Commentary: Don’t Turn Great Business Schools Into Mediocre Research Institutions

An estimated 16,000 business schools exist around the world. While schools in the U.S. and Western Europe receive considerable attention be it on ranking or benchmarking, the growth in Asia is considerable and the application volume is comparable, even outpacing the West. Yet only a small number of these institutions feature in global rankings. As deans of Asian business schools contemplate strategies for recognition and reputation, they may encounter the trap of valuing what is measurable, rather than measuring what is valuable. 

As evident in the emergence of regional rankings and growing interest in global accreditation among Asian business schools, deans competing in this landscape appear to be in pursuit of rankings and accreditation as badges of distinction. This is understandable because, even as recently as five years ago, only a negligible number of business schools even in a country such as India, with a deep history of business education modeled after the U.S., were either ranked globally or accredited by a global body. 

But when business deans chase the all too important rankings and accreditations, there is a risk that such pursuits may take a life of their own, leaving behind a vital responsibility of professional schools. Deans must not lose sight of what makes for an outstanding business school and their overarching obligation to the professions. We propose three priorities that deans should not lose sight of as they attempt to scale the ladder of rankings and accreditation. Currently neither ranking nor accrediting bodies hold a school’s feet to the fire on these. But that day is round the corner as students, parents, and governments begin to demand accountability tied to student outcomes, and not merely faculty research productivity or prestige. 

Priority #1: Teaching Excellence

Deans must not mislead faculty early in their careers that research matters over everything else. Deans realize that ranking and accrediting agencies can and thus will count research output. But deans should also know better that we should only value what can be measured. Deans must be careful not to mindlessly fuel the belief of some faculty members that research is more prestigious than teaching. This is not to say that research is unimportant or that research does not matter. Far from it. We are proposing that deans should be mindful of not sending the signal that research can be at the cost of teaching excellence. The shoddiest decisions a dean can make is to assume that anyone can teach. Anyone can speak. Only a teacher can teach, because there is a vast difference between communicating information and ensuring learning. Sadly, today business schools are graduating doctoral students who do not know the difference between curriculum and pedagogy. Increasingly, students are taking on debt for the promise of a business degree and schools must take the classroom obligation very seriously. If a school aspires to deliver teaching excellence, then teachers should not be learning on the job. Would the deans be willing to drive a car that was assembled only by technicians learning on the job through trial and error? 

We know that deans must and will care about research. But let us ask why? Does research make for better teachers? Does faculty research graduate better students? Or does research serve us well in rankings and accreditation? We know the truthful answer. For example, in India, the NIRF (National Institutional Ranking Frameworkrank has become the Polaris for too many business deans, and faculty members are being rewarded or marginalized almost exclusively on the extent to which they assist the dean climb the NIRF ladder. Deans are willing to look away when research-active faculty members have little to no contact with students or remain ineffective teachers. To climb the NIRF ladder, some deans appear to have made the bargain to turn great teaching schools into mediocre research institutions. 

But what happens if the ranking criteria were to change, as they inevitably will? We have witnessed an interesting case to this effect last year in the U.S. US News & World Report revamped its business school ranking criteria dramatically in 2023, emphasizing student success unlike in previous years. The sorting of schools in the ranking was gut wrenching. When that happens in Asia, what are the deans likely to do? It is unlikely they will still be celebrating the stars of the citation database SCOPUS.

Instead of building mediocre research institutions, deans should invest early in creating outstanding business schools where the classrooms transform the next generation into stellar and responsible professionals. When the world comes around to recognize what you have always believed in, you would be ready on day one. On the other hand, if you want to mindlessly walk toward what the world recognizes today, the world may be recognizing something else by the time you get there. Deans should craft a vision, do the right thing, have conviction, and stay the course. And that course should not be mediocre research. We don’t need leaders to scale the lowest bar. We need them to scale high bars. Deans are meant to be leaders.

More than in the West, Asian business school enrollments are directly tied to the prospects of job placements. Schools make explicit or implicit guarantees of that, and the process is institutionalized. In their rush to focus on the metric of faculty research, some deans are overlooking the risk of sending into the classroom faculty members who are disengaged or outright uninterested in teaching. This will prove to be a fatal flaw when recruiters notice the impact on student learning. 

