An ex-administrator at Temple University’s business school has agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of its former dean, who is facing federal charges tied to an alleged scheme to inflate the school’s position in national rankings.
Marjorie O’Neil — who as the school’s onetime finance manager prepared the data sent for the rankings each year — pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy charges, admitting that she aided dean Moshe Porat in falsifying the submissions that propelled the Fox School of Business to the top of the national lists.
The plea agreement requires O’Neil to testify against Porat should he take his case to trial — a decision sure to put added legal pressure on the onetime dean as he faces charges that could send him to prison for up to 25 years.
Porat was ousted from his position as a result of the fraud in 2018 and indicted last month on conspiracy and wire-fraud charges. He has denied the allegations, vowing to take his case to trial while attempting to shift blame to subordinates, including O’Neil.
But as O’Neil, 68, stood in court Tuesday fielding questions from U.S. District Judge Gerald J. Pappert, her often one-word answers put Porat at the center of the deception. Asked before by the judge how she was feeling before she began, O’Neil replied: “Just nervous.”
Prosecutors say Porat, O’Neil, and a former statistics professor, Isaac Gottlieb, managed to reverse-engineer the criteria that U.S. News & World Report used to evaluate schools for their influential annual rankings.
And with that information, O’Neil admitted Tuesday, the trio launched a campaign that rocketed Fox’s online MBA program up the list from No. 28 in 2013 to No. 1 within two years — a position it would hold for the next four.
The breakthrough in their alleged plot came in 2013 when O’Neil traveled to Washington to complain to U.S. News representatives about a ranking the school believed to be unfair.
Though the magazine refused to change Temple’s position on the list, O’Neil gleaned something potentially more valuable from the meeting: an admission from the magazine’s staff that they did not audit information schools sent them.
By the following year, O’Neil acknowledged, Fox was routinely misreporting how selective it was in admitting students to its online and part-time MBA programs, the number of incoming students who had taken an entrance exam, and how much professional experience they had before enrolling in the school’s graduate programs.
Those lies propelled Temple’s online MBA program to No. 1 on the list and helped to more than double enrollment for both the online and part-time MBA programs, generating millions in tuition payments.
When others inside the school questioned the rankings, O’Neil said, she, Porat, and Gottlieb took steps to cover it up, including lying to an outside law firm brought in to investigate the scandal.
Temple’s acknowledgment of the fraud in 2018 has drawn lawsuits from former students who argue it has devalued their degrees, cost the university hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements with state and federal monitors, and prompted a university-wide reevaluation of its rankings submissions.
As a result of her guilty plea, O’Neil could face up to five years in prison but will likely receive far less due to her cooperation.
Porat is scheduled for trial July 6.
Gottlieb, who was also charged, is expected to plead guilty to conspiracy charges on Thursday. But he has not agreed to testify against Porat, his lawyer Michael J. Engle said.