$25 Million Defamation Lawsuit in Rankings Dispute

Former dean of Temple business school, which admitted the fabrication of data for rankings, says he has been made into a scapegoat and had his reputation tarnished unfairly. University vows to fight in court.

May 6, 2019
 

One of the messiest scandals involving college rankings in recent years is now messier.

The ousted dean of Temple University's business school on Thursday filed a $25 million lawsuit against the university and its president, charging that they had defamed him in various announcements about the rankings scandal. The suit by Moshe Porat charges that the university distorted the findings of an outside investigation, incorrectly described his attitudes about rankings and honesty, and essentially threw him under the bus.

Temple -- while not going into all the details of the suit -- said it did nothing wrong. And the university indicated in a statement it might consider legal options against Porat.

"The Jones Day findings are compelling and the university continues to stand by its decision," said the statement, referring to the law firm that conducted the investigation. "Dr. Porat’s allegations are meritless. Going forward, we will carefully review his statements made public today to determine any legal remedies the university may pursue."

Months of Revelations

Both Temple and Porat agree that data manipulation was widespread.

Most of the fraudulent data sent by Temple to U.S. News & World Report concerned its online M.B.A. program, which for years was the top-ranked program in the country.

The reports of falsehoods started in January 2018, when U.S. News said that Temple's online M.B.A. program was being stripped of its rankings because it had reported that 100 percent of its online M.B.A. students had submitted standardized test scores, when in reality only 20 percent had done so. Score averages count for less in the U.S. News methodology when fewer than 75 percent of students have taken standardized tests.

Then the website Poets & Quants noted that Temple had claimed 100 percent test taking for its online students for four years -- and had been the top-rated online M.B.A. in each of those years. Because Temple's online M.B.A. does not require standardized tests of applicants, the 100 percent figure seemed unlikely to many. Temple promised an outside investigation and hired Jones Day, a prominent law firm, to conduct one.

Much of Porat's suit concerns statements made by Temple when the Jones Day investigation was released in July. That investigation found problems not only with what the university reported on the Graduate Management Admission Test, but also on data supplied by Temple about undergraduate grade point averages of admitted applicants, the number of admissions offers, student debt and the student-faculty ratios. All of these data points make up parts of the U.S. News methodology.

The report by Jones Day placed much of the blame on an unidentified employee charged with preparing rankings material. That employee, the Jones Day report said, "knowingly misreported data" and "allegedly did so at the dean’s direction in the presence of another employee. The dean and the other employee deny that such direction was given."

Temple's statements pointed more directly to Porat as responsible for the environment at the business school with regard to rankings, regardless of whether he directed the deception.

"It was the dean’s initiative to disband a long-standing committee charged with ensuring the accuracy of rankings data," said a campuswide email sent by Richard M. Englert, the president. "This absence of checks and balances, together with an undue focus on rankings, enabled such misreporting. While we are committed to determining the nature and extent of possible incorrect data reporting regarding other academic programs at Fox [School of Business], one thing is clear: this is contrary to the fundamental value of integrity that is at the heart of our academic mission." The university announced at the time that it had asked Porat to resign. At the time, Porat did not comment on Temple's or the Jones Day investigation's characterizations of his actions.

Porat's lawsuit presents a very different take on what happened.

The lawsuit states that Porat "consistently emphasized the need for data submissions to be completely accurate." But despite this, the lawsuit says, Temple "hastily made Dr. Porat the fall guy" in "attempting to manage the public relations disaster of the university's rankings scandal."

The lawsuit states that Porat informed U.S. News and university officials as soon as he learned of incorrect data having been submitted. His lawsuit also says that he restructured the "oversight process" at the business school for submitting rankings data. The suit says that Porat repeatedly instructed others at the business school to be sure that rankings data were honest. The lawsuit quotes from a 2015 email he sent after reading press coverage of other universities found to have inflated statistics to improve their rankings.

"I truly hope that our data submission are 100 percent accurate and can always be supported with real internal statistics," he wrote.

While Temple's public statements on the scandal suggested that Porat pushed a rankings-focused culture, his suit argues that such a culture was encouraged by the university. The suit cites quotes from news releases and Temple Twitter feeds boasting about rankings success. And the suit says that Temple held a "rankings retreat" to gather top officials from various divisions of the university to discuss how to improve in various rankings.

As to the Jones Day report, the lawsuit charges that parts of it that backed Porat were not released to the public or used to form Temple's decisions or its public statements. As a result, the suit said, Porat has become a scapegoat and had his career damaged. And Englert, Temple's president, is accused of malice for allegedly ignoring evidence that would have placed blame for the rankings scandal on people other than Porat.

The suit seeks $25 million in compensatory damages and additional (unspecified) punitive damages.

Temple has already paid a price for the rankings scandal -- it was stripped of the U.S. News ranking for its online M.B.A. and was the subject of much negative attention in the press.

In January, the university settled class action lawsuits from students who were outraged to learn that the business school's top ranking for its online program was based on false data. Under the settlement, the university will pay $4 million to those who are or were students in the online M.B.A. program and another $1,475,000 to settle claims of students in other M.B.A. programs, several other master's programs and one online bachelor's program in the business school.

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