In January 2018, Temple University President Richard Englert, Provost JoAnne Epps, and Fox Business School Dean Moshe Porat met in the president’s conference room to discuss Fox’s online MBA ranking in U.S. News & World Report. The situation was rapidly getting out of hand. The day before, the magazine notified the B-school that it was not only taking away its No. 1 ranking, but kicking Fox out of the ranking altogether, consigning the school to “unranked” status.
As questions swirled around whether Fox’s 100% GMAT submission score was an “innocent mistake in data entry” or something more deliberate, Englert and Epps informed Porat that they were bringing in an outside firm to investigate. Porat resisted. He urged the president to form an internal audit team instead. If you look backward, Porat reportedly warned, you’re going to find more stuff.
“I remember what he said then because it’s a phrase I’d never heard before,” Epps testified today (November 17) in Porat’s federal fraud and conspiracy trial in Philadelphia.
‘ONE OF THE THINGS YOU LEARN IS IF YOU’RE IN A HOLD, DON’T DIG’
“He referenced the Israel military and he said, ‘One of the things you learn is if you’re in a hole, don’t dig,’” Epps testified.
Porat, now 74, was born in Poland and earned his undergraduate and MBA degrees from Tel Aviv University in Israel. He was ultimately fired as Fox’s dean in July 2018 as details of the rankings scandal emerged
For four days, Porat has listened from the defense table as former Temple colleagues testified on behalf of the prosecutors in his federal trial on fraud and conspiracy charges. He is accused of cheating on several U.S. News & World Report rankings and is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of wire fraud.
When she stepped off the stand this morning, Epps was perhaps the most consequential witness so far – that is until jurors heard from Porat himself. Late this afternoon, the government played a series of taped depositions from Porat’s 2020 defamation lawsuit against Temple University, often pitting witness testimony against Porat’s version of events.
‘I ABSOLUTELY THOUGHT WE SHOULD BE DIGGING’
Assistant U.S. attorney Mark Dubnoff asked Epps whether she believed the university should be digging into the rankings scandal?
“I absolutely thought we should be digging because I thought we were going to get a clean bill of health. It was never our belief at the time, or our hope, that we would find the mess that it turned out to be,” said Epps, who has worked at Temple since 1985. She became Porat’s immediate supervisor when she was appointed Temple Provost in July 2016. (She is now senior advisor to Temple’s new president, Dr. Jason Wingard).
Epps testified that she first learned about the scandal on January 13, 2018, at a Temple University basketball game against Memphis. As provost, she made it a point to stop by the university’s various private boxes at all the home games, and she ran into Porat that afternoon inside Fox’s private box. This was four days after the GMAT discrepancy became widely known around the business school.
‘IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL. WE RECALCULATED AND IT WOULD PROBABLY AFFECT THE RANKING NOT AT ALL’
“‘A data entry error’ is how I believe it was characterized,” Epps said. “He said ‘it’s not a big deal. We recalculated and it would probably affect the ranking not at all.’
How certain are you that this was the first time that Porat told you about the issue? Dubnoff asked.
“One hundred percent,” Epps responded. “I can picture where we were, that’s why I am certain.”
There are two problems in this testimony for Porat, according to government evidence.
First, Dubnoff showed an excerpt of a video deposition in which Porat testified that he first called the Provost the day after Fox contacted U.S. News about the GMAT error. That would have been a day or two before the basketball game. He also testified that he was sure he called her on the telephone and then sent an email.
Second, the government showed jurors an email that former statistics professor Isaac Gottlieb had written to Porat about five hours before the game. In the email, sent at 9:12 a.m., Gottlieb recalculated how U.S. News would have ranked the school had they provided the correct GMAT submission data, 16.47%, instead of the 100% they actually stated. “Plugging it into the model, the rank is No. 6,” Gottlieb wrote. It would later be discovered, however, that other data also was inaccurately reported to U.S. News to inflate the school’s standing. (Gottlieb has since pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in the case and faces five years in prison.)
‘IT LOOKED LIKE A FORGIVABLE MISTAKE’
“Are you sure that when he first told you about this false information that Fox had submitted to U.S. News that he just said it was a data entry error or some sort of mistake as opposed to some sort of intentional misrepresentation?” Dubnoff asked.
“Absolutely. My reaction would have been wholly different,” Epps answered.
“What would your reaction have been?”
“Crisis. And there was nothing communicated to me that suggested we were facing a crisis,” Epps stated. “What was communicated to me felt much more like the kind of thing that happens in life, which is you sometimes make a mistake transcribing figures. It looked like a forgivable mistake.”
‘IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A GRAND YEAR’
2018 was to be a banner year for Fox Business School and for Dean Porat. Fox was coming off its fourth No. 1 ranking, and Porat’s book about his business school’s rise through the rankings was going to print. He called it,Transforming A Business School: Entrepreneurial Leadership In An Era Of Disruption. He’d planned a mini tour to help promote it.
