John A. Byrne jokes that he sometimes feels like Dr. Frankenstein.
He did, after all, create the first regularly published MBA rankings when he worked at Businessweek in 1988. U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Financial Times, and others followed.
“I had my hand in the mess of statistics,” he said, “and I know how messy it can be.”
His more than 30 years of experience has taught him to identify things that look amiss, and something looked wrong to him when he wrote in January 2018 about Temple University’s Online MBA being ranked No. 1 for the fourth year in a row by U.S. News. That was the beginning of the end for the school’s reign, which was soon discovered to be propped up by false statistics.
“Of course I didn’t know with total certainty that something was wrong,” he said, but he grew suspicious when Temple reported that 100% of its applicants had submitted results of their graduate management tests (GMATs).
Byrne, 68, of Virginia, was the leadoff witness for the prosecution in the fraud trial of ousted Temple business dean Moshe Porat, accused of designing a scheme to cheat on rankings submissions for financial gain and prominence, misleading students and donors. Testimony ran seven days and the jury is expected to begin deliberations as soon as Monday.
Throughout the trial, Byrne’s name came up repeatedly, as well as the fateful dean’s meeting where several employees, with Byrne’s article in hand, raised concerns to Porat.
Byrne noted in that article that only 16% of students at the University of Maryland’s business school had submitted scores on the GMATs or GREs. At the University of North Carolina’s business school, only 15% did. Both schools saw large enrollment increases that year, he reported.
“Contrast those numbers with number one Temple ... ,” he wrote. “Temple was able to increase its online MBA enrollment by an impressive 57% to 546 students from 351. Yet, the school claimed that 100% of the incoming class provided either a GMAT score or a GRE.”
Of course, that 100% figure turned out to be false. It was actually 42 of 255 students, or 16%.
“It was surprising how so many members of his team were in a total panic” after reading his article, Byrne said.
Byrne’s article appeared on Poets & Quants, a website he started 11 years ago to report on business schools. Why the name?
“I knew that part of the language of MBAs was to refer to each other as poets and quants,” he said. “Poets were liberal arts grads and quants were science/math-type grads.”
Both groups pursue MBAs, one strong on numbers, the other on communications and verbal skills, he said.
“Really, the goal of a great MBA program is to build on those strengths and minimize those weaknesses by bringing the poets and quants together.”
A native of Paterson, N.J., Byrne worked for several newspapers and magazines, including Forbes, Fast Company, and Businessweek, where he eventually rose to executive editor. Byrne left and started Poets & Quants, which now gets more than 40 million page views annually with 35% of its traffic from overseas, Byrne said.
With a full-time staff of 17, the website and the four others he runs at C-Change Media have done some hard-hitting reporting, including breaking a story on the former dean of Stanford’s business school, who was having an affair with a professor who was married to a colleague at the school. The dean subsequently resigned. The site also looked critically at why Harvard Business School had failed to increase the number of Black faculty and students.
On the witness stand, Byrne testified about Temple’s rise in rankings and the time he visited Fox and met with Porat and his team.
Porat invited him after he wrote that Temple was an unexpected winner in rankings. Typically when visiting colleges, Byrne would interview faculty and students separately and then meet with the dean for a while. In this case, he sat at a large table with Porat and his team, and Porat called on people “like it was a carnival,” he said. Because the visit was so “scripted,” he didn’t write anything, he said.
Defense attorney Richard Zack on cross-examination hit Byrne’s criticism of rankings hard, as if to minimize their importance.
“I think I made a mistake, to be honest,” Byrne said of the cross-examination. “I shouldn’t have allowed him to take over my testimony. I should have said precisely the reason why I’ve been highly critical of rankings is because they are so important. They are so powerful. They have the power to misinform.”
Rankings — his website also does them — have gained too much importance, Byrne said. No matter the trial’s outcome, what happened at Temple should serve as “a warning shot” to the industry, he said.
“The shame of this whole thing is as a dean, [Porat] may have been a tough taskmaster, but the truth is he did accomplish a lot at that school,” Byrne said, noting Temple’s increases in enrollment and faculty, fund-raising, and new construction. “It’s a shame, from my perspective, it wasn’t enough.”