In the three years since it acknowledged that its No. 1-ranked online MBA program achieved that status on the back of phony data, Temple University has paid out millions in legal settlements to former students and government monitors while implementing reforms to put that embarrassing chapter behind it.
But as the former dean at the heart of the scandal faces trial this week on federal fraud charges, the university’s Fox School of Business is bracing once again for one of its darkest moments to be pushed back into the spotlight.
As many as eight current Temple employees could be among those testifying for the prosecution in its case against Moshe Porat, once viewed before his 2018 ouster as one of the university’s most valuable administrators and a rainmaker adept at luring tuition and donor dollars. Porat maintains that he’s been unfairly scapegoated and blames the rankings misrepresentations on his former subordinates.
Prosecutors say he was the driver of the complex scheme to submit false data to the magazine U.S. News & World Report and catapult the programs he oversaw to the top of its widely respected college ranking lists. In doing so, they say, he cheated students and donors out of money they paid to what they believed to be a top-ranked program.
“Now that it’s a federal case,” said Will J. Jordan, president of Temple’s faculty union, “it’s going to get more attention in the region, if not nationally.”
If he is convicted, Porat, 74, could be headed to prison for up to 25 years on the most serious charge.
His trial — set to get underway with jury selection Tuesday and last for several weeks — is unusual in a number of respects.
National education experts say the case is perhaps the first time that a university administrator has faced criminal prosecution for misrepresentations in the high-stakes battle for college rankings dominance.
“If there is a conviction, it will put higher education administrators on notice that misreporting data can carry more than a slap on the wrist and some degree of reputational damage,” said David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
And while it’s still unclear whether Porat will testify in his own defense, jurors are expected to hear plenty from the former dean. Prosecutors intend to play more than 70 video clips from a deposition Porat sat for across five days last year in a separate defamation suit he filed against the university over his firing.
Witness lists read like a who’s who of current and former Temple administrators — including Christine Kiely, a current vice dean at Fox; JoAnne A. Epps, former provost; Darin Kapanjie, former head of the online MBA program; and Will Reith, former director of Fox’s graduate enrollment.
Porat has signaled he’d like to call Neil D. Theobald, Temple’s former president who resigned under pressure in 2016 after a controversy over a budget shortfall, to testify for his defense.
The former dean has also pushed U.S. District Judge Gerald J. Pappert, who is presiding at the trial, to allow defense testimony from one of Pappert’s judicial colleagues, Judge Joel H. Slomsky, who has been friends with Porat for more than 20 years. The highly unusual move drew objections from prosecutors at a pretrial hearing Thursday.
“Does Dr. Porat not have a 20-year relationship with anyone else?” Pappert asked.
The management style of Porat, who remains a tenured professor at Temple, earning about $300,000 a year despite his ouster as dean, is also likely to be front and center with several prosecution witnesses expected to testify that Porat was obsessed with rankings and bullied employees to achieve results.
The false data first came to light in early 2018 when Temple notified U.S. News & World Report that the data it had been submitting for years had been inaccurate. Subsequently, the news magazine removed Fox’s online MBA program from its annual evaluations.
The law firm hired by the university to investigate found that Fox in some cases “knowingly” provided false information. And the fallout has led to costly legal settlements with the U.S. Department of Education, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, and former students, who contended that their degrees have been devalued as a result of the scandal.
Later in 2018, the university agreed to pay $4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by former online MBA students.
Temple’s Online MBA program has since returned to the rankings. This year, it was tied for 100th place. Temple estimated in December that its cost of cleaning up the scandal was $17 million, and it has instituted a series of remedial measures, including establishing an internal verification unit, which oversees data submissions; making online and telephone hotlines available for whistle-blowers; hiring a third-party auditor for data submissions; and more training.
Prosecutors are expected to argue that the misrepresentations were a deliberate effort by Porat to inaccurately catapult Temple’s online MBA program into first place for four years and to capitalize on that prestigious distinction by attracting student applications and donations to the school.
“Those students paid expensive tuition to obtain what they expected would be a highly marketable MBA from a top-ranked business school, only to get degrees from a tainted program mired in scandal,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark B. Dubnoff wrote in recent court filings.
One of Porat’s former employees is expected to be key to the government’s case. Marjorie O’Neill, a former aide to Porat, who prepared the rankings submissions each year, pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy charges, admitting that she aided the scheme at the direction of her former boss.
Another charged former Temple employee — Isaac Gottlieb, who reverse-engineered the criteria U.S. News used to evaluate the annual rankings — has also pleaded guilty. But his lawyer, Michael J. Engle, said he has not agreed to testify for the government at Porat’s trial.
Both O’Neill and Gottlieb face up to five years in prison at sentencing.
The former dean’s lawyers have pushed back against the government’s assertions, arguing that Porat never told anyone to submit false information and that no matter who is to blame for the scandal, no one was actually defrauded.
Any connection between enrollment and rankings is “tenuous” at best, they maintain, and any impact on students and donors was “incidental” rather than the goal. They also contend that there’s no indication that students received less than what they paid for.
“The question in this case is whether submitting inaccurate information to U.S. News & World Report is a federal crime under the wire fraud statute,” defense lawyer Michael A. Schwartz wrote in a July 20 filing. “It is not.”
But while the lawyers continue preparing to persuade a jury, Temple is hoping to stay as far from the courtroom spotlight as possible.
The university last week declined to comment on the trial.
“Our focus remains our students,” the school said.