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Former Temple business school dean guilty in rankings scandal fraud case

The rankings scandal cost Porat his job as dean and the university hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements.

Moshe Porat, former dean of Temple University's Fox School of Business, speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia on May 2, 2019.
Moshe Porat, former dean of Temple University's Fox School of Business, speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia on May 2, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The former dean of Temple University’s Fox School of Business was convicted Monday of orchestrating a complex fraud scheme to propel his college to the top of national rankings and defraud its students and donors based on that unearned reputation.

Moshe Porat — who led the school for more than two decades until he was fired for the misrepresentations in 2018 — shook his head quietly as the jury announced it had found him guilty of federal conspiracy and wire fraud charges now likely to send him to prison.

It took the panel of eight women and four men less than an hour to conclude that he, along with two of his subordinates, had for years knowingly embellished the data they were sending on Fox’s students to the magazine U.S. News & World Report, allowing its online MBA program to achieve its No. 1 ranking for four straight years.

The distinction helped Fox more than double its enrollment for the program between 2014 and 2017, raking in millions in tuition payments from students and donor dollars.

“The hope is that this case sends a message to other college and university administrators that there are real consequences to making representations that students and applicants rely on,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark B. Dubnoff said. “So many people turn to these rankings … to help them make informed decisions of where to go to college, graduate school, and it’s important that people are honest and fully truthful with the representations they make.”

Porat, meanwhile, declined to comment, leaving quietly with his lawyers and his family shortly after the verdict was read.

The jury’s decision closed a chapter on a scandal that has roiled Temple since it first came to light in 2018 and has since cost the university millions in legal settlements with state and federal investigators and former students who sued, claiming their degrees had been devalued.

It also marked yet another remarkable step on Porat’s downfall — one that brought his lauded tenure at Fox’s helm to an ignominious end. For years, Porat had been hailed as a visionary administrator — a rainmaker as adept at luring student tuition dollars as he was at courting deep-pocketed donors. At one point, his name was even in the mix as a possible replacement for Temple University President Richard Englert before his retirement last year.

The conviction could cost him his tenured position as a Temple professor, for which he continues to earn a roughly $316,000 annual salary despite his ouster as dean. And he now holds the distinction of being the first university administrator in the country to be criminally prosecuted for lying in the high-stakes battle for college rankings dominance.

Such lists, published by U.S. News and others, are the subject of fierce competition among universities as top spots can attract nationwide interest from potential students and millions in tuition dollars.

In Temple’s case, Fox’s enrollment numbers for its online and part-time MBA programs more than doubled in the years it spent at the top of those lists. Ibrahim Fetahi, a Fox online MBA graduate who applied to the school primarily because of its rank, told the jury he felt cheated once he found out that his alma mater’s national reputation had been built on lies.

“I paid for fine dining,” he said, “and I got McDonalds.”

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

Porat, meanwhile, maintained that it wasn’t he who deserved the blame but rather two administrators who worked under him — Marjorie O’Neill, who was in charge of preparing Fox’s rankings submissions each year, and Isaac Gottlieb, a statistics professor who reverse-engineered the U.S. News ranking criteria so Fox could identify which data points would put them at the top.

Either way, by 2014, Fox was routinely misreporting the selectivity of admissions to its 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.

Those lies propelled Temple’s online MBA program to No. 1 on the list. But as that success continued, others outside Porat’s inner circle began to question the school’s success.

In 2018, the website Poets & Quants published an article questioning some of Fox’s submissions. The story set off a panic among Fox’s assistant deans who demanded that the school correct its misrepresentations immediately.

Porat, witnesses testified, not only resisted, he left the meeting at which that story was discussed to host a champagne toast celebrating a ranking he by then knew to be based on lies. In the weeks that followed, he continued to tout the distinction in marketing materials and downplayed the extent of the damage in conversations with Temple’s provost and president.

Porat chose not to testify at his trial. But jurors heard plenty from him in the form of excerpts played in court from a video deposition from a defamation case he’s since filed against the university.

In them, Porat came across as strident and at times arrogant, challenging the questions asked of him, spinning contradictory stories about what he knew and when, Fand consistently seeking to shift blame to others.

O’Neill “did something very purposefully with playing with the data,” he said in one clip. “Not listening to everyone else. Imposing her will on the data.”

In closing arguments Monday, Porat’s attorney, Michael A. Schwartz, acknowledged that his client had handled the situation poorly. He said Porat deserved to be fired as dean and described his ongoing civil suit against Temple as “wrong.” But Schwartz maintained that despite Porat’s faults, nothing he did was a crime.

“Forty years — that is how long Dr. Porat dedicated his life and passion to Temple University,” he said. “And yes, during those 40 years, Dr. Porat did a number of things wrong. He had a big ego. He did not treat people in the way they should have been treated, and he certainly failed to respond correctly [once the scandal had been exposed]. But he did so to try to preserve his legacy.”

Both O’Neill and Gottlieb have pleaded guilty to their roles in the scandal. Neither of them testified against Porat at his trial and await sentencing in the case.

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

Will J. Jordan, president of Temple’s faculty union, said while Monday’s verdict didn’t surprise him, he wished there had been more checks and balances in place at the university to stop the Porat’s misrepresentations before they became a federal case.

The university has since instituted such steps, including establishing an internal verification unit that oversees data submissions; making online and telephone hotlines available for whistle-blowers; hiring a third-party auditor for data submissions; and more training.

“We respect the justice system and the jury’s decision in this matter,” university spokesperson Steve Orbanek said in a statement Monday. “This is an unhappy moment for our students and alumni, but our focus remains on delivering the best possible outcomes for our students.”