Rankings debate: The case for

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This spring the US business school industry was abuzz with excitement as rumours spread from school to school that two of their number, Harvard Business School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, were taking on the world of media rankings.

Like all rumours, most bore little relation to the facts. Many people believed the two were pulling out of rankings altogether.

This is hardly surprising, as Wharton in particular has been vociferous in proclaiming rankings are flawed. “There is no such thing as a number one business school” runs the mantra from the two. Different schools suit different people, they say.

Of course, most people would agree with this assertion, including those of us who regularly rank business schools and business school programmes. Rankings are incredibly useful tools for would-be MBAs and executives, hence their popularity. But their limitations were succinctly expressed to the FT by the former dean of the Kellogg school at Northwestern University, when the FT began its international rankings in 1999. “Clearly the value [of rankings] is greatest among those people who have the least amount of information,” said Donald Jacobs.

Of course, if Harvard and Wharton do believe media rankings are fundamentally flawed they could refuse to supply any information at all - for MBA rankings, executive education rankings and undergraduate business school rankings. But this is not what they have done.

What Harvard decided to do in 2003 and Wharton has decided to do this year, is to attack just one element of the data collection process. They have ruled they will not facilitate access to their existing students or alumni for MBA rankings and, in the case of Wharton, executive MBA rankings.

In practical terms, this means to date the two have co-operated with the MBA rankings produced by the Wall Street Journal (based on a recruiter survey) and by the US publication US News and World Report (which is based on data collected from the business schools and on a measure of school reputation). The publications detrimentally affected by the ruling are BusinessWeek, the Economist, the Financial Times and Forbes, all of which rely heavily on surveying students or alumni. Both Harvard and Wharton continue to submit numerical data to these publications - Wharton completed the school questionnaire for the EMBA ranking in this Report, for example.

It is on this statistical data, supplied by the schools themselves, that Harvard and Wharton pin their colours. They are working with GMAC (the Graduate Management Admissions Council) to build a database in which school data is collected and audited by independent auditors. GMAC has been working on this “Pathfinder” project for several years, and Wharton has supported it since its inception. Harvard has only recently offered support for an updated version of the database.

Using independent auditors to audit data supplied by business schools was pioneered by the FT three years ago for our full-time MBA project. Indeed, this autumn accountancy students at Queen’s School of Business in Canada will study a case written by one of the professors there on the relationship between KPMG and the FT and on the innovation of this kind of project.

Nor is the idea of a centralised database for data collection new. The AACSB, the American business school accreditation organisation, already has such a database, as do several media organisations, most notably BusinessWeek. What these databases fail to do is synthesise data in the way the rankings do.

Moreover, many of the top business schools have serious concerns about a dependence on statistical data alone, and the effect it can have on how schools operate. For example, one popular piece of data collected is the “yield rate”, the number of students offered places on the MBA programme who accept the offer. To get a high yield rate the school may decide to offer places only to people they know will accept. Does this mean, therefore, they are compromising the quality of their class by not taking a chance on a potential high-flyer?

So, too, many business schools believe data collected from alumni and MBA students is not only valid but is comparative information that schools cannot compile themselves. The FT and Forbes, for example, evaluate the career success of alumni three and five years after their MBA respectively. BusinessWeek and the Wall Street Journal survey recruiters and BusinessWeek also assesses the views of graduating MBA students. Are these surveys of people who work with business schools of value? Certainly those of us who compile rankings believe they are, and so do potential students.

So, what does this all mean for the future? In an article for the AACSB newsletter in May, Wharton dean Patrick Harker said he believed rankings would continue as they have and in most cases Wharton would still be ranked. All the evidence to date suggests this is the case. So, why bother denying access to alumni and students in the first place? Is there not something disingenuous about taking a stand on an issue safe in the knowledge that, at the end of the day, everything will roll on as before?

Additionally, Harvard and Wharton are surely treading on dangerous ground by relying on the media to hunt down alumni lists themselves rather than the business school retaining control of their distribution. Such moves may compromise alumni privacy. Surely, the duty of care of these alumni rests with the business school, not the media?

By not participating in part of the ranking process the two schools can distance themselves from the results, should they choose to do so. There may also be a sense in the over-heated US market, where the business schools themselves verge on the hysterical when it comes to rankings, that business schools are at last beginning to wrest some of the ground back from the media.

But the biggest concern for the media is that schools are trying to determine the grounds on which they are ranked. Here at the FT, we can prosper only if our readers value the information we write and print. Business schools can prosper only if their students, alumni and recruiters value what they teach. Trying to stifle the voices of these three constituencies will help no one.

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