This article by Claudia Feldman was written exclusively for After Hours.
It’s dusk at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
From an outdoor patio, voices, laughter, drift skyward. As darkness falls and the crowd grows, Peter Rodriguez, the school’s new dean, appears. Behind him wait large quantities of champagne, perfect for toasting.
Bloomberg Businessweek has just ranked Rice Business’ full-time MBA program No. 8 in the country, allowing a young Sun Belt business school to shake up a top 10 list that has seen little change for decades.
While all school rankings are somewhat illusory, breaking into the top tier, on this particular list, may be transformative for the small school.
“However flawed these rankings are — and every single one has significant issues associated with them — these lists have a very big impact on a school’s reputation and standing,” says John Byrne, who in 1988 created the first regularly published MBA ranking for Businessweek.
Breaking into the magic circle, it turns out, can translate into surprisingly tangible results. A top 10 ranking draws increased and more-qualified applications, heftier donations, and more plentiful corporate recruiters. It encourages minority candidates — underrepresented in business schools nationwide, and courted through recruiting and scholarships — to see the newcomer school as an option.
There’s also a less-tangible aura to such lists. Historically, most of the schools on top 10 lists have simply swapped places in a kind of grad school musical chairs. Rice Business is not only the rare upstart to grab a seat, it’s the youngest. And it has moved into its new spot very fast.
On the Businessweek list, Rice was No. 19 last year, No. 29 in 2010 and not ranked at all in 2006. It topped venerable business programs at Northwestern, the University of Virginia, Columbia and the University of Michigan. Rice even topped Yale, which made its own meteoric jump, from No. 25 in 1990 to No.10 in 2009, on the similar MBA list compiled by U.S. News & World Report.
When schools win in this poker game of sorts, they win big. But if they lose, says Byrne, now editor-in-chief of PoetsandQuants.com, the pain can be sharp. Slipping a few percentage points can mean a drop in applications and alumni giving, even threaten the job security of a school’s top leaders.
Before any dean breaks out in hives, though, Byrne offers this advice: “Treat rankings with a big grain of salt. A school’s rank on one survey in one year is pretty much meaningless. What’s important is a school’s rank over time and over multiple rankings. That is how rankings get to the greater truth about where an institution truly stands among its competitors.”
The Rice alumni surveyed this year, accounting for 30 percent of their school’s ranking index score, represented the classes of 2008, 2009 and 2010. The Houston economy seemed recession-proof during those years. Jobs were abundant and salaries stable.
More recently, Houston has been hurt by a struggling energy sector, “which could affect Rice’s scores down the road,” says Lance Lambert, the business school ranking coordinator for Bloomberg Businessweek. “The rankings are really lagging indicators.”
Not to worry, says popular culture guru Robert Thompson, who was only mildly surprised when he saw Rice nipping at the heels of the likes of Harvard in the latest Businessweek ranking. .
“It’s not like I spit out my coffee,” says Thompson, trustee professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. “On one level, the success of a relatively new university in a Sun Belt city might look like a real cultural shift. But it’s not like Rice is chopped liver.”
Thompson says the mystique associated with iconic universities of the Northeast is fading, “depending on how old you are, where you’ve been and what you know,” while schools such as Rice are on the move and catching up. “I think of Rice as one of the hoity-toity, mystique places now,” says Thompson.
The challenge for Rice, most experts agree, is to keep or improve their seat at the rankings table — while remembering that the strength of the program has everything to do with imagination and hard work and little to do with any list.
Sipping their champagne and pinching themselves this fall evening, Rice Business students and professors perhaps are thinking the same thing. “I’m stunned,” says Rodriguez during a short speech in which he repeats the words “thank you” five times.
Rodriguez arrived on campus in July; he tells students he had little to do with the new ranking. Instead, he gives credit to his predecessor, William Glick, and suggests that they all enjoy the festivities, then get back to work.
“We have to do it again,” Rodriguez says. “We have to prove we’re not a blip.”