Examining the Ethical Issues
I have previously blogged about doctored program information submitted by four prominent universities—Rutgers University, Temple University, Claremont McKenna College, and Iona College. The goal was to make their programs look better to university rating outlets such as U.S. News & World Report. Now, along comes a recent disclosure of such practices by the University of Southern California (USC).
By way of review, a lawsuit filed in April 2022 charged that Rutgers Business School sought to improve its rankings by creating bogus temporary jobs for graduating MBA students. Rutgers University's business school has been accused of placing its graduates in "sham" positions to inflate employability statistics it submits to organizations for ranking.
The lawsuit — filed earlier this month by the human resources manager at Rutgers' business school — alleges that the school spent at least $400,000 placing seven graduates into "sham" positions between 2018 and 2019.
Another suit, filed by the same firm on behalf of students, claims that Rutgers submitted “false and misleading employability statistics” to rankings organizations such as the U.S. News & World Report.
Temple University intentionally submitted doctored data to US News & World Report for its online MBA program and five other programs to raise their ranking between 2014 and 2018. The university gave false information about standardized testing, student debt, grade point averages of admitted students, student-faculty ratios and more. In November 2021, a former dean of Temple University’s business school was found guilty of using fraudulent data boost the school’s national rankings and increase revenue, federal prosecutors said.
Claremont McKenna College, a small, prestigious California school, admitted in 2012 that it had submitted false SAT scores for years to publications such as U.S. News & World Report. Claremont McKenna College’s former Vice President for Admission and Financial Aid engaged in false reporting practices that went beyond inflating SAT numbers, misrepresenting statistics on ACT scores, class ranking and application numbers, according to a report published by O’Melveny & Meyers LLP. In 2011, for example, CMC reported that 85 percent of entering students whose applications included their ranks had graduated in the top tenth of their classes. O’Melveny & Meyers calculated that the correct statistic was 71 percent.
In 2011, it was reported that Iona College in New Rochelle, north of New York City, acknowledged that its employees had lied for years not only about test scores, but also about graduation rates, retention, student-faculty ratio, acceptance rates and alumni giving. Iona’s former provost had, for a decade, manipulated and misreported student-related data to government officials, accrediting bodies, bond rating agencies, and others.
The former dean of USC education school directed administrators to omit information from its U.S. News & World Report rankings submission to boost the school’s placement at least as far back as 2013, according to an investigation released two weeks ago by the university. USC said it was pulling the Rossier School of Education from consideration in the U.S. News & World Report graduate-school rankings, to investigate. The school had intentionally misreported information to U.S. News & World Report about the selectivity of its doctoral programs.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the school only included information on its Ph.D. program, which has a lower acceptance rate than its Ed.D. programs. The school did so despite explicit instructions in the questionnaire to include both Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs beginning in 2018, the report said. Apparently, the school knew it would get a higher ranking by omitting Ed.D. program data including average grade-point averages, acceptance rates and standardized test scores, according to the report.
Ethical issues are about intent. If the intent of the universities mentioned in this blog were to gain a competitive advantage over other institutions by falsifying data to make them look better to incoming students, then they have acted unethically.
The primary ethical issues are honesty, integrity, and accountability. Accountability is established through outside investigations and legal action. Honesty means students need to receive truthful information to make an informed decision regarding which universities to apply to. This means not only providing truthful information but, also, not knowingly omitting information that makes the institution look bad, which is a lie by omission.
These universities have compromised their integrity by reporting false data. Integrity means to be principled and have the courage of your convictions. It means doing the right thing even when it is difficult to do or sheds a negative light on a decision. C.S. Lewis famously said:
“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching”
Ethical theories should be considered in making decisions. The Rights Theory is most appropriate regarding doctored information. Students have an ethical right to receive truthful information and universities have ethical obligations to provide such information. Clearly, the institutions did not follow this theory of ethical decision making.
The theory they did follow is utilitarianism, which in one form says, “the ends justify the means.” If this were true, then decisions could be made based on self-interests and not regarding how others are affected by them, and anything can be rationalized as the ethical thing to do.
Don’t’ get me wrong, utilitarianism has a place in ethical decision making when a cost-benefit analysis is used, but it still should be evaluated in comparison to The Rights Theory.
Having taught in colleges and universities for forty years, I, too, have come across instances where data had been falsified to achieve a higher ranking in one publication or another. The most common example is lying about job placement rates, a key statistic to students who might apply to the institution for a B.S. or master’s degree. Who wouldn’t want to go to a university where their chances of getting a job are greater than other universities? I have also found that sometimes universities do not accurately report survey results of graduates about their post-graduation job and/or satisfaction with the degree program from which they graduated.
One way to ameliorate the problem with falsified data is to have the accreditation organizations, like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), to examine the data in detail during their accreditation visits. It’s less likely that a university would lie when reporting such data if they knew there was a possibility that the accrediting organization would find it and pull the accreditation that might otherwise been received.
The bottom line is pressure exists on universities to manipulate their reported program information to make them look better to the top students looking for a degree-granting institution with a high reputation. Unfortunately, what they may find is such universities lied on its submitted information. The question then becomes what else might they lie about?
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 11, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/), and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics, and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.
Steve has written a book on being a more ethical person, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. It is available at Amazon or on his website.