HBS Declines to Provide BusinessWeek with Student Contact Information

Last week, in response to a request by BusinessWeek for second-year students’ contact information, HBS announced that it would not facilitate access to HBS students on behalf of any for profit-institution. In the past, HBS made an exception for media surveys of MBA students, including BusinessWeek’s annual “customer satisfaction” ranking of the top business schools.

Dean Kester announced the decision in a memo to students on Monday April 5th, and the Wall Street Journal covered the decision on with the headline, “Elite Schools Move Against Rankings” (Wharton has also adopted a similar policy).

The Harbus spoke with David Lampe, Executive Director of HBS Marketing and Communcations, to address a few of the questions that this decision has raised.

Harbus: Why did HBS decide not to provide Business Week with access to HBS students for the Business Week business school survey?

David Lampe: HBS gets hundreds of requests each year from commercial organizations of all kinds seeking to contact segments of our community. As we all have experienced, the problem has gotten worse with the advent of e-mail and spam. For many years, we have had a policy of not facilitating access to students and others on behalf of any commercial interest. Instead, we steer them to Student Ventures and The Harbus. We felt that the process should be the same for the media, particularly since rankings have become a significant area of growth for an increasing number of publications.

Another key consideration is that the concept of rankings conflicts in principle with the advice that we, and most other schools, provide prospective students. There is a rich diversity of students seeking to pursue an MBA, and a wide range of schools with different strengths and approaches to management education. What matters-both to students and to the schools-is the match, and a simple ranking is of relatively little use in this context.

It’s interesting to note that no other group of organizations provides the media with sweeping access to its “customers” so that the quality of its products and services can be evaluated by journalists.

Harbus: Is HBS trying to undermine the rankings? What is HBS’s position on independent student participation in the Business Week survey?

DL: The rankings, and all of the affiliated services that the media provide, are here to stay. The media are free to contact students independently-as they would on any other story-and the decision on whether to participate is entirely up to students.

Our goal is to strengthen and complement the growing number of sources of information available to help prospective students find an appropriate match. Under the leadership of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), an independent non-profit association, we are working with other schools to develop for the first time standardized, clearly defined, and audited metrics to help students make meaningful initial comparisons among business schools. These data will be provided, free of charge, to students and media worldwide. GMAC is also strengthening the tools it provides to help prospective students understand what to look for in an MBA program, and to help them find a match between their particular interests and a business school.

At the same time, HBS is continuing to upgrade its MBA Web site to provide better access to people and information that can help students understand what HBS has to offer. In addition, we have engaged an independent firm to conduct an annual survey of our MBA alumni, with the aim of shedding light on the role the School has played in their career progression. Information from this survey will be made available as well.

Harbus: Did HBS consult with other schools before making this decision? Does HBS expect other business schools, in addition to Wharton, to follow suit?

Since rankings were first introduced by BusinessWeek in 1988, there have been many discussions among the schools-and with the media-about their shortcomings and how to provide a better service to prospective students. We were pleased that Wharton also chose to take a stand on this issue. We don’t know how many will follow suit, but many have expressed interest in our decision.

Harbus: Who made the decision and what was the decision-making process? Were HBS students consulted in the decision? Why or why not?

DL: Ultimately, this was Dean Clark’s decision, based on a broad spectrum of considerations as well as input from and discussions with a wide range of sources. Our admissions office learns a great deal about the needs of prospective students as it deals directly with thousands of them from year to year. And the results of many discussions with other schools over the years were also critical. Additionally, the rankings are brought up at almost every Q&A session that Dean Clark holds with first-year sections every fall. The questions and concerns that students have raised in these sessions helped inform the decision too.

Alumni perspectives also contributed. Last spring, when we declined to provide BusinessWeek with contact information for the MBA class of 96 for a story they were writing, we sent an e-mail note to the 40,000 alumni with active Lifelong E-mail Forwarding Addresses explaining our policy of not facilitating access and asking them to contact us if they had any comments or concerns. Responses were overwhelmingly in favor of our policy.

Editors of the Harbus and the student leaders of the first- and second-year classes were informed of our intention late last week. And of course, we welcome all further questions and comments from students and others.
Harbus: Is this position specific to Business Week or will it apply to all media organizations ranking business schools?

The policy applies to all for-profit organizations, which includes all media organizations.

Harbus: Does this position apply to the MBA program only or to the both the MBA and Executive Education programs?

DL: There are fundamental differences in the nature of these wide-ranging programs where the “customer” is most often construed to be the companies that sponsor participants. Only the Financial Times has asked for access to participants. For the last four years, we have notified the participants about the survey and left it up to them to decide whether or not to contact the Financial Times. Circumstances in this arena may change as well, and we will review our approach if necessary.

Harbus: Does HBS expect that not providing Business Week with student access will affect the volume of applications received in the fall? How is this decision expected to affect other areas of the school?

DL: Our admissions office does not expect that this decision will have a significant impact on applications, and we don’t anticipate any serious effects on any other area of the school.