In 2015, the first year that U.S. News and World Report ranked online M.B.A. programs separately, Temple University was at the top.
The school kept its first-place designation for four consecutive years, a distinction it continually trumpeted — even after its leaders learned that inaccurate data had been submitted to the magazine.
"Fox touted the OMBA program's fourth straight #1 U.S. News ranking in an email on Jan. 22, … notwithstanding that its leadership had learned more than 10 days before that the survey response included inaccurate data," according to an investigative report by the Jones Day law firm, which Temple hired to review the problem.
Now, the state Attorney General's Office is probing the matter. One accrediting agency is investigating, another is monitoring. Some students are suing, claiming the reputation of their degree has been harmed. At least one prominent business school alumnus, Raza Bokhari, is considering withdrawing a million-dollar-plus donation. And Temple has moved vigorously to put new practices in place to ensure such missteps don't recur. The school also ousted the longtime dean, Moshe Porat.
The Jones Day firm found that Fox employed a "rankings focused" strategy that contributed to the inaccurate reporting, and it's far from the first school to get caught up in the rankings craze.
Tulane University in 2012 discovered its business school for at least two years reported false data to U.S. News. That same year, George Washington University lost its ranking after the school disclosed it had misreported admissions data for a decade. Emory University and Claremont McKenna College have had problems in the last decade, too.
Closer to home, Bucknell University in 2013 discovered it had reported erroneous SAT averages, although the errors were small enough that they did not affect the school's ranking, and the school determined that it wasn't done to skew rankings, a spokesperson said. In 2011, Villanova University's law school came under scrutiny after it disclosed it had supplied falsified GPA and LSAT scores to both U.S. News and the American Bar Association for an unknown number of years before 2010.
"It keeps happening because all social institutions are creatures of incentives, and we have created really terrible incentives in terms of who does well," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "We reward institutions not on what I suspect is the desired outcome but a socially defined definition of prestige. Then we're all shocked that people gravitate toward behaviors that produce that kind of prestige.
"These rankings matter because the fundamental survival of institutions has gotten tangled up with where they stand in the pecking order."
Some studies have shown that a rise in rankings can lead to more applications.
What's even worse, Nassirian said, are colleges that change institutional practices — like broadening the applicant pool to make it appear they are more selective — just to move up in rankings.
"Ironically, everybody in higher education thinks [rankings] are of limited usefulness because much of what happens in education is not easily quantifiable," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the Washington-based American Council on Education. "But students and institutions take them seriously, and when that happens, there will be some temptation to stack the deck. The temptation is pretty strong, despite the fact that institutions that get caught are always terribly embarrassed."
At Temple, some current and former professors and the Jones Day firm described an atmosphere at Fox where improving rankings was emphasized.
"On certain occasions, Fox's reporting of inaccurate information to U.S. News was done knowingly and intentionally for the purpose of improving or maintaining Fox's standing in the relevant U.S. News rankings," the report said.
Since 2014, the school reported inaccurate data concerning the number of entrants who provided GMAT scores, the mean undergraduate GPA of entrants, the offers of admission, and student debt, the report found.
The former dean, Porat, and other Fox personnel, "made clear that improving or maintaining Fox's position in rankings was a key priority," the report said.
The report doesn't conclude whether Porat knew about the misreporting. A former business school professor said Porat indicated he didn't know at a meeting in March.
While there was an allegation that the employee responsible for rankings surveys misreported some of the data at the dean's direction and in the presence of another employee, the dean and that employee denied that that happened, according to the report.
Some were skeptical that Temple's dean knew that inaccurate data was being reported.
"Having read the Jones Day report, I am stunned that the dean would risk jeopardizing the brand and reputation of the entire Fox/Temple community by overseeing a multi-year effort to submit incorrect data to U.S. News in order to get a high U.S. News ranking for the Fox online M.B.A. program," said Eliot Ingram, CEO of Clear Admit LLC, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm for graduate students. "As Benjamin Franklin once said: 'It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad deed to lose it.'"
Others question how Fox leaders couldn't have known "had they done the slightest due diligence of how they shot up to the No. 1 slot," said Jason Brown, the lawyer representing nine of the students suing Temple. "They handsomely profited from it and didn't care about how they obtained the wings to fly so high."
In 2013, when U.S. News ranked online graduate business programs (including the online M.B.A.) together, Temple placed 28th, according to U.S. News. In 2014, it rose to ninth. And then in 2015, when online M.B.A. programs were ranked apart from other online graduate business programs, the online M.B.A. was in first place.
Bokhari, the donor, was angry that the school's president, Richard M. Englert, didn't notify him before firing Porat — a move that Bokhari vehemently opposes.
"People like us who write big checks watch this," he said. "Our goodwill is very important."
Bokhari said he spoke with Porat in recent days and described him as "shocked. He said he is assessing the situation. He feels he's been victimized. He is also reviewing his options and is very graceful. He wants Fox to do well."
Faculty are reeling from the disclosures, fearing that their school has been tainted. Some faculty had been concerned about the focus on rankings for a while.
"A lot of faculty did have the sense that that was how they were to shape their efforts, with that in mind," said Steve Newman, president of Temple's faculty union.
Others say that emphasizing rankings is far from dastardly.
"I believe if you talk to any dean at a top 100 business or law school, rankings are of critical importance to him or her," said Samuel Hodge Jr., who teaches law at Fox. "Faculty must be held accountable, and requiring excellence in the classroom and research makes us better academicians. Rankings also provide a measuring stick to gauge improvement and to maintain consistency and accountability."
Just what the short- and long-term impacts on Temple and its business school will be is unknown.
Even though Villanova — like Temple — self-reported the errors, its law school ranking plummeted 20 spots in the years after the disclosure to No. 87, though it has since climbed to 65 in the 2018 rankings.