MSU professor challenges business school rankings

December 5, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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A Michigan State University professor has done research that he says brings into question the validity of the annual business school ranking published by BusinessWeek magazine.

But a local executive recruiter with a long track record of finding top management for his clients said the name of the business school on the diploma really isn't that important, anyway.

MSU announced in October that Frederick P. Morgeson, professor of management and Valade Research Scholar at the Eli Broad Graduate School of Management at Michigan State University, and doctoral candidate Jennifer Nahrgang recently completed an empirical study of the BusinessWeek rankings.

"Our data shows that BusinessWeek rankings are suspiciously invariant across time, have a large reputational component, and appear to be based on student ratings that largely reflect economic outcomes that are unrelated to educational experiences or quality," Morgeson says.

"We chose to focus on BusinessWeek because it was the first ranking system of business schools published in the popular press and is by far the most influential ranking list according to numerous scholars."

Morgeson’s research, "Same As It Ever Was: Recognizing Stability in the BusinessWeek Rankings," was recently published in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education and outlines the stability of the rankings. The magazine began the rankings in 1988 and lists the “best 50 business schools” in the country.

Morgeson and Nahrgang studied the consistency in rankings across the years (a school's rank on the list from year to year) and allegedly found very high correlations from one bi-annual ranking to the next — "correlations so high that it really calls into question the legitimacy of the rankings," said Morgeson.

Two Michigan business schools are listed in the 2008 BusinessWeek ranking: the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business and MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business and Graduate School of Management.

A faculty member at the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University declined to comment publicly about the BusinessWeek rankings, expressing concern that whatever comments she made might be construed by some as "sour grapes" because GVSU is not on the list.

Not that the Seidman school is lacking high recognition. In October, it was included in the Princeton Review’s new “Best 296 Business Schools” publication. The Princeton Review compiled the lists based on its surveys of 19,000 students attending the 296 business schools listed, and on school-reported data. Among the student comments were praise for Grand Valley’s small class sizes and first-rate faculty members who are “very astute, visionary, shrewd, capable and highly qualified.” (See www.PrincetonReview.com.)

Nina Erickson is the new director of human resources at Irwin Seating and was formerly an HR manager at Magna Mirrors in Holland (formerly known as Magna Donnelly) for seven years. She was asked if a business school ranked by BusinessWeek makes a significant difference on a job application.

Erickson said a degree from a school such as the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — which just happens to be No. 1 in the current BusinessWeek ranking — "is very, very impressive, but in my (14) years in HR, I have also met some very impressive people who didn't attend Ivy League schools. In my experience, (the lack of a big name) is definitely not a deal breaker."

On the other hand, Erickson said she knows for a fact that some companies do place a lot of stock in a diploma from a big-name business school.

Some companies actually narrow down their search for new hires in management to specific business schools, she said. "That was the deal with my brother."

Her brother earned an MBA degree from Wharton three years ago and was immediately recruited by Johnson & Johnson to head one of the company's sales divisions in Latin America. Now 31, he had previously earned a bachelor's degree in Indiana and had been working in the finance department of an IT company prior to being accepted at Wharton.

Business school rankings apparently are important to many people who want to attend one. The name is also important to some companies recruiting young employees who are just beginning a career in management, situations in which experience isn't a major sticking point. But for John Sullivan, experience is everything.

Sullivan, of Dunlap & Sullivan Associates in Grand Rapids, is one of only a handful of executive recruiters based in West Michigan. He said the candidates he studies for possible placement in executive management typically have 15 to 20 years of experience — and by that point, where they earned their business degrees really isn't very important.

"I look at what the candidate has accomplished, post-school," he said. The degree or school it was earned at "becomes less important than what they’ve actually accomplished in their career."

"On behalf of my clients, what we are looking for is: What has that person accomplished in their career?" said Sullivan.

"I'd rather have someone who graduated from Podunk U and has had a great career, than someone who graduated from Harvard and hasn’t really done anything."

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