Is there a Jesuit B-school rankings conspiracy?

St. Louis University Cook School of Business
St. Louis University Cook School of Business
Photo by Wilson Delgado

(Poets&Quants) — Jesuit colleges are popping up in surprising places—that is, surprising places on the U.S. News & World Report MBA specialty rankings.

Take Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and its Erivan K. Haub School of Business. Haub, according to U.S. News, is 16th-best in America for marketing, beating out Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and Cornell’s Johnson School of Management, both tied at No. 17. Yet Haub is nowhere to be found on the U.S. News’ ranking of the top 100 business schools, while Tuck ranks at No. 9 and Johnson is 17th on the list.

Now consider Saint Louis University’s Cook School of Business, the self-proclaimed “Oldest Business School West of the Mississippi.” U.S. News anoints Cook 13th best for supply chain/logistics, ahead of Harvard Business School at No. 15. Cook also comes out tied at 14th in entrepreneurship, alongside the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and above Columbia Business School and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, both tied at 17. Cook is also absent from the U.S. News top 100 business schools list, while Harvard holds the No. 1 spot, Darden sits at No. 11, and UNC-Chapel Hill comes in at No. 19.

Or look at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics, 14th in U.S. News’ specialty ranking for accounting. That puts Albers on equal footing with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Albers makes no appearance in the U.S. News overall top 100, while Kellogg ranks 6th and Haas 7th.

Just three Jesuit schools make the top 100: Georgetown at 23, Boston College at 45, and Fordham University at 92. Those schools hold only five spots between them in the specialty rankings, where they’re often rated below Jesuit schools that don’t appear in the overall rankings. In accounting, for example, Boston College sits at 21, beneath Seattle University’s Albers at 14, Loyola Marymount at 19, and Loyola University Maryland at 20. Remarkably, 15 Jesuit colleges—out of 28 in the U.S.—hold a total of 29 spots in U.S. News’ specialty rankings.

Those peculiar results have led to widespread rumors that the schools are gaming U.S. News’ rankings, especially because they are based solely on a survey of business school officials. But school officials claim the results are less likely a sign of collusion than they are a consequence of familiarity. “I don’t believe that there’s any … nefarious activity of any sort here, but I do think that when you’re asking for kind of what I call a beauty-contest vote, you’re more likely to vote for the schools that you’re most familiar with and that you have an affinity with,” says Joe Fox, who started a network of Jesuit MBA programs 30 years ago and is now associate dean and MBA programs director at non-Jesuit Washington University’s Olin School of Business. “They’re not trying to rig it, it just works in their favor that way.”

While U.S. News’ overall rankings are based on numerous metrics, including GMAT scores, employment rates, and starting salaries, the specialty rankings are derived solely from nominations by business school deans, directors of accredited masters programs, and senior faculty in the schools surveyed. Each respondent can nominate up to 10 programs in each of the specialties. The ranking is based on the number of nominations received by each school, and any school receiving at least seven nominations makes the list. It’s to be expected that the schools ranked near the top of the overall list would feature prominently atop the specialty rankings, and they do. It’s also to be expected that toward the bottom of the specialty lists, where it takes a mere seven mentions to get on, an outlier or two might appear.

But 14 outliers? A conspiracy theorist might envision a gathering of black-robed Jesuit deans in a dark, candle-lit cellar, murmuring quietly among themselves before uttering solemn promises to support the brotherhood. Perhaps a bit more realistically, and minus the dramatics, the theorist’s scenario might feature Jesuit deans in black bespoke suits sitting in their offices on a conference call that ends with much gleeful rubbing together of hands by the participants as they confirm their plot to game the system. So, what does the dean of Albers say when asked if his school is appropriately placed in the U.S. News accounting specialty ranking?

“Well, I think that anybody that appears in those top 25 has a good program,” says Dean Joseph Phillips, Jr. “Who is above the other and that sort of nuance, obviously that is a hard thing to figure out.”

Phillips essentially agrees with Fox’s affinity theory. “People, when they’re voting in those processes, they’re voting for who they know,” he says. “I would never cast a vote for a Jesuit school because it’s a Jesuit school. I’d vote for a school that I thought had a good program.”

While Phillips acknowledges that representatives of Jesuit schools get together, he notes that similar gatherings occur among other groups in business education, including large meetings among members of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the primary U.S. B-school accreditation body.

At the Cook School of Business, Director of Graduate Business Programs Suzy Hartmann describes the institution’s 13th place for supply chain/logistics, ahead of Harvard by two spots, as “a reasonable position.”

“We have a dedicated center for supply chain management,” Hartmann points out, adding that about six courses are taught in that specialty each year, that the school also offers a master’s degree in supply chain management, and that the school’s departments of operations and IT management has nine faculty members with industry expertise.

Hartmann, who has not yet had a chance to vote in the U.S. News’ specialty rankings, does not dispute that some schools’ closeness with each other could affect rankings results. “All of the Jesuit schools know each other, but I also know all the programs in the St. Louis area,” Hartmann says. Such familiarity is an aspect of virtually any relationship among universities, such as being in the same athletic conference, Hartmann notes.

Like Fox, Phillips, and Hartmann, Dean Hasan Pirkul of the University of Texas at Dallas’ Naveen Jindal School of Management chalks up anomalous appearances in the rankings to school officials nominating programs they’re familiar with. “It’s [that] you genuinely know about their programs,” says Pirkul, who led the creation of an alternative rankings system based on schools’ research output. “If you know them, then that’s perfectly normal to say, ‘Yeah, they have a great program.'”

Though they’re based on subjective impressions, specialty rankings have value, Pirkul believes. “People’s opinions matter,” Pirkul says, adding that most prospective MBA students take those rankings “with a grain of salt.” “I don’t think people blindly pick up U.S. News and World Report and say, ‘Oh, Saint Louis, I better go there.'”

Fox agrees that a ranking based on a single opinion survey can be problematic. “There’s so much room for squishiness,” Fox says. “Self-serving voting is another possibility. It would be possible for someone to say, ‘Okay, where are we ranked and who’s ranked right around us?’ and next year we decide not to rank them or rank them lower than we might otherwise think, in an effort to game people around us and maybe increase our position.

“My biggest concern is people who put serious weight into these rankings, make decisions about where to choose to apply, where to go to school, what tuition to pay when there’s so little tangible, evidence-based information that lies below that ranking.”

The dubious validity of U.S. News’ specialty rankings hasn’t stopped the Jesuit schools from using them to promote their school. “This is a continuing affirmation of the quality of our master’s programs at the Cook School,” then-Dean Ellen Harshman crowed in a 2013 Cook website missive highlighting the school’s top 20 placement in three categories of the specialty rankings. Haub’s Dean Joseph DiAngelo in his online welcome statement calls attention to Haub’s performance in the specialty rankings, too. “The Haub School … is in an elite category of the best business schools throughout the world,” DiAngelo asserts.

At Harvard Business School, which falls two spots behind Cook in the U.S. News’ logistics specialty ranking, spokesperson Jim Aisner said that he was not familiar with the school and would not comment on its placement. “Rankings are one source of information,” Aisner says. “They should be taken as one source of information. The most important thing, we feel, is the match, the appropriate school for you.”

U.S. News chief data strategist Robert Morse says he has seen no evidence of a Jesuit conspiracy in voting for the specialty rankings, but U.S. News hasn’t probed the relatively high rankings of Jesuit schools in those rankings. “It isn’t a very sophisticated ranking,” Morse says. “I think for how they’re done, they provide useful information for students that these are some of the top programs. It’s serving its purpose.”

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