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Iona admits ex-official misreported data to outside entities

Disingenuous Data
November 9, 2011

Iona College acknowledged Tuesday that its former provost had, for nearly a decade, manipulated and misreported student-related data to government officials, accrediting bodies, bond rating agencies, and others.

As the new president of the New York Roman Catholic college described the steps it had taken to prevent such individual unethical behavior in the future, some observers in higher education said they believed the case indicated the existence of a larger problem.

"I do think there probably is a pattern" in the case at Iona and other recent incidents involving law schools at the University of Illinois and Villanova University, Clemson University's reporting to U.S. News and World Report, and even the grade-changing scandal in the Atlanta public schools, said Jane Robbins, senior lecturer in innovation, entrepreneurship, and institutional leadership at the University of Arizona.

While making clear that she did not in any way excuse the "egregious" individual behavior on display at Iona, Robbins said the situation reflects the intense pressure and "perverse incentives" in an "intensely competitive system" in which colleges are often deemed worthy or excellent based on standardized test scores and the giving rates of their alumni.

"It's the kind of thing that if everybody was audited, we might see a lot more of it," said Robbins.

Iona officials sought no refuge in an "everybody does it" argument. In an interview Tuesday, Joseph E. Nyre (photo, above left), who became the Roman Catholic college's president on July 1 and heard within weeks from employees at the college who suspected problems with institutionally provided data, attributed the wrongdoing there to "the actions of a person that, because we didn't have a proper system of verification, were allowed go to undetected."

The person in question was Warren Rosenberg, a 30-year veteran of Iona who was provost from 2001 to mid-2011 and interim president for nearly a year in 2003-4. He was suspended in late August after a specially called board meeting in which Nyre, a psychologist and former president and CEO of the Hope Institute for Children and Families, announced that a preliminary review by an outside law firm had found enough evidence of manipulated data to warrant a full-blown outside inquiry by that firm and an auditor.

In the report from that investigation Tuesday, Nyre and Iona's board chairman said the review had found a "consistent pattern of overstating student data" for a decade, beginning in 2002. The statistics covered a wide array of key institutional data points related to students, including admissions results (acceptance and yield rates), SAT scores, faculty-student ratio, retention and graduation rates, and alumni giving rates.

The extent of the exaggerations varied by category, with the most severe misrepresentations occurring in categories focused on by U.S. News and other rankings. As seen in the table below, Iona reported on average that twice as many alumni made donations as actually did; overstated its students' SAT scores by roughly 15 percent a year and its four-year graduation rate by 20 percent; and understated its student-faculty ratio by about 13 percent.

The list of entities that received flawed information from the college is long: the U.S. Education Department, two New York state agencies, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Standard & Poor's and Moody's, the College Board and ACT, Inc., the Council of Independent Colleges, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and U.S. News and its college guidebook brethren, Princeton Review, Peterson's, and Barron's.

Little Insight Into 'Why?'

The report offers relatively little in the way of explanation of how Rosenberg was able to misreport data in so many areas to so many parties for so long, and is silent on the question of why.

In an interview between emotional meetings with faculty and staff members, students, and alumni Tuesday, Nyre said that on the question of the former provost's motives, "that's really a matter of interpretation, and we don't want to be in that field." Rosenberg did not respond to e-mail messages seeking a response.

As to how it happened, Nyre described an institution where "because of the way we were structured, we lacked the appropriate checks and balances that might have prevented this." The college had an institutional research office "in name only," he said, with one part-time data clerk.

The lack of infrastructure meant that virtually all data flowed through one person, Nyre said, and that person was able to change data and then report it to those who asked for it -- including campus leaders. "The information the trustees received in board meetings was the same information we gave to the agencies," he said.

Soon after Nyre became president, he said, some staff members came forward concerned about the "methodology" the college had used to calculate some data. "By the end of July I was running data sets," Nyre said, and a month later, the initial review had led to a board meeting at which trustees approved the full inquiry and suspended Rosenberg, who has since resigned.

Iona came under intense internal and external criticism a year ago for its obfuscatory handling of embezzlement charges against its former chief financial officer. (In a quirk of timing, the former business officer was sentenced Tuesday to community service and repaying some of the $850,000 she embezzled.)

Nyre and the trustees have sought not to repeat that mistake this time around, he says. "We believe that that the character of Iona College will be measured in how we handle this matter moving forward," the president and board chair, James P. Hynes, said in their letter introducing the investigative report. "[T]he college has adopted a position of transparency and taken steps to ensure that such discrepancies cannot occur again."

Beginning in August, the college created an "integrity in reporting committee," made up of faculty members and administrators from across the campus, to review and approve all data and statements made to external sources -- "anything that leaves the campus," Nyre said. Iona has also clarified its procedures for whistleblowers, to ensure that those on campus who might report similar misbehavior in the future will be encouraged to do so.

The college also plans to establish a formal office of institutional research with a full-time director, and "increase administrative staff" to strengthen the collection and reporting of information, with "appropriate checks and balances," the report states.

Information (Request) Overload

Talk of an institution without a real office of institutional research or with a structure in which one administrator controls virtually all data will sound foreign to many a research-university official, but it's closer to the norm at many small colleges, public and private.

And with "more people demanding more data" on more subjects from colleges, and dedicating "more capacity to analyzing the data," said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, it may not be surprising that recent months have brought a seeming upturn in the number of incidents of misreported data -- much of it purposeful.

"There is so much competition -- 'We need to have larger student enrollment, to make the institution look more attractive or more selective,'" Eaton said, channeling the vulnerability that campus officials may feel about their institutions' status. "The temptation is great, but so is the scrutiny, and I think we'll have a lot more people asking, 'How did you get at those numbers?' "

Robbins, too, said she suspects that the intensified competition among colleges at a time of economic contraction and the heightened focus on outcomes for accountability purposes may spur more such incidents -- though she notes that some colleges have long excluded students admitted outside their regular admissions processes from SAT score averages, since those students typically would drag such averages down and arguably hurt the colleges' standing in the rankings. "Striving isn't a new thing, but it's certainly widespread," she said.

But is whatever upside an institution might gain by fudging numbers worth the risk? Nyre said Iona faces "a range of potential problems" as a result of its improper reporting, although the 13 agencies and entities to which it misreported data have appreciated the college's forthrightness in acknowledging the breaches and striving to fix them.

"We don’t think it’s without consequence, and we don’t want to minimize consequences," he said.

Ultimately, though, Nyre said, Iona hopes it will be judged going forward by how it deals with the scandal -- which is why he wants its officials to act forthrightly and transparently. "I've told our staff since this emerged that it's not how you respond on your best day, it's how you respond on a bad day. People won't take our measure on the number of problems we encounter, but in how we respond to it, and how we prevent them from reoccuring."

 

 

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