When Ira Solomon became the new dean of Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business in July of 2011, he arrived with a desire to create a school that would provide students with not only business skills but also a set of values to guide ethical behavior.
Little more than a year into the job, however, Solomon was confronted with a thorny ethical issue of his own. In the fall of 2012, the school’s admissions team had disturbing news to report. The latest GMAT scores for the entering class and the number of MBA applications to its MBA program were shockingly low. So low, in fact, that the latest numbers bore no relationship to the school’s previously reported stats.
The irony of the situation could not have been lost on Solomon, a former auditor for KPMG and an accounting expert. For nearly three decades, he taught accounting at the University of Illinois and had been the department chair. Now, the dean who talked about the importance of ethics was hearing that someone had apparently cooked the admissions books, reporting false data to U.S. News & World Report so that Freeman would look better in the magazine’s annual rankings of the nation’s best MBA programs.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God,’” recalls Solomon, whose broad shoulders make him look more like a linebacker for a football team than an accountant. “We did a little bit of legwork to verify that the situation was as it appeared. And within the next 24 hours I was on the phone with the provost and university legal counsel. They took over at that point, as they should.”
AN INDEPENDENT LAW FIRM WAS BROUGHT IN TO INVESTIGATE
What Solomon ultimately discovered would shake the school to its very core. After a lengthy investigation by law firm Jones Day, Solomon found out that the school had inflated its reported GMAT scores by an average of 35 points for the past five consecutive years. It also had claimed to have 116 more applicants per year than it actually had to make itself appear more selective.
The investigation determined that “a single business school employee” was responsible for the mess. Solomon has never publicly called out the person but has said in a statement “the individual is no longer at the school.” The school’s director of admissions for the five-year period for which false data was reported had been Bill Sandefer, who left the school in 2012 to become the senior director of graduate admissions at UC-Davis’ Graduate School of Management. (UC-Davis recently confirmed that Sandefer is no longer an employee.)
The falsified numbers, consistently reported to U.S. for its annual ranking of the best business schools, helped to push Freeman into the top 50 best MBA programs in the U.S. with a rank of 43rd last year. When Solomon informed U.S. News of the fraud, the magazine immediately tossed the school from its rankings. Based on accurately reported data this year, the Freeman School plummeted 24 spots to a rank of 67th.
THE SCANDAL HAS DEALT A DEVASTATING BLOW TO THE SCHOOL
The rankings tumble along with the ripple effect of all the bad news has exacted a terrible blow on the school. Freeman’s acceptance rate ballooned to 82.9%, up from the reported 56.7% number last year. GMAT scores also have obviously taken a hit — dropping from 670 to an average of 629. And only 54.9% of students had job offers at commencement this year, down from a reported 78.8% last year.
Solomon, however, says the incident only slightly diminished the school’s pool of MBA applicants. “Interestingly enough, our applicant pool has only been modestly lower than what the actual applicant pool had been,” he says. “Notice my words there because they were very carefully chosen … we have seen a decline of what was the actual applicant size in the last few years, but it’s not major.”
With the worst of the scandal behind him, Solomon is now focused on restoring the school’s reputation and credibility—especially in light of his own early vision of the school based on teaching values and ethics. He’s brought in several new members of the leadership team, including a veteran admissions director in Patrick Foran, the former director of Manchester Business School’s outpost in Miami after a seven-year stint as MBA admissions director for the University of Florida.
To assume the role of associate dean for graduate programs, Solomon also lured a former colleague from the University of Illinois, John Clarke, who had been an assistant dean and the executive director of the university’s Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Together, Solomon says, they hope to substantially improve the school’s one-on-one relationship with students.