As the gravity of errors was becoming apparent in Temple University’s business school ranking scandal, then-provost JoAnne A. Epps was trying to understand how it happened.
She said she told Moshe Porat, the business school dean whom she supervised, that when she had led the law school for eight years and earned good rankings, she always wanted to make sure they were correct.
Porat’s philosophy was different, according to Epps: “I celebrate success. I don’t question it.”
“You nauseate me,” Epps said she responded.
Epps, who served as Temple’s provost until August, led off testimony Wednesday during day four of the conspiracy and fraud trial against Porat, charged with leading a scheme to cheat on college rankings submissions for financial gain and national prominence, harming students and donors who fell for the lie.
Epps said she thought highly of Porat, counted him as a friend, and knew he was about to embark on a book tour in 2018 that was supposed to be a celebration of his long and prominent career at the business school, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Fox School of Business.
“It was supposed to be a grand year,” she said.
But she said she soon became convinced he could no longer lead the school.
“I didn’t think he could be dean for one more day because I don’t think he thought this was that big of a deal,” said Epps, who at times paused, choosing her words carefully and seemingly struggling with emotion.
Also Wednesday, jurors got to hear directly from the embattled former dean when the prosecution played a series of video clips from five days of depositions taken in the civil suit he filed against Temple after the school fired him as dean. Porat, 74, at times combative and strident, repeated that the only mistake he made was approving a news release and email to go out to donors, touting the Online MBA’s No. 1 ranking by U.S. News & World Report even though he knew at that time that false information had been submitted to the magazine.
The lawyer taking the deposition asked him why he made that decision, in one communication just hours after learning of the data error.
“It slipped my mind. That’s my answer,” Porat said.
When the lawyer pressed him again, he said: “The answer is that today I think it was pretty stupid.”
Porat maintained that he thought the error was just a mistake by Marjorie O’Neill, the employee charged with assembling the rankings submission to the news magazine. O’Neill pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy charges, admitting that she aided the scheme at the direction of her former boss.
Jurors also heard from Phyllis Tutora, another Fox employee who testified that Porat was “obsessed” with rankings. She also said that when she would send numbers to O’Neill, “magically, they would change.”
Defense attorneys pointed out through cross-examination that Tutora hadn’t reported her concerns to Porat. The defense also said during cross-examination of Epps that an office within Temple, called Institutional Review and Assessment, had been charged by the former provost, Hai-Lung Dai, with conducting an independent check of rankings submissions.
Defense attorney Richard Zack produced an email from U.S. News to Temple in 2016, titled Online MBA data discrepancy. In it, a U.S. News employee was questioning the very same data point that triggered the scandal two years later. And an employee from the IRA office was copied on the email.
“The importance is marked high. Do you see that?” Zack asked Epps.
Epps also recounted for jurors how she and then-Temple president Richard M. Englert had asked Porat to resign. It came after a university-commissioned investigation by a law firm found that the business school in some cases knowingly provided false information to the news magazine.
Porat, she said, had suggested that the university move a few employees out, perhaps let them retire. He wanted O’Neill to sign a nondisclosure agreement, Epps said. It puzzled her.
“I kept saying, ‘To keep her from saying what?’” Epps testified.
Porat ultimately refused to step down, Epps testified, and was terminated in July 2018 — less than a year after Temple’s program was dropped from U.S. News’ online M.B.A. rankings.
Epps testified that Porat didn’t want the university to commission an external investigation. In a meeting with her and Englert, Porat referenced the Israeli military, Epps said.
“He said one of the things he learned is if you’re in a hole, don’t dig,” she said. “The president was certainly [saying] we are going to be digging.”
Epps also recalled that she first learned about the errors at a home Temple basketball game in Fox’s box at the Liacouras Center. There, she said, Porat described the problem as “a data entry error.” He characterized it as “no big deal,” she said. He also told her that the school’s Online MBA would slip no further than No. 2, even though prosecutors showed an email from another employee to Porat sent before that game that predicted it could fall to No. 6.
Porat in his video deposition, however, said he told Epps through a phone call and an email, not at a basketball game. Epps asserted that she was absolutely sure it was at the game because she immediately informed the president.
Epps, a Yale Law School grad, spent nine years as a trial attorney before joining Temple. A native of Cheltenham Township, she became deputy city attorney in Los Angeles in 1976 and in 1980 returned to Philadelphia to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
She has worked at Temple for more than 35 years, first as a law school professor and then law school dean for eight years. She became provost in 2016 after Dai was removed from that position.
In August, Epps was among a group of administrators moved out of their positions by new president Jason Wingard. She remains a tenured professor and serves as senior adviser to the president.
She told the jury that she’s never focused much on rankings and that she didn’t pressure her deans to do so either.
“I don’t think rankings is the thing you go after,” she said. “What you go after is running an excellent program in the hopes that it will be recognized.”