It was common practice for former provost JoAnne Epps to visit different suites while Temple University men’s basketball played at the Liacouras Center, and the Owls’ game against the University of Memphis on Jan. 13, 2018 — which they lost — was no different.
Epps made her way to a suite with administrators from the Fox School of Business, which days earlier received the top spot in U.S. News & World Report’s national rankings for online master’s of business administration programs. When she arrived, however, former dean Moshe Porat told her about a clerical error in the data Fox submitted for the rankings.
It was not a clerical error.
Since at least 2014, Fox administrators intentionally misreported data to rankings surveys, like U.S. News & World Report, to improve the appearance and prestige of its graduate programs. Fox touted its top rankings to donors and alumni even though they were undeserved, using them as a fundraising tool and marketing tactic to attract students.
And for a time, it worked. Enrollment in Fox’s MBA programs skyrocketed from 576 students in the Fall 2014 semester to more than 1,300 in Spring 2018. The school is estimated to have made $40 million in tuition because of the falsified rankings data.
But since the conspiracy unraveled, Fox has acutely felt the consequences of its actions. Fox’s online MBA program was tied for 105th in the nation in 2021, solidifying the school’s fall from grace.
Fox’s MBA enrollment also fell, although the business school had more than 1,100 MBA students during Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 after the scandal was revealed.
Enrollment in Fox’s MBA programs dwindled to 728 students during the Spring 2021 semester, a 44 percent decrease from Spring 2018. The university partially attributes the decline to factors beyond the rankings scandal, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due to the financial burden of the pandemic, less and less companies are able to find room within their budgets to fund employees’ MBAs,” wrote Stephen Orbanek, a university spokesperson. “International visa restrictions imposed at the federal level have also had a severe impact, especially over the last two years, on higher education nationwide.”
Enrollment in Fox’s online MBA program fell from 566 students in Spring 2018 to 320 students in Spring 2021, while the part-time MBA program’s enrollment fell from 436 students in Fall 2019 to 341 students in Spring 2021, according to data obtained by The Temple News.
Besides the lost tuition revenue, Temple paid $700,000 to the U.S. Department of Education to settle claims for the falsified submissions, which prevented the university from having to admit liability or wrongdoing.
On Nov. 29, a 12-person jury found Porat guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy for his role leading the scheme to falsify Fox’s rankings submissions, marking the conclusion of a 14-day trial at the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse on Market Street near 6th.
Porat was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison with three years probation and must complete 300 hours of community service upon his release. He must also pay a $250,000 fine and a $200 special assessment fine immediately.
Marjorie O’Neill, Fox’s former senior director of graduate enrollment, and Isaac Gottlieb, a former statistical science professor, were also indicted for their involvement in the conspiracy, and pled guilty on May 25 and June 3, respectively. Gottlieb did not need to testify because of his plea agreement, and the prosecution did not call O’Neill to the witness stand.
Assistant United States attorneys Mark Dubnoff and Nancy Potts led the prosecution during Porat’s trial. They called 13 witnesses, including Epps, two former Fox graduate students and seven current and former Fox administrators.
Troutman Pepper partners Michael Schwartz and Richard Zack led the defense, calling 10 character witnesses, including Larry Kaiser, former dean of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, Arvind Phatak, former Fox professor and many of Porat’s friends and colleagues.
Porat was appointed Fox’s dean in 1996 and quickly became obsessed with rankings, especially U.S. News & World Report, Fox administrators testified. He formed the school’s Rankings Committee in the early 2000s to submit information to rankings publications, review rankings surveys and assess the metrics used in rankings surveys.
Porat changed the committee’s name to the Strategic Communication Group in the fall of 2009 because he thought it was inappropriate to have a group explicitly called the Rankings Committee. The group continued its same functions even after the name change, testified Diana Breslin-Knudsen, a former vice dean at Fox, who chaired the group in 2010.
Gottlieb, who was hired by Fox 2009, began working with the Strategic Communication Group, garnering a reputation for the regression analyses he ran to determine the most important data for the rankings surveys. His Fox colleagues gave him nicknames including “the secret weapon.”
