Are B-Schools Slacking Off?

Chicago GSB Dean Ted Snyder talks about the battle to maintain academic standards in a high-pressure environment

The debate over the value of the MBA is one that's as old as the degree itself. As outgoing MIT-Sloan Dean Richard Schmalensee notes, there are still critics who contend that "business schools have become little more than exercises in ticket-punching for would-be consultants (see, 11/27/06, "Where's the B in B-Schools?")."

Still, business school applications are on the rise, and the MBA job market is looking stronger than ever (see, 12/5/06, "Forecast: MBA Hiring Up Again") and (see, 8/7/06, "B-school is Hip Again"). But have business schools fallen victim to their own success?

That's the worry of Ted Snyder, dean of BusinessWeek's No.1-ranked B-school, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Snyder says that as top B-schools have become more competitive, there are forces making them more like talent pools and less like academic institutions.

Snyder spoke recently with reporter Kerry Miller about how he strives to uphold academic standards at Chicago, and about some of the other pressures facing B-school deans today. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.

What is the biggest issue you're dealing with right now as dean?

For me, the No. 1 issue is the academic integrity of our programs—that's a day-in, day-out battle, and I think that is an issue for other schools as well. There are forces that can lead to a three-way agreement among deans, faculty, and students to take it easy, and to view the place as a talent pool—not as a school where you're focused on challenges and adding value.

After all, the students are paying a lot of money; they want to look for a job. The faculty have plenty of things to do—the teaching pressures are enormous—so for a lot of faculty it's tough to really challenge the students. From the dean's point of view, it's nice to just tell everybody that they're doing great.

Is academic integrity at the root of the debates we've seen play out in the past about grade disclosure and grade inflation (see, 4/10/05, "Grade Inflation: Devaluing B-Schools' Currency"), and (see, 12/16/05, "Harvard: No More Grade Secrets"")?

It does play out in issues like that, although I think the actual grade disclosure issue is not the best example because, as it turns out, thanks of FERPA [Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act], students actually control their grades and it's not the school's decision, although that's not well understood by a lot of people, including students and deans.

But it does play out in terms of grades. It plays out in terms of maintaining standards for graduation, setting expectations of students, setting high expectations of faculty.

When it comes to upholding those standards, who pushes back? Is it the recruiters? Or does it have to come from the dean?

I think it's got to be from the dean. There are always students who want this, and there are always faculty who want it, but I think it's got to come from the dean's office. Recruiters will be sometimes happy with just getting access to the talent. Other recruiters do want the value added, so I think there it's a mix.

What have you done as dean to uphold the academic integrity at Chicago?

It's an influence game. You support the faculty who are upholding standards—you give them the teaching awards. You don't hand them out to the people with just the best platform skills.

You set expectations of students—you don't say that you're a customer and do whatever you want to do. I express a lot of gratitude to students who are leaders in the classroom. When I meet with students, I ask them if they're getting prepared for class.

When I meet with faculty, I ask them what they're doing to challenge the students. In sum, it's setting expectations of both faculty and students and then doing what you can to support the people who are meeting those expectations.

I think it's working, but it's really hard in light of the pressures that I was talking about. Everybody's busy. Everybody would find it easier to take a different course.

It seems like when you're pushing those issues, that sets you up in a natural opposition with rankings such as BusinessWeek's, which are based in part on student satisfaction surveys.

I think the reason students are pleased with Chicago is that we have set high expectations. It's no secret that if you put more into something you get more out of it. I think the interesting question is: How do you get to a different equilibrium in terms of student effort?

That's what we've been able to do. Not to my satisfaction, but I think the students are getting more out of Chicago, and I think the reason the students are willing to put more effort in at Chicago is that they know that they're supported.

It's a shift from the customer model, but it doesn't mean a lack of support. They're very much supported in terms of their careers, in terms of their academic work and emotionally.

The average tenure for a business school dean is now less than four years—about a year less than the average tenure five years ago. Some have said that's in part because of pressure from the rankings (see, 8/05/05, "A Rank Offense to B-Schools?"). What would you say are the do-or-die issues facing every B-school dean?

For deans, collectively, the rankings are more important than ever—you've got to stay focused on that piece of the competitive landscape. But as a blanket statement, it's a matter of meeting various stakeholder expectations.

There's a political deftness that's amazing to watch in high-pressure deanships. You have to have a happy faculty, because they can take down presidents in a blink with no-confidence votes—they're almost like independent


Your students have to be happy with their experience here. Your school has to be rated well, at least in its expectations. You've got to make sure you keep your accreditation. You have to be visible in the business community, and bring in a lot of funding for the business school.

You have to be responsive to the central administration and at the same time not be too much of a show-off, because business school deans get a lot of attention—their faculty tend to be the highest paid and they bring in the most money, so you have to manage that potential jealousy factor on the university campuses.

Fund-raising and managing the financial picture are especially critical to being competitive in the market for world-class students and world-class faculty. The market for top students is highly competitive, and there are a lot more scholarships paid out now then there used to be.

And the faculty market is still red-hot (see, 6/21/06, "Shortcut to the Classroom"). I'm an economist and I've been wrong—I keep thinking that things are going to calm down—and they don't.

It seems like a dean has a lot of different hats to wear—how you deal with all those pressures?

This may sound strange, but I think it's a blast —I think it's so much fun. I don't think it's that hard of a job, but it is the case that a lot of people don't understand it, in part because you hear the words "business school" and you have to remember that business is the adjective, school is the noun, and that it is an academic enterprise. As you alluded to, what tends to make it hard for people is that you've got a lot of different roles to play.

You're part CEO. You're part academic. You're part small-town mayor. But to be successful you really have to understand the academic enterprise and you've got to keep it simple.

I think one of the problems that you can run into being a dean is having a different version of the core story for the different audiences, and that's a huge mistake. You've got to figure out what's important and unify the audiences as opposed to communicating different things to different audiences.

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