Moshe Porat, former dean of Temple University’s Fox Business School, called the gross overstatement of his school’s GMAT test submission rates an “innocent mistake in data entry.”
The U.S. government calls it fraud.
On the second full day of testimony in the ousted dean’s trial in federal court in Philadelphia, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Dubnoff spent the afternoon drilling down on dozens of emails, advertisements, ranking submissions and other evidence uncovered in the more than 800,000 pages of documents collected in the investigation. Most came from Temple University itself in response to multiple subpoenas, according to testimony from FBI Special Agent Brian Coughlin, who investigated the case as a member of the bureau’s Public Corruption Squad. (Coughlin now serves on the Violent Crimes Against Children Squad.)
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.
‘WE DISCOVERED OUR MISTAKE AND INFORMED U.S. NEWS THE NEXT DAY’
The “innocent mistake in data entry” cost Temple University at least $17 million in remediation costs from lawsuits and fines along with the inestimable cost to its reputation. For Porat’s part, he was fired from his job, though he still collects about $316,000 annually as a tenured professor, and he faces up to 25 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Porat’s unique turn of phrase came from an email he wrote to his boss, Temple University Provost JoAnne Epps, more than two weeks after leading a champagne toast of the disputed fourth-consecutive No. 1 finish. In the email, dated Jan. 24, 2018, Porat tried to explain why U.S. News & World Report disqualified the school from its online MBA ranking after three consecutive No. 1 finishes.
“We discovered our mistake and informed U.S. News the next day,” Porat wrote, “… However, US News decided to remove us from their rankings for the entire year. It’s very frustrating for us that an innocent mistake in data entry that we brought to their attention resulted in such a harsh penalty. We will perhaps write them a letter or maybe just move on.” (The mistake was actually pointed out by other Temple deans in a meeting on Jan. 9, 2018).
Epps told Porat not to communicate with U.S. News at all without her approval or approval from then university president Richard Englert. “As you would be the first to point out, if this issue arose at some other school, we are all affected by U.S. News and its perception of the integrity of our institution,” Epps responded.
A MOUNTAIN OF EVIDENCE
After 20 years in the FBI, Coughlin was a seasoned witness on the stand. For more than four hours, jurors listened as prosecutors walked Coughlin through often dense testimony as they introduced exhibit after exhibit into the record. That included dozens of emails between Porat and Temple staffers in what appeared to be an attempt to discredit the defense’s claim that it was former finance manager Margorie O’Neill who submitted inaccurate data to the rankings magazine. Temple itself fostered the culture of pursuing higher rankings at all costs, according to the defense’s opening statement.
Instead, Dubnoff attempted to show Moshe’s active involvement with every aspect of Fox Business School’s quest for higher rankings — from the submissions, to the celebrations to the advertising. He even came up with his own tagline: “No. 1 online nationally, No. 1 on campus regionally.”
In one such email, Isaac Gottlieb, the former statistics professor said to have “reversed engineered” the rankings and analyzed how sensitive they were to changes in certain metrics (like GMAT submissions), lamented that Temple staffers involved in rankings “don’t have the passion to push the rankings.”
He wrote to Porat in a January 2015 email: “I am not sure how we can motivate them here since it is a not-for-profit organization. Believe it or not, I was asked by a couple if they will get a bonus if the rankings improved.”
Porat seemed to like the idea of providing incentives to Temple staffers if the school’s rankings moved higher. “Good stuff, please create a matrix of the parameters and issues we want to influence and when,” responded Porat. “Marjorie has all the data. I will assign specific responsibility and bonus/demerits for results. This should be for all programs and a variety of rankings. The time is now!!!”
Gottlieb pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the case and faces five years in prison. He has so far not agreed to testify.
CROSS-EXAMINATION OF CHRISTINE KIELY
Today’s proceedings began with the defense’s cross-examination of Christine Kiely, Fox School’s vice dean of graduate and international programs and admissions. She has worked for Temple’s business school since 2008,
Co-counsel Michael A. Swartz sought to discredit Kiely’s testimony from last week that Kiely felt Porat threatened her job when she brought forward concerns about how the school was submitting data to another high-profile ranking, this one for the Financial Times. In 2010, Fox combined cohorts from its Philadelphia and Tokyo campuses in order to have enough students in its Executive MBA program to be eligible for the Times’ ranking. Kiley testified last week that she wrote Porat an email on July 10, 2010 expressing her belief that the practice violated the Times’ ranking criteria.
“I strongly believe that we are ineligible (for this ranking),” Kiely wrote in a July 10, 2010 email. “I am not comfortable with being associated with the submission.”
In fact, Swartz argued, Kiely had one-on-one conversations with several dean-level officials at Fox who either told her not to worry about combining the cohorts or that her concerns were acknowledged, but no further action was taken. In other words, Porat wasn’t unique in his pursuit of higher rankings, but it was part of the culture of Fox Business School – and of Kiley herself.
“Am I correct that you never had a conversation with Dr. Porat before sending that email?” Schwartz asked.
“That is correct,” Kiely responded.
Under questioning, Kiely conceded that she never advanced her concerns to Temple officials outside of the Fox Business School. She didn’t go to the Provost, the president, or the university board.
RANKINGS COMMITTEE ‘WASN’T SMARTEST APPROACH’
Schwartz also pointed out that in Kiely’s own assessment, Temple’s use of a rankings committee wasn’t “the smartest approach” to oversee how data is submitted to various ranking outlets. He referred the witness to her interview with Jones Day, the outside law firm hired by Temple to investigate the fraud and found numerous examples of misreported data, if not outright fraud, along with evidence of a cover-up.
According to transcripts of Kiely’s Jones Day interviews, Kiely described the rankings committee as becoming “unwieldy” as Fox participated in more surveys. Before coming to Temple, including her time at George Washington University, there was just one person in the dean’s office responsible for submitting rankings data, Kiely conceded to defense questions.
“You thought having one person in charge was ‘necessary for maintaining consistency,’” Schwartz asked Kiely.
“Yes,” she replied.
“In fact, you thought having one rankings point person such as Miss O’Neill was a fantastic idea,” Schwartz said.
The argument seems to counter the prosecution’s contention that Porat effectively closed the circle of people dealing with rankings data in order to better control its output.
PORAT FACES 25 YEARS, $500,000 FINE
Throughout the day, Porat sat quietly next to his attorneys, occasionally scribbling notes on a pad and passing them to his co-counsels. On breaks, he pushed his wife’s wheel chair in and out of the courtroom and whispered to his family sitting behind him.
His 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.
U.S. attorneys are expected to finish questioning of FBI special agent Coughlin when trial opens on Tuesday, followed by the defense’s cross. Other Temple officials, including former provost JoAnne Epps, may testify tomorrow, time permitting. Prosecutors also indicated that Marjorie O’Neill may be called to testify, but no final determination had been made.
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