A Devil’s Advocate View Of MBA Rankings

Circe,  the powerful demigod enchantress in Homer's Odyssey

Circe, the powerful demigod enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey

Earlier this week, Poets&Quants’ John A. Byrne was at the Academy of Management conference in Vancouver to discuss business school rankings with several leading academics. The title of the panel discussion: “Business School Program Rankings: Is It Time to Click the Refresh Button?”

Byrne, who created the first of the regularly published rankings of MBA programs at Businessweek magazine in 1988, was the only non-academic in the group He assumed he would be the only supporter of rankings among the two business school deans and six academics on the panel. He wasn’t. Denny Gioia, an organizational behavior professor at Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business, delivered a highly thoughtful and unusual defense of rankings, bringing attention to the core benefits they’ve brought to business schools over the past quarter of a century.

At the very end of his presentation, brought to the conference by video, Gioia imagined what I might say to an audience that typically despises that media organizations rank their schools. He’s pretty much on the money. We reprint his presentation here with his permission.


Ambivalence is an existential state with me. I am on at least two minds about many things, and I am predictably ambivalent about business school rankings.

On the one hand, probably like a lot of people, I hate them, mainly because they force business schools to focus on whatever the rankings are measuring, and in a larger sense because they force a focus on image (What’s your number?!), rather than substance. On the other hand, I love them because they have forced business schools to be dragged kicking screaming into the 21st century. More on that in a moment.

I tried (with Kevin Corley) to capture the transformative power of the B-school rankings in a 2002 article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education journal by focusing on the Circe metaphor. Let me quote that very brief epigrammatic story:

In Greek mythology, Circe was the powerful demigod enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey. Those she favored, she usually seduced, bestowing on them great gifts and becominq their protective ally. For those who displeased her, she was a fearsome adversary, wreaking havoc on all who resisted her charms, threatened her, or even unwittingly entered her sphere. She turned Odysseus’ men into swine and changed the pure nymph, Scylla, into a hideous six-headed monster. This, of course, was the curse for which Circe is most remembered—causing others to transform into something they did not want to become. . . .

Business schools entered Circe’s sphere in the late ‘80s with the advent of the BusinessWeek and U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Circe’s transformed mortals retained their awareness that they had been transformed against their will. Business schools know that they now have been under a longstanding spell, but they now see themselves as powerless to do anything about it.


The rankings number has now become a soundbite index of assumed program quality for prospective students, corporate recruiters and funding agencies and, therefore, the rankings have acquired the power to force schools to do their bidding.

Rankings have created a forced choice between being good and looking good – a beauty contest with some ugly consequences for the contestants (because they force resources into more image-related activities than substance-related activities).

I suspect that there are many people on this panel who will tell us why the rankings are despicable. [“Rankings force us to mortgage our future! We’re eating our seed corn! We’re violating our first principles!]


I thought I would play devil’s advocate and focus my time on what is actually positive about the rankings.

First, Americans love a competition. Americans will turn anything into a contest. And, as we know from old racing wisdom . . . Competition Improves the Breed. The simple fact that B-schools must compete in an open arena against rivals offering similar programs has changed and improved B-school programs.

There is a certain sweet irony and poetic justice here: We teach this stuff! Business schools have long taught economic competition as a core principle, but actually hadn’t experienced competition in any real sense. When they did, they didn’t like it, but found themselves in the hypocritical position of protesting against a principle and a practice they were teaching.

Second, the transparency provided by the rankings has made business schools more accountable to their stakeholders and forced B-schools to run to catch up to industry [e.g., business, not academia, has led the focus on teams, on the influence of organizational culture, on e-learning, etc.].

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