Beyond The Numbers: Where Business School Meets College Football

Michigan vs. Ohio State

Michigan vs. Ohio State

As a University of Michigan alum and the former director of admission at that institution’s medical school, I’m still reeling from the 56-27 thrashing that marked the Wolverines’ eighth straight loss to their college football archrival, the Ohio State University Buckeyes.

Yet while I was consumed by the football game, two of the sport’s mortal enemies were “competing” in a matchup that literally determines life or death. In its annual blood drive with Ohio State, Michigan actually won — although everyone involved was a winner in their own right, from recipients to donors to volunteers to the universities themselves.

In fact, academia is a space where traitors become allies. Take the Big Ten conference. University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin partner on a $6.3 million grant for advancing evidence-based education practices. Purdue University and Indiana University jointly research the development of life-saving medical devices. Overcoming the tensions of all rivalries, the Big Ten Academic Alliance produces research breakthroughs by leveraging resources from across the consortium’s campuses.

This healthy competition brings to mind the numbers that stoke passions in my industry far more than college football scores: business school rankings. In the 2019-2020 Poets & Quants list of the top 100 U.S. MBA programs, my alma mater’s Ross sits a comfortable 24 spots ahead of Ohio State’s Fisher. 

But even as a higher education technology executive who specializes in business school admissions, I try to look beyond those numbers. It’s all about perspective. In a time of declining applications to America’s MBA programs, the college admissions offices that I work with can’t afford to get caught up in the rankings. MBA applications are down even at elite programs like Stanford University’s GSB, Harvard University’s HBS and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton. Those business schools will need to put aside their rivalries with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan, Northwestern’s Kellogg and University of Chicago’s Booth if they want to get serious about the future vitality of their academic discipline as a whole.

Accordingly, I’m witnessing business school leaders ramp up their participation in professional networks and associations which provide them with platforms to share best practices. Meanwhile, initiatives like the Big Ten Plus Case Competition bring together MBA programs for competitions that prioritize academic excellence over wins and losses.

The nature of the outcomes at stake also motivates healthy competition. When the football game is over, the players, coaches and fans on both sides will ultimately move on with their lives. But everyone loses if business schools can’t fill their seats, as America’s largest companies and the country’s entire economy will be left wondering where the next generation of business leaders will come from.

Even on the football field, the fiercest of rivals end the game with a handshake. They fight hard. They inflict unspeakable pain on one another. And still, they somehow manage to exhale, accepting the outcome and acknowledging their common humanity.

At the same time, if opposing teams can’t unite to promote their games to drive fans to stadiums and viewers to televisions, what do schools stand to lose? The very funds that support their research towards discovering solutions for society’s greatest problems, like Penn State University’s pursuit of water sustainability through self-cleaning toilets, Michigan State University’s use of drone technology to enhance food sustainability and the cutting-edge lung cancer research conducted at University of Nebraska. 

Business school leaders can also stand to learn from college football fans. The beloved “Iowa Wave,” in which University of Iowa Hawkeye fans wave to kids who watch the game from the windows of the adjacent children’s hospital, has also been adopted by Northern Illinois University Huskie fans. MBA programs, too, can’t spurn the implementation of their competitors’ effective strategies purely out of pride.

In an era when so many fault lines threaten to divide us, we’re much better off not only tolerating each other, but even collaborating with our rivals. From Champaign to College Park, football fans and business school leaders alike should look beyond the numbers this holiday season. Don’t be blinded by your school’s colors. Whether your passions are ignited by Michigan maize, Indiana crimson, or Rutgers scarlet, it’s time to work together to generate the prosocial outcomes that transcend scores and rankings.  

Robert Ruiz is the managing director of BusinessCAS at Liaison International.


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