Skip to main content

Business School ‘Teaching Power’

May 31, 2021 |  5 min read

Each year, the Financial Times ranks international MBA programs. This year the top 10 are Harvard, Stanford, INSEAD (France/Singapore), U Penn – Wharton, London Business School, CEIBS (China), U Chicago – Booth, MIT – Sloan, Columbia, IESE (Spain), Yale, and Northwestern – Kellogg.

School ranking methods are often controversial: schools, educational goals, and concepts of quality vary considerably and the data and inputs into the models are often subjective. (Here’s Malcolm Gladwell on an older version of the US News & World Report ranking methodology). The FT mitigates these problems by focusing on a set of more narrowly comparable institutions (top tier MBA programs), on relatively unambiguous inputs (it heavily weights student outcomes measured in salary and program value in cost), and by limiting scoring to a top 10 (instead of elevating the minor differences that separate schools in the long tail). FT includes a “research rank” derived from the number of articles that faculty published in top journals, but salary factors outweigh research factors by 4-1. And it lightly weights a host of other variables — gender ratios, international diversity, faculty PhDs, and so on — that contribute to the quality of a business education.

In collaboration with the FT, we’ve been exploring whether Open Syllabus data can capture a different dimension of school quality: the degree to which a business school’s faculty influence the teaching of business in general, throughout the field. Our method is simple: we took the 500 most frequently assigned texts from the 595,000 business and econ classes we’ve collected since 2015, counted the number of times each text is assigned, awarded an equal portion of those assignments to each author (when — as is often the case — there is more than one), linked each author back to a primary home institution, and counted up the totals assignments attributable to the business schools among them. Here’s what that ranking looks like — with the contributions of the individual authors visible.

(full-size chart)

This is a model that heavily rewards textbook authors and solo business gurus. With the exception of Harvard, which has a number of successful examples of both, textbook authorship is paramount in the rankings. There is comparatively little research and only a handful of articles represented in the top assigned titles in the business curriculum.

The results clearly overlap the FT rankings but also diverge in interesting ways that are suggestive of the complex role that teaching — and writing for teaching — plays in academic reputation. Broadly, we view both as chronically undervalued, and think this undervaluation is reinforced by the the scarcity of ways to measure significant contributions (notably compared to citation metrics for research). At the same time, textbook authorship plays a role in the self-branding activities of prominent faculty, and so in academic mobility and school reputation. Our hunch is that our data reveals a a previously invisible middle ground of schools with fewer ‘stars’ but more contributors to textbook authorship. But we will defer to people with more knowledge of business schools to interpret the results.

We also spent some time labeling the gender of assigned authors. Here the results are an unambiguous indictment of the field. Among all assignments by business school faculty, just under 10% are authored by women.

We’d make a couple points beyond the obvious. First, for a field oriented toward contemporary practice, the business curriculum is old — heavily populated by textbooks originally written 20 and 30 years ago and by authors in or past retirement. Second, we don’t have a good handle on how well or poorly other fields do. A similar analysis by Kristin Thomson of sociology titles from several years ago put the ratio at around 80/20 — in a field with a much more substantial role for historical titles.

Without doubt, our method is imperfect. People move around, making it hard — sometimes — to identify a primary affiliation (though late career posts proved surprisingly stable). Textbooks sometimes change co-authors over multiple editions, and the bibliographical records of these changes can be inconsistent. We didn’t count authors with primary affiliations in Econ departments but did credit business school contributions to the Econ curriculum (since business schools teach economics and sometimes employ economists.) We didn’t count the large number of independent authors, who make up a significant portion of assignments.

If you want to see what this would look like with different criteria or more time invested in labeling data, you’re welcome to roll your own school rankings. If you’d like to see what schools we draw on in mapping the curriculum, you can explore the different field>school lists here.

If you’d like to see your own school better represented, we encourage you to either send us your own syllabi or get in touch about getting your institution on board.

ps. Alistair Brandon-Jones wrote in to offer a couple corrections, including our use of an older edition of Operations Management in our author attributions. Our methods do a bad job distinguishing editions, but since in this case the editions have somewhat different authors, we’ve shifted to the editions likely to have been most assigned in the period under question — 2015-2021. In practice, this drops Warwick a few places and elevates Bath.