To Rank Or Not To Rank: Deans’ Conclave Debates Merits Of B-School Rankings

Eleven deans, two deans-to-be, one interim dean, and a vice dean sat around a Southern California conference table this week in what was, probably, an unprecedented summit of business education leadership. Some had traveled thousands of miles to join their peers. One of the chief reasons — amid a broader discussion of the comprehensive value of a business education — was to discuss how business school rankings might better convey that comprehensiveness.

Invited to the campus of the USC Marshall School of Business on Tuesday, May 24 by Marshall Dean Geoff Garrett, the assemblage spent the day discussing such questions as the impacts of stakeholder capitalism on business education, how to capture the value of specialized master’s programs, and “What’s Next for Undergraduate Business Education?” But as Garrett told his guests and a select few members of the media in attendance, the main purpose of the conference was its opening discussion: business school rankings, their shortcomings, and the need, as he sees it, for a holistic ranking that considers the “totality” of schools’ offerings by incorporating undergraduate and other programs besides the full-time MBA.

Notably, however, some of those present questioned the need for rankings to exist at all. And that made for a robust discussion.

A CALL FOR CHANGE

Geoff Garrett

“I think it’s still the case that if somebody says to you, ‘I’m going to business school,’ what they mean is, ‘I’m doing an MBA,’ Garrett said in welcoming the assembled deans. “And in the rankings, those two things are often interchanged. The business school ranking is a ranking of a full-time MBA program, right? So to my mind, the challenge for us all is to help the world understand what business education actually is about, and change the conversation in a way that will be really helpful for all of our institutions.”

Garrett, Marshall’s dean since 2020 and dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School before that, convened the summit after publicly calling for a rethinking of the rankings earlier this year. “What I would like to see,” he told Poets&Quants in March, “is better rankings of the other important things that business schools do,” including possibly “having something like the attention that’s currently paid to full-time MBA, paid to undergraduate. I think that’d be great.”

Garrett pointedly decried the absence of a comprehensive undergraduate ranking to rival Poets&Quants’, or a ranking that incorporates undergraduate programs along with the more traditional focus on MBAs. On Tuesday (May 24) he told the gathered deans that it is “a leadership opportunity for all of us,” and one “that’s much better exercise collectively than individually.”

‘A HUGE MISALLOCATION OF SOCIAL ATTENTION & RESOURCES’

But in inviting more than a dozen of his peers — deans Andrew Karolyi of Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Matt Slaughter of Dartmouth Tuck School of Business, Sri Zaheer of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, Paul Almeida of Georgetown McDonough School of Business, Francine Lafontaine of Michigan Ross School of Business, Idalene Kesner of Indiana Kelley School of Business, Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou of Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business, Frank Hodge of Washington Foster School of Business, Doug Shackelford of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Jeff Brown of Illinois Gies College of Business, and Raghu Sundaram of NYU Stern School of Business; as well as Ohad Kadan, who begins his term as Arizona State Carey School of Business’ dean in July, and Gareth James, who takes the helm at Emory Goizueta Business School that month — Garrett may not have been wholly prepared for the antipathy some were willing — indeed, eager — to share for rankings in general.

After a brief introduction by Garrett and explanation of methodology by Andrew Jack, global education editor for The Financial Times who joined by Zoom from Davos, Switzerland, Brown, dean of the Gies College, began the discussion by, as he put it, “speaking truth to power.” Pointing out that Gies no longer has a full-time MBA and does not participate in rankings, he called for something closer to abolition than adjustment. “I think there’s an implicit assumption in this conversation that rankings are of a net positive social value, and I actually don’t think they are,” Brown said.

“I would disagree with Geoff about the desirability of having yet another ranking at the undergraduate level. I think U.S. News is terrible, but I don’t think Poets&Quants is a whole lot better. When I think about the choices that go into choosing a college, I mean, look around this table. If your kid goes to any one of our colleges, they’re going to get amazing education. And this idea that we’re going to rank this one No. 9 and that one No. 13, and that that difference has some value, I think actually distorts decision-making on the parts of families and parents. I think it also distorts decision-making for schools that are under pressure to focus on rankings.

“Is there a difference between a school that’s ranked No. 10 and a school that’s ranked No. 200? Sure. But that suggests some broad categories or maybe a report card, like, ‘Yeah, here’s a whole bunch of schools that get an A and here’s a whole bunch of schools that get a B.’ But this idea that we should care about whether we’re No. 7 or No. 9, or No. 10, or No. 20, is I think a huge misallocation of social attention and resources.”

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