Full disclosure. My first job was teaching ethics at a business school and it was horrible. I went from reading Plato’s Dialogues in Greek to what felt like taming lions in a circus ring during sessions which lasted all of 75 minutes. (That’s how I fell in love with research!)

At that time, I couldn’t understand what the problem was: the topics? the methods? the class dynamics? Should I just study more? Were the students simply too smart for me?

Only much later did I realize that while professors in other subjects taught students tricks on how to earn more, I did no such thing. On the contrary, I was perceived as the fun-spoiler, the one who kept on pulling the brakes. That doesn’t make you very popular when students are over a hundred thousand dollars in debt and have virtually put their lives on hold until they break even. Perhaps it was a motivational conflict, then, on why people went to business school. Was it to earn or to learn?

This clash of objectives lies at the heart of a new set of proposals for business school rankings. Authors David Pitt-Watson and Ellen Quigley of Cambridge University begin with a simple observation. Only two criteria, salaries and the opinions of alumni and recruiters, account for an average of 70 percent of the ranking scores by media companies such as BusinessWeek, Forbes, Financial Times, the Economist, and US News & World Report.

This being business, returns on investment in the form of salaries and pre- and post-MBA differentials should indeed figure prominently. But is it all right to consider this the main business school deliverable? How much of it can be correctly attributed to the educational experience itself? As for the results of alumni and recruiter surveys, just how reliable and scientific are they? Wouldn’t alumni desire to inflate their own value or the ease of having a heuristic for recruiters exert undue influence?

Business school deans, we are told, are the first to criticize these ranking tables designed by self-styled education experts. However, they also acknowledge their outsized influence on students, companies, and society at large. Despite the self-fulfilling prophecy loops such reports generate, deans cannot afford to ignore them; any precipitous drop in rankings could make them lose their jobs. Hence, they have no choice but to govern schools sheepishly to the very rankings they detest.

Pitt-Watson and Quigley’s beef with the old rankings is that, besides salaries and reputations, hardly anything else matters. Not what programs teach, how well, and how much students actually learn which, presumably, come closer to what is expected from a school, even a business school.

Nothing is said of the “sustainability development goals” —no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, and so forth— espoused by the UN Global Compact (which promoted the study), or of the environmental, social, and governance concerns of the responsible investment firm (which provided generous research support).

Certainly, not every business ought to have any of these aims as an immediate objective, but they do proffer a great deal of social legitimacy to the concentration of power and resources in corporations. To say the least, they remind us that businesses are not meant to be self-serving, but to serve families and society. They are not supposed to be mere legal inventions to line the pockets and boost the egos of a few.

Of course businesses aren’t governments; their job is to produce wealth. But even then, businesses can and should take care that wealth is distributed equitably, according to need and merit. Besides increased earning capacity and social lustre, progress in ethics and attention to the environment should also count for a good business education.

The Cambridge authors agree there’s no such thing as a perfect business school ranking. They are equally aware of the difficulties in measuring the tacit knowledge and soft skills associated with ethics and sustainability. Yet they still manage to put forward some sensible recommendations.

First, reduce the weight of salary differentials which encourage the funneling of graduates to jobs in finance and consulting, punishing those who opt to work in public service, NGOs, and not-for-profit sectors. They may earn less, but would arguably have a wider and more positive impact on society.

Second, in hiring faculty and crafting programs, pay greater attention to social relevance and practical knowledge than to purportedly rigorous, but absurdly specialized and generally esoteric themes found in scholarly journals (“The Genesis and Metamorphosis of Novelty Imprints: How Business Model Innovation Emerges in Young Ventures”, for instance). The latter may burnish faculty and school credentials, but they don’t necessarily translate into more effective teaching and learning in the principled (we hope) art of business. Just take a look at the havoc wreaked in business practice by the uncritical repetition of the homo oeconomicus model, agency theory, and the financial theory of the firm. Regardless of what they say, the purpose of the firm should not be simply to maximize shareholder value.

Nevertheless, the report also contains some insufficiently justified recommendations concerning diversity in the student body, faculty, governance structure, and so forth. Increasingly we’ve come to realize that obsession with diversity and identity politics creates intolerance and imposes uniformity of thought. Neither bodes well for creative and participatory business practice.

Ideally, people’s earnings should be a faithful reflection of their contribution to the productive effort of business, largely determined by their knowledge and skill in free market conditions. If that were the case, then perhaps salaries would be a good enough guide for school rankings. But we do not live in an ideal world. Too much emphasis on compensation in rankings produces an inversion of values, putting the means of earnings before the end of learning. Far from promoting the flourishing of business schools, students, and faculty, it breeds corruption.

Further, top rankings are positional goods which are scarce, but only in a socially restrictive way. There cannot be more than one top-ranked business school for the same reason that not everyone in Lake Wobegon can be above average. No amount of time, money, and effort could produce more of such goods. So competition for them is mostly a waste of resources. And that doesn’t make sound business sense at all.    

Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.   

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...