Forget Football, Who's No. 1 Among Business Schools

New York Times, July 1998

HEADLINE: Forget Football. Who's No. 1 Among Business Schools?

WITH the unemployment rate down and job prospects for new graduates up, it is a good time to be getting a master's degree in business administration.

So the biggest worry among students at the University of Texas is not whether we can find jobs, but where our school will place in the next ranking of graduate business programs by Business Week magazine.

If you believe the conventional wisdom, the rankings, published every two years, are so influential that they affect where prospective students apply for admission, the size of salary offers to new graduates and whether benefactors donate money to university endowments.

The last time that Business Week published its list, in 1996, Texas had slipped to No. 20, from No. 17 in the previous ranking. Horrors! My fellow students have been worried ever since.

Part of the reason that Texas fell in the latest poll was a relatively low evaluation given by the students. So this year, recent graduates have sent us a barrage of E-mail, suggesting that we give our school high marks this year if we receive a survey form from Business Week. The gist of many of the comments is that other schools' students are trying to manage the rankings, so we should, too. It's in our economic self-interest, the graduates say, to protect the value of the degree.

Of course, academic purists may blanch at such naked competition for rankings. And other departments regard business as a dubious topic of study anyway. "Aren't you just a bunch of philistines out to make big salaries after graduation?" they ask. Can you imagine a poetry department or a biology department being so obsessed with rankings?

Sure, there is always academic competition, and I realize that there are ratings for almost everything. The Gourman Report ranks all manner of undergraduate, graduate and professional programs. But maybe only business students, always analytical, could take their school's rating so much to heart. The way that many M.B.A. students see it, the ranking affects not only our starting salaries after graduation, but also our incomes every year until we retire.

Our school recently opened classy new suites for on-campus job interviews. The old rooms were Spartan and too small; everyone agreed that new ones were needed. But what finally caused the administration to act? Some people on campus say the motivation was to improve our Business Week ranking.

Our faculty recently approved a change to the required core curriculum for the M.B.A. program. But how will we know if it was the correct choice for the future of the school? From the Business Week rankings, of course. If we move up, the decision must have been right.

Texas is a proud and independent-minded state. But for some reason, when it comes to our graduate business school, we base much of our self-esteem on validation by a New York-based magazine. And the sad thing is that our self-doubt is unfounded.

I've learned a lot in business school. I'm glad I enrolled and would recommend the program to anyone who wants to make a career change or learn about the theory and operations of business. I have also had a great time meeting and working with other business students-they're not as ruthlessly competitive as you might think.

In some ways, in fact, the obsession with rankings goes against the spirit of teamwork that is so fashionable in business education today. Our grades are based largely on group projects, and the administration tries to de-emphasize grade-point averages.

Still, the comparison of business schools gets our competitive juices flowing, and, come October, everyone will pounce on the new ratings. Will we stay in the top 20? Will we move up?

The anxiety and anticipation remind me of the weekly college football polls in the fall. Texas has a proud football tradition, but last year our team fell out of the rankings early in the year; the head coach was replaced at the end of the season.

Football teams, at least, compete directly on the field, and the voters have something quantitative to analyze. I like to think of academic ratings as less like football polls and more like the film critics' end-of-the-year rankings of best movies. Or better yet, like David Letterman's nightly top-10 lists: They're fun to look at, but you can't take them too seriously.

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