Knowing that her staff was “downright scared” of Fox School of Business Dean Moshe Porat, Christine Kiely of Temple University instructed employees how to react to him if they ever ran into Porat in the elevator.
“Because some of them would tremble, I told them to have their elevator pitch ready,” Kiely testified in U.S. District Court on Wednesday (November 10) at the federal trial of the ousted dean, who is accused of falsifying rankings data to benefit his school. “Say, ‘Hi Dean Porat.’ Tell him your name, where you work, and have three things to talk about. Then, on the next floor, get off.”
Kiely, currently the Fox School’s vice dean of graduate and international programs and admissions, was one of three witnesses to testify on the second day of the trial of the former dean. Porat is accused of cheating on several U.S. News & World Report rankings, leading to four consecutive national No. 1 rankings for the school’s online MBA program before the scheme unraveled in January 2018. (Read more testimony and opening statements from the trial’s opening day here.)
The trial, expected to last between two to three weeks, is being conducted in Eastern District of Pennsylvania District Court in courtroom 11A in Philadelphia. Porat is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of wire fraud; he faces 25 years in prison and a $500,000 fine if convicted.
‘I TOOK THAT AS A THREAT’
The jury — 12 jurors and three alternates, including nine women and six men — listened as Kiely responded to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Dubnoff about Porat’s management style at Temple.
“He was an intimidating man, and he managed through fear and intimidation. I think most people would say that,” Kiely testified.
Kiely said that in 2010, when she was still a member of Temple’s rankings committee as the assistant dean of MBA and MS programs, she emailed Porat about concerns over how the school intended to report numbers to another prominent publication, the Financial Times, for its ranking of Executive MBA programs. Kiely testified that she felt pressure to combine the EMBA cohorts at Temple’s U.S. and Tokyo campuses so that they would show that Temple had enough EMBA students to be eligible for the ranking.
Kiely, who has worked for Temple’s business school since 2008, believed combining the cohorts would violate the Financial Times’ ranking criteria.
“I strongly believe that we are ineligible (for this ranking),” Kiely wrote in a July 29, 2010 email to Porat. “I am not comfortable with being associated with the submission.”
Kiely was soon after called to the dean’s office, she testified. When she got there, Porat had her email printed out and lying on his desk. He tapped it pointedly with his index finger as he told her: “You don’t send me something like this,” Kiely said, demonstrating the action from the witness stand.
‘IF THIS IS THE WAY YOU FEEL, MAYBE THIS ISN’T THE RIGHT PLACE FOR YOU’
“He seemed more annoyed that I wrote the letter than about the actual issue,” she said.
Then, Porat said something Kiely will never forget, calmly and matter of factly: “If this is the way you feel, maybe this isn’t the right place for you,” Kiely testified.
“I thought, it’s a darn good thing I wrote that letter, because I took that as a threat.”
After that 2010 incident, Kiely noticed that the rankings committee started spending more time on marketing and communications functions, and not long after the name of the group was changed to Strategic Communications. Her relationship with Porat remained tense but workable.
TESTIMONY: ‘RIDICULOUS’ TO REPORT 100% GMAT SUBMISSION RATE
On Jan. 9, 2018, a colleague showed Kiely a Poets&Quants story about Fox’s latest No. 1 ranking in U.S. News & World Report. The article noted that Fox claimed that 100% of its students submitted GMAT test scores, even though the school had a generous waiver policy and also accepted the GRE as an alternative to the GMAT exam.
“That made me very concerned,” Kiely testified. “We offered GMAT waivers. It was on our webpage. It was ridiculous to think that 100% of our incoming students turned in GMATs; it was an enormous red flag.”
That story was read out loud in the weekly meeting with Porat and his leadership team. While Porat thought the article sounded great, others in the room were confused about where the 100% figure came from, Kiely testified. Was it a Poets&Quants error? A mistake by U.S. News? Or had Temple misreported the number?
A CELEBRATORY TOAST FOR AN MBA RANKING ACHIEVED ONLY BY CHEATING
Despite the concerns, Porat and his other colleagues left the meeting to toast their latest first-place ranking with current online MBA students.
Dubnoff asked Kiely whether Porat seemed concerned about the 100% number, or whether he suggested calling U.S. News to report the accurate figure.
“Are you sure that Porat was not the one who said, ‘We should report the correct number now?’ Dubnoff asked.
“Very sure,” Kiely replied.
Defense cross-examination of Kiely is expected to begin when the trial resumes on Monday.
