Business schools’ societal impact aspirations are a joke

Unless research culture fundamentally changes, academics will continue to be fixated with journal rankings, says Carl Rhodes

August 9, 2022
Source: Getty

Social impact, public purpose and responsible management are fast becoming the mantras of business schools worldwide. This is no longer the stuff of fringe-dwelling radicals determined to instigate change from the margins. It is mainstream.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the largest international accrediting body of business schools, has the explicit strategic vision “to transform business education globally for positive societal impact”. Gone are the times when “greed is good” capitalism should dictate business school curriculum, we are told. These days, you can head to Yale to connect your MBA with environmental management or join the social impact initiatives at Harvard and Wharton. The University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School has a whole specialism in social impact education.

What does this all mean for the research that goes on in business schools? Earlier this year, I attended a conference in my field of management and organisation studies. I was in a track focused on inequalities and organisations. Could there be a better place to look for real social impact than where academic research meets one of the most urgent global challenges?

But I was disappointed – albeit not surprised. As we presented papers on various dimensions of how economic and social inequality is perpetuated or can be addressed, one overwhelming theme was not discussed: how scholars can actually use and develop knowledge to contribute to addressing the scourge of inequality. What dominated the discussion instead was how the presenters could get their papers published in top-tier, preferably American, academic journals.

When I say dominated, publication strategies were not just a central theme of the discussion; it was as if the purpose of researching inequality had nothing at all to do with reducing inequality. The real resolve was to publish elite papers about inequality to advance one’s academic career and be a marketable labour commodity to the “best” business schools.

This event cemented my conviction that the real barrier to business school social impact is the research culture we have developed, especially over the past 20 years or so. This culture is obsessed with the publication and ranking systems that give deans bragging rights. In the Western world, it also fuels schools’ marketing collateral to attract lucrative international student revenues.

Our research has become so marketised that knowledge creation has been reduced to a process of exchange whose value is linked to university income generation and professorial salaries. There is impact, for sure, but the beneficiaries are business schools themselves and the pumped-up professors who have the networks and know-how to write articles that so-called top-tier journals will publish.

Business schools as a “force for good”? I don’t think so. Self-interest of the narrowest kind rules the roost. If business schools want to truly dedicate their purpose to social value and benefits to others, then a fundamental change is needed in research culture and practice.

Whether you hitch your wagon to the list of 50 journals used by the Financial Times to rank business schools, the list of 24 “leading business journals” published by the University of Texas at Dallas, or the Australian Business Deans Council “Journal Quality” list, you will get the same thing: an exclusionary approach to preserving the privilege of elite institutions of Western knowledge. These rankings dominate individual scholars’ performance objectives because they dominate tenure and promotion criteria. They are the data that feed into the systems that compare business school “quality” globally. They inform government audit regimes that claim to measure how “world-leading” our research is.

All of this has created and perpetuated a research culture in business schools worldwide that idolises elite journal publications to the point of fatal distraction. On the current trajectory, the end game is that we are only relevant to ourselves.

I am not saying that publication in academic journals vetted by the rigours of peer review is not important. Quite the contrary: this is the system, no matter how imperfect, that provides an indispensable check on the process of knowledge generation. But if social impact is what you want, journal publication elitism is not the end goal.

When I talk to people outside universities, they find what I am saying to be blindingly obvious, if not banal. Of course what really matters is the difference research makes or will make on the troubled world beyond the ivory tower. We should be embarrassed that, for all our rhetoric, we still can’t seem genuinely to get our heads around that.

Carl Rhodes is dean of the UTS Business School at the University of Technology Sydney.

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Reader's comments (11)

