HBS Blocks Media Access to Students

Harvard Business School (HBS) will not give students’ e-mail addresses to BusinessWeek, the magazine that publishes a popular ranking of the nation’s business schools based in part on student satisfaction surveys.

HBS spokesperson David R. Lampe said the school has a long-standing policy of “not facilitating access to students and others on behalf of any commercial interest.”

While HBS has cooperated with BusinessWeek since the survey’s launch in 1988, Lampe said the school has now decided “that the process should be the same for the media, particularly since rankings have become a significant area of growth for an increasing number of publications.”

Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, also announced this month that it would not give BusinessWeek access to its students for the survey, though Lampe said HBS and Wharton reached their decisions independently.

Harvard said it considers its decision a stance against the national preoccupation with magazine rankings.

But BusinessWeek suggested that HBS—which has fallen in the student satisfaction segment of the survey in recent years—is driven by less-principled motives.

RANKING REBELLION

“In some ways, we, along with our peer institutions, have allowed rankings to define us, not only to the outside world, but to ourselves as well,” wrote Wharton Dean Patrick T. Harker in a letter to students last week. “It is time to measure our institution’s achievements of every program and by the accomplishments of our students, faculty, staff and alumni.”

Lampe said that the HBS admissions office is less concerned with its position in a “journalistic poll” than with finding students who will thrive at the school.

“There is a rich diversity of students seeking to pursue an MBA, and a wide range of schools with different strengths and approaches to management education,” he said. “[The rankings] make it seem as though all of the students are the same and all of the schools are the same.”

But Jennifer M. Merritt, an editor at BusinessWeek, said that unlike rankings from other publications such as U.S. News & World Report, which place a heavy focus on test scores and admissions data, “our survey is more of a customer satisfaction survey,” incorporating the opinions of students, alumni and recruiters.

“When you’re making a $150,000 decision,” Merrit said, calculating the total cost of earning an MBA, “you need a broad array of information. Numbers don’t tell the whole story.”

She said Harvard and Wharton “are short-selling prospective students” when the schools claim applicants misuse rankings.

Applicants to MBA programs “are not naive or stupid enough to look at [rankings] in a vacuum,” Merritt said.

A QUESTION OF ACCOUNTABILITY

While defending the validity of her publication’s ranking system, Merritt questioned the schools’ motives for scaling back cooperation with BusinessWeek.

“Wharton liked the rankings and liked participating with BusinessWeek until they weren’t number one any more,” she said.

Wharton dropped from first place in the 2000 survey to number five in 2002.

HBS placed third overall both years. It placed fourth in the student satisfaction category in 2000, and 14th in that category in 2002.

“Students have historically given uneven grades to [HBS],” Merritt said. “Some people might say when you’re getting lower student satisfaction rankings on our survey, it’s beneficial for you not to have your students answer our surveys.”

“Imagine the schools’ line of reasoning applied to the corporate world,” Merritt wrote in a statement on the BusinessWeek website. “It would essentially preclude independent analysts, the media, and other outside parties from assessing the performance of corporations.”

But Lampe wrote in an e-mail that “no other group of organizations provides the media with sweeping access to its ‘customers’ so that the quality of its products and services can be evaluated by journalists.”

A TALE OF TWO SURVEYS

HBS’s decision came just one week after U.S. News & World Report published a ranking that placed the school number one among MBA programs nationwide.

According to Associate Professor of Business Michael D. Watkins, the U.S. News & World Report ranking measures “the strength of schools’ brands,” while BusinessWeek’s strategy of surveying students and alumni is “the only way to measure the quality of the educational experience.

“Schools with strong brands, who are not doing well in terms of student assessments, have obvious incentives to avoid having these assessments made,” Watkins wrote in an e-mail.

But Lampe said that any attempt to link the HBS decision to the school’s lower student rankings from BusinessWeek is “false speculation.”

“That did not cross our minds,” he said.

Lampe, who worked at BusinessWeek in the 1970s before the survey’s existence, said that by denying the magazine access to students, HBS will—if anything—cause its student satisfaction rankings on the magazine’s survey to drop further.

Merritt said officials from other high-ranking schools, including University of Chicago, Northwestern’s Kellogg School and Columbia, have told her they will continue to cooperate fully with her magazine’s survey.

She vowed that BusinessWeek will use “other ways” to contact HBS students for the magazine’s survey, but she declined to specify further.

“There are plenty of people within the school who have contacted us to offer their assistance,” she added. “It’s possible that we could end up surveying the entire HBS class of 2004—highly possible.”

According to business school admissions consultant Sanford Kreisberg, “any survey which put Harvard and Wharton out of the top five would be laughed at.”

“BusinessWeek will get the data they need to have Harvard and Wharton in the top five one way or another,” Kreisberg wrote in an e-mail.

CREATING A ‘CARTEL’?

Lampe said Harvard—swamped with requests for information from magazines seeking to compile rankings—is working with other members of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) to generate “standardized metrics for business school programs,” which will be available to the public this fall.

He said magazines frequently develop rankings based on inconsistent criteria and unaudited data. One HBS staff member devotes half her time to answering information requests from publications formulating rankings, Lampe said.

“There’s getting to be so many [rankings] with so many different questions and it’s not all that clear if many of these questions are all that meaningful,” Lampe said.

But BusinessWeek, in an editorial in its current issue, assailed the GMAC initiative as a “cartel-like arrangement.”

The magazine criticized the GMAC plan for not including any rankings of schools or incorporating student and alumni feedback.

BusinessWeek’s survey also includes a questionnaire filled out by school administrators, which Merritt noted is “the most time-consuming element of all of this.” Lampe said HBS would still cooperate with BusinessWeek on the school questionnaire.

He added that HBS will continue to conduct its own surveys of student opinion, which he described as “more rigorous” than the BusinessWeek questions.

But Watkins, who will leave the HBS faculty at the end of this semester, noted that the school did not consult students and alumni in its decision to scale back cooperation with BusinessWeek.

Lampe said most students learned of the change last Monday, when the school officially announced its policy change. A select group of student leaders was informed before the weekend, Lampe said.

Watkins said HBS should consider students and alumni as “customers.”

“What would you say to a business that was trying to avoid listening to its key customers because it didn’t want to hear what they had to say? I would tell them they were in a death spiral,” he said.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.