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Ex-Temple employees sentenced to probation for fraud tied to business school rankings

“It is important for other institutions to realize that this chase for rankings is not worth it,” U.S. District Judge Gerald A. Pappert said. “There are lines you can’t cross."

The exterior of the Fox School of Business Alter Hall at Temple University in Philadelphia.
The exterior of the Fox School of Business Alter Hall at Temple University in Philadelphia.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

A former administrator and a retired statistics professor at Temple University were sentenced to probation this week for assisting the former dean of its business school in a scheme to inflate its position in national rankings publications.

But standing before a federal judge in Philadelphia, Marjorie O’Neill, a onetime finance manager at the Fox School of Business, and Isaac Gottlieb, who was a tenured professor, struck vastly different tones when it came to accepting responsibility for a scandal that has since cost the university millions in legal settlements.

O’Neill admitted last year that she, under the direction of former dean Moshe Porat, had falsified data on students at the school to help propel it to the top of influential lists like U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of top business school programs. She told U.S. District Judge Gerald A Pappert during a hearing Thursday that she was “thoroughly ashamed.”

“To this day, I still question myself why I had participated in this scheme and wish I had never acquiesced to multiple pressures,” she said.

Meanwhile, Gottlieb — who helped Fox cheat more effectively by reverse engineering the criteria by which U.S. News ranked schools — showed flashes of defiance at his sentencing hearing Wednesday.

“Every single university in the United States has people doing the same exact operations,” he said.

Those varying levels of contrition exemplified both the seriousness of the fraud they’d committed and the mindset among rankings-obsessed U.S. universities that drove the Fox administrators to cheat, Pappert said.

“It is important for other institutions to realize that this chase for rankings is not worth it,” the judge said Thursday. “There are lines you can’t cross. It’s important for people to see there are going to be criminal consequences and penalties for doing that.”

Porat was sentenced to 14 months in prison earlier this year — becoming the first university administrator ever convicted of fraud in connection with misrepresenting rankings data.

O’Neill, 69, who agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of her former boss, fared far better. She received one year of probation and was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine. Gottlieb, 73, was ordered to serve six months of house arrest, three years’ probation and pay a $100,000 penalty.

Pappert distinguished their cases by noting that O’Neill risked losing her job if she defied Porat’s demands. Gottlieb, as a tenured professor, had job protection that should have made it easier to push back.

Lists like U.S. News and World Reports’ are the subject of fierce competition among universities as top spots can attract nationwide interest from potential students and millions in tuition dollars. And since Porat’s trial last year, at least three other schools including Rutgers University, Columbia University, and the University of Southern California have found themselves facing similar accusations from whistleblowers.

In Porat’s case, government witnesses — many of them former Fox employees — described him as a rankings-obsessed micromanager and a bully of a boss, pressuring his staff to do whatever it took to ensure Fox reached the top of the list and stayed there.

He, O’Neill, and Gottlieb began routinely misreporting everything from the selectivity of admissions to Fox’s online and part-time MBA programs, the GPAs of incoming students, the number who had taken graduate entrance exams and the average amount of debt they incurred after enrollment.

Their lies 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. And the distinction helped double enrollment for both the online and part-time MBA programs, generating millions in tuition payments.

Since Temple acknowledged the fraud and ousted Porat as dean in 2018, the university has been sued by dozens of former students who said they relied on those rankings in choosing to enroll in Fox and were defrauded out of the money they spent on what they’d been led to believe was the best business school program in the country.

“This was a crime that really hurt people,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark B. Dubnoff said during Gottlieb’s sentencing Wednesday. “There are people who spent fortunes — at least to them — who indebted themselves as a result of the crimes of Dr. Gottlieb and his coconspirators.”