By John A. Byrne
October 5, 2011

) — For Pat Palmiotto, a top administrator at the Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, the decision not to cooperate with the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes project was an agonizing one. But, in the end, she decided Aspen’s biennial ranking that attempts to measure the “social, environmental and ethical impacts” of MBA programs just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Palmiotto, executive director of Tuck’s Allwin Initiative for Corporate Citizenship, wasn’t alone. MIT Sloan and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business also dropped out this year. They joined the Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth as non-participants in the survey, which was released Sept. 21.

In all, five of the top 10 U.S. business schools declined to participate, along with a large number of major business school players that include UCLA, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, Southern Methodist University, Brigham Young University, the University of Washington, Michigan State, and the University of Rochester.

Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen’s Business and Society Program, says the group is not concerned about the number of schools that have refused to participate in its survey. “We have 150 schools that do participate,” says Samuelson. “For them, it’s also a lot of work. They believe it’s worth doing and many schools will tell you it has been instrumental in driving change in their business schools.”

It’s not clear how substantially different the Aspen ranking would look if all those schools were in it. Nonetheless, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business came out on top this year, followed by York University’s Schulich School of Business in Canada, IE University in Spain, Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, and Yale’s School of Management.

Five U.S. schools rounded out the top 10 in the Aspen survey, which ranks 100 global schools in all: Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management came in at No. 6, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business at No. 7, Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management at No. 8, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School at No. 9, and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business at No. 10.

A case of MBA rankings fatigue

For most schools that opt out, it comes down to two basic objections. For one, some B-school deans don’t believe the ranking accurately reflects a school’s commitment to social and environmental issues. That’s largely because the ranking fails to take into account a school’s extracurricular activities, institutes and centers, joint degrees and specializations in the environment, sustainability, ethics, or social issues. Aspen gathers this information but doesn’t factor it into the rankings.

Secondly, the Aspen survey requires a tremendous amount of data gathering and reporting. At Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, for example, it used to take three full-time staffers nearly the entire month of December to gather and report all the information required by Aspen for its survey.

“There has been a huge growth in the number of surveys we receive — to the point where we have to triage them in order to respond with the attention to detail they require,” says James Aisner, a spokesperson for Harvard Business School. “The Aspen survey is extremely time-consuming, and having examined it closely, we also have concerns about the effectiveness of its methodology and what it is trying to measure.”

A worthy cause, but a questionable method?

Increasingly, schools that drop out are questioning the way Aspen ranks MBA programs even though they may agree with the organization’s aim to get more business schools to focus on social issues.

“For me,” says Palmiotto, “it was a very tough choice not to participate. I think the work of the Aspen Institute is magnificent. They really want to see business schools change and they want to see business leaders change. But their philosophy on how you create that change is very different from the views of those inside these organizations.”

Aspen’s ranking essentially measures the number of courses that contain social, environmental or ethical content, the amount of faculty research in these areas, and the student exposure to these topics during the course of an MBA program. The greater the coursework, research and student exposure, the higher a school should ultimately rank.

“We agree that having faculty who are engaged in research and a good array of very strong classes is absolutely critical,” says Palmiotto. “But there ought to be some consideration and weighting for what else is going on at the school. We don’t believe the ranking portrays a very accurate picture of what a business school is like and what the experience is like for the students.”

Putting a spotlight on the MBA classroom

Not surprisingly, the Aspen Institute disagrees. Samuelson vigorously defends the organization’s methods. “We are the only ranking that looks at content,” she maintains. “What else is more important than what is being taught in the classroom? The other rankings are mostly about selling magazine covers. We don’t care about that stuff.”

The Aspen ranking’s origins date back to a 1998 report by the World Resources Institute that examined the inclusion of environmental topics in 37 top MBA programs. A year later, the Institute joined with the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program and expanded the report to “the teaching of social impact management.”

In 2007, when the ranking was expanded to 100 from 30 schools, Aspen took over sole management of the survey. Unlike other rankings that attempt to measure the overall quality of an MBA program, Beyond Grey Pinstripes has an open agenda: to get more business schools to pay greater attention to social, environmental, and ethical issues.

“This is about institutional change,” explains Samuelson. “The spotlight is on the faculty. That is what happens in the classroom and in faculty research. If you are talking about institutional change, you have to focus on what is being taught….”

No extra credit for extracurricular activities?

Yet, counters Aspen’s detractors, extracurricular activities can have a far greater impact on students than what Aspen measures in its survey. Palmiotto cites the example of a current MBA student at Tuck, Courtenay Stephens, a former Accenture (ACN) consultant with a deep interest in the environment. Soon after arriving at Tuck last year, Stephens met with Palmiotto to discuss how she could best use the MBA experience to position herself for a career in corporate sustainability.

“We laid out a plan that included which campus speakers she should meet, which clubs she should get involved in, what she should she do for her first-year project, what she should do for an internship, and what conferences she should go to,” says Palmiotto. “None of that except the first-year project is academic [and counted by Aspen].”

At an annual conference Tuck holds for corporate executives for environmental affairs, Stephens met the head of PepsiCo’s (PEP) environmental sustainability initiative and parlayed that connection into a business school project to study models of recycling around the world. She pulled together a team of Tuck students to do the study.

Stephens also represented Tuck at last year’s Net Impact conference at the University of Michigan, a three-day event that highlights innovative business solutions on sustainability. She led a session at Tuck’s Business and Society conference last February and also became an Allwin student roundtable member, giving her direct access to all the speakers who show up at Tuck to lecture on social and environmental issues. She then used these experiences to land a summer internship with the Carnival Corp. (CCL) to work on environmental sustainability initiatives.

“It’s not just the courses you take in two years,” argues Palmiotto. “It’s what you get involved in. She’s a good example of why having people outside the faculty with expertise in this area and connecting students to the real world enhances their knowledge and capacity in social and environmental issues. Beyond Pinstripes doesn’t look at any of that.”

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