As early as 2010, Fox administrators intentionally misreported statistics to achieve higher rankings for their MBA programs. At the time, Fox did not have enough students in its executive MBA program to be ranked in the Financial Times, so administrators combined the number of executive MBA students at Main Campus and Temple Japan to qualify, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Christine Kiely, the vice dean of graduate and international programs and admissions at Fox, attempted to refuse reporting that inaccurate data to the Financial Times. In response, Porat grew hostile and questioned if Kiely should continue working at Fox, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Fox hired O’Neill in 2010. She met with representatives from U.S. News & World Report in 2013, where she learned U.S. News & World Report did not independently verify the accuracy of rankings submissions. Soon after, Porat appointed her to primarily oversee rankings, and the Strategic Communication Group was disbanded.
In 2013, U.S. News & World Report ranked Fox’s online MBA program as 28th in the nation. Just one year later, the school jumped to the top spot, which it held until 2018.
How? Fox combined data from its part-time, executive and online MBA programs and inflated statistics about the number of students who submitted test scores in their applications. U.S. News & World Report penalizes schools with less than 75 percent of applicants submitting test scores, so Fox reported that 100 percent provided scores, even though only 19.6 percent did in 2018.
“It was a very intense environment with the rankings,” Breslin-Knudsen said, in her testimony.
As Fox climbed the rankings, so did enrollment in Fox’s MBA programs. In Fall 2014, 576 students enrolled in Fox’s MBA programs. By Spring 2017, enrollment surpassed 1,000 and peaked in Spring 2018 with more than 1,300 students, according to data obtained by The Temple News.
Porat was the only person who reviewed O’Neill’s final rankings submissions, but other administrators had access to the shared server where the data was stored, Breslin-Knudsen testified.
In September 2017, Darin Kapanjie, former managing director of online and digital learning at Fox and the academic director of the MBA program, and Will Rieth, former senior director of graduate enrollment at Fox, raised concerns about the test score data submitted for Fox’s online MBA rankings, four months before U.S. News & World Report published its 2018 online MBA rankings.
Despite this, Fox submitted the incorrect data to U.S. News & World Report. In January 2018, U.S. News & World Report ranked Fox’s online MBA program No. 1 for the fifth year in a row.
A SCHEME UNRAVELS
John Byrne, a journalist who testified in Porat’s trial on Nov. 10, 2021, voiced concerns about Fox’s No. 1 ranking in an article published in Poets & Quants, an online publication for graduate business education news, on Jan. 8, 2018. He questioned the number of new students who submitted graduate test scores during the admissions process.
On Jan. 9, 2018, Fox planned to host a luncheon for online MBA students, including a champagne toast at 1 p.m. to celebrate Fox’s online MBA No. 1 ranking.
Two hours before the toast, Tom Kegelman, Fox’s former assistant dean of marketing, communications and graduate admissions, alerted a group of administrators at a Fox’s dean’s meeting – a weekly meeting for Fox’s senior administrators – to Byrne’s article. At the meeting, many Fox administrators learned about the misreported rankings data.
Multiple administrators argued it was inappropriate to hold the impending toast because the rankings submissions were inaccurate, jeopardizing the ranking itself.
“I was sick to my stomach, because there were definitely some major questions over the results of the survey,” Breslin-Knudsen testified.
Despite their resistance, Porat went through with the toast believing, even with accurate data, Fox would retain its top ranking, or at worst fall to second place.
“I was not raising a glass,” said Aubrey Kent, a senior associate dean at Fox, about the champagne toast. “I was not partaking.”
After the luncheon, Porat bumped into Rieth in the men’s bathroom and told him to “keep a lid” on the misreported data, Rieth testified.
Later that day, Porat approved an email to recruiters touting the No. 1 ranking.
While walking to the Temple University SEPTA station around 4:30 p.m., Breslin-Knudsen asked O’Neill how she reported the erroneous data to U.S. News & World Report. O’Neill said Porat instructed her to indicate all of Fox’s new online MBA students submitted test scores, Breslin-Knudsen testified.
