John Byrne: The Pros and Cons of Business School Rankings

January 2016

Dan LeClair: [0:07] How have you seen rankings evolve in their impact on business schools and on society?

John Byrne: [0:14] Dan, I'm the first to admit I created a monster, and the monster is uncontrollable. The monster roams the earth doing all kinds of damage to many schools.

LeClair: [0:28] What kind of damage?

Byrne: [0:30] I think that there are a lot of great schools who don't get to be ranked, who deliver high quality education, and yet do it under the radar. What rankings have done is put such a focus on a hundred schools. It's almost as if all the other schools don't exist, and that's a bad thing.

[0:53] The truth of the matter is that the basics of MBA education are fairly commoditized. You'll get the basics in accounting, finance, operations, strategy, organizational behavior at any school. Will some be better than others? Of course, but, by and large, the differences won't be that great.

[1:19] To one extent, rankings are not helpful, because they propagate this myth that if you can't get into a top 100 school, you shouldn't go and get an MBA or any degree. On the other hand, one of the things that makes a ranking good is it is a third party evaluation, however flawed, of an MBA program, a masters of management program, an executive program, or many others.

[1:51] Everything is ranking under the sun, too. It's unbelievable. Back in 1988, when I created the "Business Week" ranking, there were no regularly published rankings of business schools anywhere, ever.

LeClair: [2:03] Did you have a computer by then? I hope.

Byrne: [2:06] I did have a computer. I had a Mac. I've got to tell you that I literally printed out the surveys on my printer. I folded them on paper, I put them in envelopes, licked the stamps, and sent them out to thousands of students and the schools themselves.

[2:26] Then, when they came back, I literally had to input all that data. There were 35 questions in the original graduate survey. They all had to be inputted into a data sheet, into a computer. I did all of that. It was a labor of love. I had to convince my employer at the time, Business Week, that this was a worthy project and something that I thought was really important.

[2:52] Why did they think it was important? I'll tell you why because in every journalist, there's a little bit of a reformer. Most journalists realize after three to five years, you reform nothing. Therefore, they quit and they go into public relations or communication, because they make a lot of money.

LeClair: [3:07] I didn't know that.

Byrne: [3:08] Oh, sure, yeah. The reformer in me said a couple of things, "Business schools believe in markets, so I want to create a real market, where there's information that people can act on," because there is no market without information.

[3:23] At the time, there was no Internet in 1988, and there was very little information, other than what you could get in a brochure from a single school. There wasn't a lot of comparative data among and between the different programs that was readily available to the public.

[3:42] I also wanted to create something that created proprietary data. It's easy enough to get average GMATs, average GPAs, acceptance rates, or outcomes on starting salaries and employment data. What I wanted was something that wasn't collected, which was the opinion of the companies that hired the MBAs and saw their track records in their own companies.

[4:12] I wanted the opinions of the graduates, fresh out of the experience, in terms of, "How well did it deliver on what your expectations were? Were the faculty accessible? What was the quality of the quality of the faculty in relationship to what you experienced in your undergraduate years? Was the knowledge in different fields, at least in your perspective, was it leading edge or cutting edge?

[4:41] How well did the career management office prepare you for the marketplace? How valuable have you experienced the alumni network?" Blah, blah, blah, well, all the essentials of what you'd expect from a professional school. We were gathering data that had never been gathered before and putting it into the marketplace to make the market really work is the way I saw it.

[5:05] Why I thought there was a disconnect between what the market wanted and what the business schools were producing back in the late '80s was there would be survey after survey which would show that companies were very happy with the technical skills of the MBAs they hired, but very unhappy with the interpersonal skills.

LeClair: [5:24] It sounds like it was pretty innovative and influential back in the early days. Why do you call it a monster now?

Byrne: [5:32] It's a monster because everyone has decided to rank schools. There is no perfect way to really rank business schools or any schools. What you have is a lot of imperfect and flawed methodologies. Some of them are frankly journalistically mindless, where people are measuring things that have nothing to do with quality and may even have to do with political correctness.

[5:59] Yeah, I think I created the monster back in 1988 when I put together the first Business Week ranking of business schools. It's a monster because most of the methodologies are flawed. They're imperfect. They're even intellectually dishonest.

[6:15] Yet, I think, over time and over the span of all the rankings, there is a greater truth that emerges. We do try to get at that truth at Poets & Quants by merging together the five most influential rankings and come up with a ranking that diminishes the anomalies that would occur in any one ranking and builds on the consensus that comes from all five.

[6:44] There is no perfect way to rank business schools. No one will ever be happy with this, but it's provided a lot of helpful information to applicants in the marketplace that they otherwise wouldn't have.