team’ and its variants appeared 73 times in the 200 survey responses we received from Duke students, including one that read ‘Learning how to effectively work in a team has been priceless,'” according to the magazine.

Of course, teamwork, collaboration and leadership are central tenets at just about every business school in the world. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management rode those core attributes of its MBA program to a No. 1 Businessweek position five separate times, more than any other B-school. By putting extraordinary attention on these traits in the admissions process, however, Dean Boulding believes that Fuqua is graduating MBAs who are ideally suited to the needs of the companies that hire them–and ideally suited to ultimately change the world.

Just a few hours before the new ranking came out, in the open lounge of the Madeinat Jumeirah, a majestic luxury hotel in Arabic style, Boulding took some time off from his brainstorming session on “values” with fellow academics and religious leaders from across the world. Seated at the white coffee tables outside of the conference center, he spoke to Poets&Quants on what makes Fuqua unique and why his strategy for the school may hurt the school in other rankings.