AN EXPERT WITNESS IN BUSINESS EDUCATION & RANKINGS
The prosecution’s first witness, John A. Byrne, founder of C-Change Media and editor-in-chief of Poets&Quants, was called as an expert in rankings and business education. Byrne has been a journalist for more than 40 years, covering business management and business schools for Forbes magazine, Businessweek and Fast Company. In 1988, he launched the first regularly published MBA ranking as management editor of Businessweek magazine.
After 30 years of covering business schools and the function rankings play, Byrne testified that “the trajectory of a ranking is pretty much in line with a school’s reputation,” adding that, “I don’t think you can separate rankings from reputation anymore.” He cited a study of nearly 2,000 MBA applicants that showed that rankings were a more important factor in the choice of a business school than the cost or academic focus of a program, the location of a school, or the quality of the faculty.
Business students want third-party validation that their preferred schools will be good investments, he said. For business schools, high rankings help attract more applicants; more applicants mean more, higher-quality admissions. High rankings also please alumni who would be more inclined to give donations, attract better faculty, and signal to employers that you are a good school from which to recruit.
“Rankings have become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Byrne said.
Until about 10 years ago, before its online and part-time MBA rankings began to climb in U.S. News & World Report, Temple’s Fox’s reputation was “a good, solid regional program and school, not dissimilar to the school I graduated from in New Jersey,” Byrne said. But it was not an elite school with an international or even national reputation: Its full-time, traditional MBA program scored in the 50s or 60s in U.S. News’ 2011-2014 rankings.
WHY FOX WAS AN ‘UNLIKELY’ RANKINGS WINNER
U.S. News & World Report digitally published its first rankings for online MBA programs in 2013. Temple University’s program ranked 28th out of 30. The next year, Temple moved up to ninth place and into a three-way tie for first place in 2015. The school’s part-time MBA program also jumped up 32 places to 20th in the part-time MBA ranking. In 2016, Temple’s online program enjoyed the No. 1 ranking all by itself.
On Jan. 12, 2016, Byrne wrote a Poets&Quants article titled “Temple Tops U.S. News Online MBA Ranking.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Dubnoff read the first two paragraphs for the jury in Philadelphia:
“An unlikely winner claimed the top spot in U.S. News & World Report‘s 2016 ranking of the best online MBA programs published today (Jan. 12). Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, which had been in a three-way tie for first last year, broke ahead of the pack, pushing Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business in second place and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School in third.
“For Temple, whose full-time MBA program is tied for 41st place with the University of Maryland by U.S. News, it’s a big victory–likely to give the school a bit more pricing power in the market.”
Dubnoff asked Byrne: Why did he call Fox an “unlikely winner”?
RANKINGS ARE ‘FLAWED, DISHONEST, STUPID AND SENSELESS’
“I was surprised,” Byrne responded. Schools, including Carnegie Mellon, Indiana University, and UNC at Chapel Hill, with international reputations, large endowments, and more resources for student recruitment and faculty “ranked below a school that had a regional reputation.”
It’s also rare for schools to make big, multi-point jumps into the top of a ranking in just a few years, Byrne said. That typically speaks more about the credibility of the ranking than the quality of a school’s program, he added.
On cross examination, defense co-counsel Richard Zack pointed out that in past writings and podcasts, Byrne himself had called the lists “a monster” that Byrne had helped create. Byrne, a frequent critic of rankings precisely because they are overvalued by applicants, also has written that rankings are often “flawed, dishonest, stupid, and senseless,” Zack pointed out.
Zack also noted that U.S. News is responsible for flaws in its rankings because they don’t check the data that is submitted.
Dubnoff redirected: “If these rankings are ‘senseless, flawed, statistically meaningless,’ does that mean business schools don’t care where they are ranked?”
“No,” Byrne answered.
“If these rankings are ‘senseless, flawed, statistically meaningless,’ does that mean students don’t use them?”
If rankings are “stupid, senseless, flawed and statistically meaningless,” why would schools cheat to do better in them? Dubnoff asked in closing.
“Because the consequences of rankings are too great,” Byrne answered.
More About The Temple Rankings Scandal
How It Happened: Anatomy Of A Business School Rankings Fraud
Jones Day Investigation: Temple Dean Sacked Over Ranking Scandal
MBA Rankings: Why Business Schools Are Willing To Cheat
Trial Coverage: Trial Begins For Ousted Temple Dean In Rankings Fraud Case