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Ousted Temple business dean managed through ‘fear and intimidation,’ says one administrator in first day of Moshe Porat’s fraud trial

If former dean Moshe Porat is convicted, he could be headed to prison for up to 25 years on the most serious charge. But defense attorneys said Porat has been unfairly scapegoated.

Former dean of Temple University's Fox School of Business Moshe Porat leaves the federal courthouse Wednesday, as his trial for fraud in the college rankings scandal begins.
Former dean of Temple University's Fox School of Business Moshe Porat leaves the federal courthouse Wednesday, as his trial for fraud in the college rankings scandal begins.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Temple University administrator Christine Kiely still remembers what former business school dean Moshe Porat said to her after she warned him in writing not to provide inaccurate information to a college rankings publication.

And she said she’ll never forget it.

“He looked at me and said, ‘If this is the way you feel, then maybe this isn’t the right place for you,’” Kiely said during the opening day of testimony in the conspiracy and fraud trial of the ousted dean. “... I took that as a threat.”

That was in 2010, eight years before Porat would be fired by Temple after it came to light that the business school had provided false information to U.S. News & World Report, leading to inflated rankings for years.

Kiely, currently vice dean of graduate and international programs at Temple’s Fox School of Business, said the rankings in question in 2010 were for the Financial Times and involved the executive MBA program. Fox didn’t have enough students to be ranked, so the school planned on combining cohorts from the Philadelphia campus and Temple’s Japan campus. She said the eligibility criteria clearly didn’t allow that and she refused to do it.

She told the jury that Porat managed through “fear and intimidation” and that employees would “shake” when they had to be around him. And because she was a rule follower, she said, he told her more than once that she “was more Catholic than the pope.”

Kiely was one of three witnesses called by the prosecution Wednesday, which has charged the dean with leading a scheme to cheat on college rankings submissions for financial gain and prominence, harming students and donors who fell for the lie.

Porat was “singularly focused, relentlessly focused” on rankings, Nancy Potts, assistant U.S. attorney, told the jury during her opening statement. She also said he bullied his employees to provide false information that allowed the school’s programs to soar to the top of the lists.

“This is a case about cheating for money, power, and prestige,” Potts said. “The defendant … cheated to get higher school rankings, to increase his influence, to polish his reputation and to take money, because higher school rankings are big money, very big money.”

Richard Zack, one of Porat’s defense attorneys, painted a very different picture, one where it was Temple University that was obsessed with rankings — that it even held seminars to instruct administrators on how to get higher rankings — and that it was employees who worked for Porat who provided the false data or did nothing to stop it.

Zack acknowledged that jurors may think Porat, who ran the school for more than two decades, should have lost his job. But that’s different from whether he committed a federal crime, Zack said.

“The dean is not a criminal just because he fell down on the job,” Zack said.

» READ MORE: Under a national spotlight, former Temple business dean faces fraud trial in college rankings scandal

Wearing a dark suit and tie, Porat, 74, arrived to court with his wife, who was in a wheelchair and sat behind him during the proceedings. Porat, like most others in the courtroom, wore a mask, so his reaction wasn’t visible.

Porat is charged with criminal conspiracy and wire fraud. If he is convicted, he could be headed to prison for up to 25 years on the most serious charge.

More than 40 witnesses, many of them current or former Temple employees, could be called during the course of the trial, expected to last about three weeks. The case, believed to be perhaps the first time that a university administrator has faced criminal prosecution for misrepresentations in college rankings submissions, is expected to be closely watched in higher-education circles.

Prosecutors have charged that from 2014 to 2018, Porat conspired with others to devise a scheme to provide false information to U.S. News & World Report. Its online MBA program ranked No. 1 for four consecutive years before the errors were reported. Its part-time MBA program also rose to No. 7 before errors were discovered.

Also testifying Wednesday was Ibrahim Fetahi, who said he chose to attend Fox for his online MBA solely because of its high ranking. He said he was shocked, angry, and disappointed when the scandal broke, and the online MBA program was dropped from the rankings.

“I will always have a scar on my resumè,” Fetahi told jurors.

Fetahi was part of a lawsuit brought against Temple by students who contended that their degrees have been devalued as a result of the scandal. That suit was settled for $4 million, but he said he received only $7,000 or $8,000, not enough to cover what he feels he lost. He borrowed $120,000 to pay the $60,000 tuition, as well as living expenses and travel, and still owes about $100,000, he said.

“In my mind, I paid for fine dining and I got McDonald’s,” he testified.

Porat, Potts said, saturated the Philadelphia market with billboards, touting the high rankings. Even after Porat knew there was a problem with the data, he bragged about the No. 1 ranking and held a champagne toast, Potts said, showing the jury a celebratory photo with Porat at the center.

“He was on top of it all. He was behind it all,” Potts told the jury.

» READ MORE: Ousted Temple business school dean indicted on fraud charges

Kiely, the Fox administrator, testified that even after Porat knew false information had led to the online MBA’s No. 1 ranking again in 2018 and that the same false information had been provided in prior years, he wasn’t alarmed.

“Well, if they haven’t caught it before, what makes you think they will catch it now,” the former dean remarked, according to Kiely.

But Zack, the defense attorney, blamed Marjorie O’Neill, the employee charged with preparing and submitting the data, and her supervisor.

“He was the dean and he relied on his employees to do the right thing,” Zack said.

» READ MORE: Ousted Temple Fox Business School dean fights back

He also faulted the rankings publications.

“They are not a model of clarity, and they leave it to the schools to figure out how to interpret and answer those questions,” he said.

Temple, Zack said, failed to make sure the university’s rankings submissions were accurate, though it had an office that was supposed to do so.

“Temple caused this problem, not Dr. Porat,” he said.

On cross-examination, John A. Byrne, founder and editor-in-chief of Poets & Quants, which reports on business schools, testified that he has called rankings “flawed,” “senseless,” “statistically meaningless,” and “stupid.” But on redirect from the prosecution, he acknowledged that nonetheless, better rankings bring in more applications, enrollment, and donations; attract companies that are more likely to recruit students; and can even help lure better faculty.

Temple’s online MBA program has since returned to the rankings. This year, it was tied for 100th place.