The challenge we face is that we have misaligned incentive systems Carl. As you note, what matters for many/most academics is publication in outlets that are predominantly read by other academics ... and the gatekeeping process is overseen by other academics. Two other significant communities therefore tend to be overlooked ... one is students and the other is end-user audiences (e.g. practicing managers). The impact agenda is a step in the right direction but even this, at least as configured in the UK REF exercises of 2014 and 2021, is predicated on the assumption that impact follows peer-reviewed publication. High quality theorising is important but it isn't necessarily the only way to engage with the very real and very pressing concerns about sustainability, inclusion/inequality and innovation that face us. Robert MacIntosh
Nice article. And I agree with the comment posted by Robert MacIntosh. It's an issue of re-balancing mission focus and associated measurement and reward systems.
An insightful and in-depth account of how we have wronged our field, where relevance to practice , which must be the essential frontier and criteria for rigor, has been replaced by and reduced to the reductionism of publication elitism in a top down manner of detachment.
I would buy the usual critical management rant if there was something practical that was being proposed, particularly given that the culture and incentives are very much driven by the deans. So rather than rant, I would recommend doing something given the position of power the author has as a dean and then coming back with solutions that others could follow.
"Could there be a better place to look for real social impact than where academic research meets one of the most urgent global challenges?" Yes, there are in fact many better places to look for this. Anywhere from student admissions to teaching, from outreach to consulting, from where and how data are gathered to reports to funding bodies. Almost anywhere is a better place than in an academic conference really. It is also somewhat tiring to see top-tier American journals being criticised by people who do not publish in them!
Carl’s statement, “The real barrier to business school societal impact is the research culture we developed, especially over the last 20 years or so” points directly to the heart of the matter and speaks precisely to the need for cultural and systemic change. The drive to publish in a top-tier academic journal is a reality that many in academia can’t escape, primarily because performance success is rooted in that very achievement. And while research helps create new knowledge, it doesn’t always serve the greater good by purposefully creating a positive impact on society. One way that AACSB is catalyzing change is through our 2020 business accreditation standards. As a consultative, peer-reviewed process, earning AACSB accreditation requires business school leaders to hold each other accountable for committing to innovation and creating a positive impact on society—including through scholarly contributions, curriculum, and community involvement, which are all defined by the institution’s mission and the markets they serve. AACSB accredits over 950 business schools across more than 50 countries and territories. All of these schools have made long-term commitments to innovation in business education, and this collective effort is making an impact. Although systemic change is not easily achieved, transforming business education for positive societal impact is our vision. There is still much work to be done, and our efforts to redefine academic research are a cornerstone to achieving this vision. Our path forward must include constructive criticism, a collective dedication to identifying opportunities for change, and accountability. While AACSB can effect some institutional change through the expectations of our business accreditation standards, true change will stem from a redesign of higher education’s incentive structures. If rankings continue to heavily weigh top-tier journal publishing, realizing this change will be extremely difficult. I, too, challenge my colleagues in higher education to continue to reimagine how research can better serve society’s core issues. Creating a positive impact on society through research is a responsibility we all bear.
"On the current trajectory, the end game is that we are only relevant to ourselves." spoken by a true academic. A practical way to resolve this is to start by massively limiting the number of research papers that can be written (let alone published) by individuals ( say 2 per year) and institutions (say 10 per thousand students,per year.) This reduced number should then be reviewed by local "citizen Juries) and the winners published by the University and the local press. Too much of the public sector lives in its own ivory tower contemplating its navel and promoting its self interest.
Anyone who has spent time in academia knows this. Those who want to get stuff done, for the most part then either choose not to enter, or to leave after a time. The academic processes of promotion and reputation building then act as a sorting mechanism. After a while, who do you think is left in academia?
Presumably, as a Dean, the author is leading the way, by scrapping journal ranking-based appointment and promotion criteria in his own school?
Commitmments eh? anyone can make any commitments to whatever. What is average tenure of a business school dean? Do accreditation bodies withdraw accreditations for lack of delivering on committments? Is this publicised? is this on their websites? or is it that institutions can maintain accreditation by simply making even more commitments and paying the fees?
The commitments by universities, schools and deans, the accreditations by the certification industry, the rankings and awards by this rag and others are mostly nothing but window dressing for PR purposes, as well as tick-boxing and "bluewashing" similar to the CSR commitments and reports made by large corporations. It is all - or most of it is - claptrap at the highest order with no or little positive "impact" on the ground (for students, staff or society at large). On the contrary, most of this only increases the administrative burden and fuels a growing bureaucracy draining away precious resources from teaching and research, the core purpose of a university. These kind of "bullshit" activities are all part of a marketized HE system where education is nothing, but a tradeable commodity and research seen as just another income stream (e.g., grant capture). Individual tools or measures may change but the culture will not, as long as the commercial imperative holds sway over universities offering a product for individual gain (for student and staff careers alike) and not providing a public service for the common good and a higher purpose. You may call the above a rant if you wish. I am just fed-up with the vacuous strategy blabber emanating from management, consultants, government and accreditation bodies alike. I know they all must justify to themselves and others their “bullshit jobs” (courtesy of the late David Graeber) but the emperor has no clothes mostly.