Priority # 2: Institutional Thought Leadership

We are not making a case against research. We are making a case against anything-goes research that does little more than matter for bean counting. We are merely suggesting that even mediocre publications can get a school ranked or accredited, but any mediocre publication will not make for a great business school. Therefore, deans should not use ranking criteria to drive a school’s mission. If deans wish to elevate the research profile of their institutions, rather than merely devoting resources to countable entries in a table, deans must invest in institutional thought leadership. 

The idea of assigning authorship to one or a few is a modern-day phenomenon. In the early days of documenting knowledge, authorships were rarely assigned to any one individual. It is the institutional affiliation of the knowledge that elevated its credibility. Celebrating individual authors has not always been the norm. We believe institutional thought leadership can serve as a firm foundation for excellence for business schools. We are asking deans to shift their minds from the question, “How can I keep this faculty member?” to the question, “Why would this faculty member want to be with us?” If deans build institutions that answer the second question, then outstanding faculty, be it in terms of research or teaching, will be drawn to the institution. 

Visionary deans should be cued into where the process of knowledge creation, research being one of them, is heading. If we look back a decade, open access publishing was a niche idea. Now look forward a decade. Do you suspect there will be open reviewing? The idea that we will send a manuscript to a small group of gatekeepers is an archaic system that was necessary given the administrative and technological limitations of that day. As a result, research has come to rely on winning over merely the gatekeepers. Today, it is not uncommon for data to be made publicly available by researchers for the community at large to have a go at it. Extrapolating that, we are already beginning to see examples of research that is generated by the community at large. Eventually these models will serve as collaborative review and communal gatekeeping mechanisms. In our opinion, the current models of review and publication diminish in comparison to the quality, transparency, validity, and reliability that communal gatekeeping can accomplish. 

If researchers are already willing to pay to have their work in open access, and public institutions in the West are already pushing for more work by their faculty to be disseminated under open access, the revenue models and working capital cycles of journals will change. It will no longer be in a journal’s interest to continue to uphold an antiquated system. Therefore, deans should encourage their faculty to not merely ask themselves what countable thought leadership they will produce. Instead, deans should nudge faculty members to wonder about the thought leadership that they will contribute to.

The future, including AI, will not be celebrating individuals. It will celebrate what we are part of. Collaborative content creation is not a new idea and there are many examples around us. But in academia we have denied it out of self-interest because it is harder to count. Collaborative content does not mean joint authorship. That is but a superficial version. We are referring to institutional thought leadership. We have already started witnessing movements in those directions, including the current AACSB standards which have opened the door for crediting such work. But sadly, very few schools are taking advantage. The question is no longer whether the shift away from individual ownership of intellectual contributions will be upon us. The question is whether deans can prepare their schools to be ready. 

Priority # 3: Teach Everyone All the Rules

Our final priority is that deans must realize that research and accreditation may be necessary conditions for an institution, but neither will ever be a sufficient condition. Building an institution takes, quite obviously, institution building. All hands are necessary on the deck for building an institution. This requires a plan to acculturate and socialize faculty members to the mechanisms that turn the wheels. Deans must nurture and develop faculty to be relevant to the profession and not merely to a research question. 

Therefore, deans must encourage and reward faculty to behave broadly. It is fashionable for active researchers to shun, and for deans to protect them, from administrative service or service to the institution. We advocate that deans must own the responsibility to set a culture where institution building and ownership are valued. It is the only reliable way of acculturation and socialization. Can we imagine any other profession where one can be an active player without knowing all the rules? Should a soccer team allow a midfielder into the game if the player is clueless about how the defense works? Let us not assume a business school can be an exception and can defy common sense. For a faculty member to matter to the team, they must learn all the rules of the game. Yes, they must engage in research. But they must also engage with the programs, executive education, curriculum development, and even handling grievances. It is only then that they will begin to value the role they play.

Authors: Suraj Commuri, senior associate dean at the University of Albany School of Business at SUNY Albany & Atish Chattopadhyay, director of the Jagdish Sheth School of Management in Bangalore, India.

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