At a meeting on Jan. 10, 2018, Fox administrators pushed Porat to self-report the error to U.S. News & World Report. Porat initially did not want to, but relented and directed O’Neill to call the publication on Jan. 11, 2018.
Gottlieb emailed Porat and O’Neill on Jan. 13, 2018, the same day as the Temple-Memphis basketball game, explaining that Fox’s ranking would drop to sixth in the rankings if Fox reported the accurate number of test-takers.
Temple published a press release on Jan. 18, 2018, announcing Fox’s rankings error. Fox had not released its own press release about the incident at that time.
On Jan. 22, 2018 – just one day after his 71st birthday – Porat sent an email to Fox’s donors and potential donors, again touting the online MBA program’s No. 1 ranking even though he knew the ranking was merely a result of erroneous data.
U.S. News & World Report unranked Fox’s online MBA program on Jan. 24, 2018. The next day, former University President Richard Englert and Epps met with Porat to discuss investigating Fox’s misreported rankings data.
Porat told Englert and Epps to stop digging, Epps testified. However, the university hired Jones Day, an international law firm, several days later to independently investigate the rankings data misreported to U.S. News & World Report.
Kyle Smith, a former Temple online MBA student, filed a lawsuit for himself and other Fox students against the university for fraudulent and deceptive practices on Feb. 12, 2018, the Penn Record reported.
Eight Fox administrators, including Porat, Breslin-Knudsen and Kent, flew to Hawaii in April 2018 to attend a business school accreditation conference.
Porat used the conference to promote his new book about effectively running a business school – where he once again touted the school’s top rankings, despite knowing they were inaccurate – while the Jones Day investigation was ongoing, Breslin-Knudsen testified.
THE LIES UNCOVERED
From February to June 2018, seven lawyers from Jones Day interviewed 17 people from Fox and reviewed 32,000 documents for information about the misreported rankings data, testified Ted Chung, chair of Jones Day’s investigations and white collar defense practice, on Nov. 19, 2021.
Jones Day’s lawyers concluded, at Porat’s direction, Fox administrators knowingly misreported data to U.S. News & World Report, according to the Jones Day report.
“The Dean’s focus on rankings, coupled with his personal management style, caused Fox personnel who interacted with the Dean on ranking-related matters to feel pressure to perform in this regard,” Jones Day’s lawyers wrote in the report.
Jones Day’s lawyers also found Fox administrators misreported data concerning graduate students’ undergraduate GPAs, average graduate student debt and number of admission offers extended to graduate applicants, according to the report.
After Temple released the report’s findings on July 9, 2018, Englert and Epps asked Porat to resign as Fox’s dean. When he refused, the university removed Porat from his position.
Brian Kelly, the editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, wrote a letter to Englert on July 10, 2018, asking Temple to review the rankings survey data for other schools and programs.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office opened an investigation into Fox’s rankings scandal on July 13, 2018, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Temple settled with the attorney general’s office in December 2019. Under the settlement, the university was not required to admit wrongdoing if it created a scholarship for five graduate business students, maintained an internal office to review rankings data and agreed to retain an auditor for rankings data through 2020-21, among other terms, according to the settlement document.
In light of the scandal, Temple revamped its methods of verifying information, including creating the Data Verification Unit, part of the university’s Ethics and Compliance Office, and Fox’s analytics and accreditation team in 2018.
In May 2019, Porat sued Temple for $25 million for damages to his health and reputation after the scandal.
As he appeared before the court minutes before his sentencing on March 11, Porat asked for mercy and leniency, pointing to his age, health issues and status as his wife’s caregiver in hopes of easing his sentence.
But this only left U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert disappointed that Porat failed to take responsibility for his role in the scheme after all this time.
“He blames everyone but himself,” Pappert said during the sentencing proceedings.
Fallon Roth, Lawrence Ukenye, Monica Constable and Jocelyn Hockaday contributed reporting.