Shortly after the meeting in the president’s office, when Porat learned that there would be an external investigation, Epps received an email from Diana Breslin-Knudsen, senior vice dean at Fox (now retired). Breslin-Knudsen told Epps that Fox had found additional problems in the school’s rankings submission to U.S. News, and Fox had decided to pull itself out of other U.S. News rankings for full time, parttime and executive MBAs.
“And what were you thinking after seeing this email?” Dubnoff said.
“Ruh-Roh,” Epps answered, to chuckles in the courtroom.
She added: “I was concerned. I really was terribly sad for him. I knew that Dean Porat had really looked forward to 2018 as a culmination of all his years at Temple. It was the 100-year anniversary of Fox. It was supposed to be a grand year.
“I remember thinking that is not going to happen and feeling really sad,” she said.
PORAT SUGGESTED A NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT WITH A STAFFER: ‘TO KEEP HER FROM SAYING WHAT?’
Temple University chose an independent law firm, Jones Day, to conduct its external investigation. A week or so before the firm issued its final report in July 2018, Porat sent a memo to President Englert, Epps and Temple University lawyer Michael Gebhardt. It outlined what Porat believed should be done in response to the firm’s forthcoming findings.
“It was the beginning of the fracture in my confidence in Dean Porat as dean,” Epps testified.
Porat suggested that three people be disciplined: Dr. Raj Chandran could be reassigned, and two others who were already considering retirement could be asked to retire early or allowed to retire quietly. One of those employees who was set to retire – Marjorie O’Neill – should be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, Porat suggested – a suggestion he repeated at subsequent meetings.
“The thought was that we would send her off as long as she signed an NDA,” Epps said. “I recall saying, ‘To keep her from saying what?’” (O’Neill has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in the case, but has cooperated with prosecutors.)
‘AS MY FRIEND, I IMPLORE YOU TO GIVE ME MORE TIME’
Jones Day interviewed 17 Fox employees and reviewed more than 32,000 documents, according to past reporting by Poets&Quants. It concluded that, over the past several years, “Fox provided U.S. News with inaccurate information across multiple data metrics that are part of the publication’s OMBA rankings methodology. And while Jones Day focused on information that Fox provided to U.S. News relating to the school’s OMBA program, the investigation revealed that Fox provided U.S. News with erroneous information relating to other programs as well.”
The firm issued its report to Temple University in July, 2018, and Epps and President Englert scheduled a meeting with Porat on July 9. They gave him the choice to resign or be fired. Porat asked for time to consider his options, but the decision had been made. Porat walked out of the meeting and was ultimately fired.
Epps testified that he called her a short time later.
“As my friend, I implore you to give me more time,” Epps recalled Porat saying.
“As your friend, I wish I could, but I can’t,” she answered. “I didn’t think he could be dean for one more day because I don’t think he thought this was that big of a deal.”
“My heart ached,” Epps testified for the jurors.
‘YOU NAUSEATE ME’
She recalled a meeting from about a month earlier, when she, Porat and Englert were talking about the data errors. Epps, who had previously been dean of Temple’s Law School, said she remembers pouring over rankings surveys with her teams to make sure the data was correct. When they got a good ranking, they poured over all the data again to see what they were doing right so they could keep doing it.
“I’d convene a team to be sure and figure out how did this happen?” she testified. And she remembers what Porat said in response.
“I celebrate success,” he said. “I don’t question it.”
“And how did you respond?” Dubnoff said.
“I said, ‘You nauseate me.’”
ABOUT THAT CHAMPAGNE TOAST
Late in the afternoon, jurors heard directly from Porat himself. Dubnoff played a series of video clips from two separate depositions taken on June 23 and August 18 of 2020. In the clips, Porat’s version of events seemed to contradict testimony offered by previous witnesses or evidence introduced in the case.
In one clip, Porat said he immediately ordered O’Neill and Deborah Campbell to call U.S. News to correct the error at the January 9 dean’s meeting, as soon as it was brought to his attention. Campbell, however, testified that he didn’t make that call until later the next day when he was again confronted by Fox staffers who wanted to know what was being done.
The most striking example, however, was the champagne toast that several witnesses testified occurred on January 9, 2018, just hours after the faulty GMAT percentage was discovered.
Interviewer: On Jan. 9, after you found out the information to U.S. News was wrong, did you have a champagne toast celebrating the No. 1 rank?
“No, that was the week before,” Porat answered, explaining that they had held the celebration with the online MBA students while the news was still under embargo by U.S. News.
Interviewer: Are you saying you did not have a champagne toast on Jan. 9?
Porat: “Not on this day. We had one the week before.”
Several witnesses previously testified that they left the contentious dean’s meeting and went upstairs to toast the No. 1 ranking. Dubnoff then showed jurors an email Porat wrote to Provost Epps and President Englert inviting them to the champagne toast on January 9 at 1:15 p.m.
The interviewer returned to the toast again in the August deposition. Again, Porat denied that the toast occurred that afternoon.
“I want to comment that it’s unlikely that a champagne toast would occur after anyone on the staff knew about the information that was published.”
Why is that? the interviewer asked.
“Because it was a mistake. How can you actually celebrate something based on a mistake?”
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