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At UCLA’s Business School, There’s No Accounting for MBA Program Rankings

As the college admissions season draws to an anxious close, high school students and their parents may be cheered to know that university administrators themselves sometimes suffer the tortures of the damned while waiting for the mailman.

One of those fraught periods occurred last week, as business school deans across the nation awaited U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of MBA programs. The poll’s publication Friday was no doubt accorded special attention at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, which for the last few years has been slipping in several such

B-school rankings, especially in comparison with its upward-scuttling rival, the Marshall School of Business at USC.

For the record, this time around UCLA edged up one notch in the U.S. News poll, to 16th, while USC stayed put at No. 20. But the long-term trend for UCLA’s program has been negative in U.S. News and a complementary biennial ranking in Business Week, where last year it dropped four places, also to 16th.

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Only a few years ago, the school boasted top 10 ratings in both magazines. This drift provoked Anderson’s dean, Bruce Willison, to send alumni an extraordinary e-mail in January acknowledging that the “gradual, albeit steady, decline” in the school’s reputation had “reached a crisis.”

Willison pointed to five problem areas: The curriculum needs to be sharpened, especially in teaching basic skills; relationships with corporate recruiters must be improved; the marketing of Anderson needs to be expanded and honed; students must be better prepared for job interviews; and alumni must help students find jobs and donate more money.

That’s a pretty comprehensive list of what can go wrong with an institution of higher learning.

It may be, as Willison told me last week, that the Anderson MBA program remains a sterling commodity, and he was simply exploiting concern about the rankings to sound a “clarion call for a number of things we needed to do better.”

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Still, my own unscientific survey of opinion around the

B-school world indicates that most deans, Willison included, consider the whole ranking process to be a burdensome inanity. Largely by virtue of being the only litmus test available, the ratings are granted outsized importance by all the constituencies in professional education. A high or rising rank means a school enjoys more applicants, improved attraction for potential new faculty, larger donations from happy alumni and more attention from corporate recruiters.

It’s an axiom among the

B-deans that you barely matter if you’re out of the top 25. By the same token, top-10ness is the nearest thing to godliness. And as with any measure of motion, it’s not only your position but your vector that’s important. Moving up is one thing, but moving down? Well....

“No dean wants to run into his fellow deans after he’s fallen in the rankings,” says Robert Wynne, former head of marketing at the Marshall School. “It’s humiliating.”

As for methodology, although the polltakers would like to present their results as masterpieces of statistical analysis, these surveys often seem to have all the objectivity of the voting at the Golden Globes. U.S. News, for example, gives considerable weight to a school’s assessment by its “peers.” As John Crowe, a Claremont Graduate School administrator and former senior associate dean at Marshall, describes the procedure: “A letter goes to the dean asking him to rank 10 schools. He puts down his own school, the place he graduated from, and eight of his friends.”

Schools plummet and soar in rank for no apparent reason, as when Columbia shot up to 10th in last year’s Wall Street Journal survey of corporate recruiters, from 34th the year before. (Most scientists experiencing that kind of discrepancy in data would send their equipment out for recalibration.) In perhaps the most celebrated triumph of the discipline of educational metrics, Princeton University once landed a spot in the U.S. News business school rankings despite not actually having a business school.

University administrators constantly jawbone magazine and newspaper editors to persuade them to tweak their parameters. Among other things, West Coast B-schools grouse that input from corporate recruiters favors East Coast schools whose finance students are likelier than graduates of the entrepreneurship tracks out here to join large industrial companies.

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The absurd thing is that

B-schools, which presumably aim to teach future business leaders how to base decisions on the dispassionate analysis of objective conditions, move heaven and earth to respond to these manifestly flimsy judgments. A school making a run at the top 25 will expand its marketing department and rejigger its curriculum to appeal to the common denominators in the rankings, then promote its new and improved self with the verve of a Hollywood studio hawking a big-budget release.

“I get golf balls and sundry other things from schools to get me to read their material so I’ll be positive when I fill out the surveys,” says Jerry Trapnell, the business dean at Clemson University and chairman of the board of the Assn. to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the accrediting body for

B-schools. “Maybe they feel they don’t get a bad return on their investment, but we can debate whether this is the best way to spend their money.”

Another concern is that the influence of standardized rankings will tend to suck all the diversity out of professional pedagogy.

“Anytime you have a test, people teach to the test,” Crowe observes, stating an axiom familiar to educators ranging from kindergarten teachers to graduate thesis advisors.

One can argue, on the other hand, that there’s a certain educational value in the rankings. They amount to a ready-made case study in the importance of subjective perception in marketing, which is surely relevant to the business curriculum. (Here’s another possible case study: how the popularity of annual polls and rankings of universities and professional schools helps keep publications such as U.S. News alive. Does anybody on the planet even read that thing anymore?)

The rankings also provide an object lesson in the necessity of living in the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. Alumni and board members thus make no apology for the squeeze they put on administrators to raise their schools’ profiles.

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“The board realizes the rankings are important to the perception of the school,” says James B. Freedman of Los Angeles investment firm Barrington Associates, an Anderson alumnus and member of its board of visitors. “While we feel we don’t deserve the rankings we get, we can’t pretend they don’t exist. They’re a fact of life.”

He and Willison note that scrutiny of the survey results has helped the school identify its most disaffected constituency as the corporate recruiters, a group that deans evidently have to embrace with gritted teeth the way presidential candidates have to suck up to municipal aldermen. That finding sent Willison forth to meet with 100 MBA recruiters across the land, shoring up diplomatic relations and affirming that even though UCLA is in sunny Southern California, Anderson’s students are willing to launch careers with Fortune 500 companies headquartered in, say, Minneapolis.

Some of the rest of the dean’s time is consumed in explaining how the Anderson school really rates better than the surveys indicate at first glance. When you break out measurements such as incoming students’ undergraduate grades and admission test scores, he contends, UCLA consistently ranks in the top 10. He also directs people’s attention to the B-school rankings of the Economist magazine, where last year UCLA scored a personal-best seventh place.

“We don’t have a ship taking on water here,” he assured me. “If we’re 15th out of the 800 business schools that get into the rankings, we’re not exactly hurting.” But there was the merest hint in his voice that he would prefer, all in all, to take his place up there on the dais with the top-10 deans, and dispense with the explanations.

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Fred Rosen update: Facing a creditors revolt, Fredric D. Rosen has withdrawn his application for “retention” pay of as much as $1.4 million from the estate of his company, Key3Media Group Inc.

The company, readers of this space will recall, owns the huge Comdex exhibition and other high-tech trade shows. After Key3 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February, Rosen proposed that he and the five other top managers who presided over the company’s collapse receive a total of as much as $4.68 million over 12 to 14 months to continue running it while the corpus was readied for sale.

Rosen’s change of heart means that the payments to his five colleagues would total $3.3 million at most, but creditors contend the plan still stinks. The Key3 brain trust would remain overpaid to an “exceptional” degree, one creditors’ group said in a Bankruptcy Court filing. A hearing on this issue and others is scheduled in Delaware for May 5.

The company’s announcement of Rosen’s move might have gone over better had it not been worded like something the Iraqi Ministry of Information would put out about Saddam Hussein: The “already good plan has been dramatically enhanced,” the company told the court, “through the generosity and benevolence of Fred Rosen.”

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Golden State appears Mondays and Thursdays. Michael Hiltzik can be reached at golden.state@latimes.com.


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