Diana Breslin-Knudsen still remembers feeling sick to her stomach as she and her Fox School of Business colleagues gathered on the seventh floor of Alter Hall on Jan. 9, 2018. They were attending a champagne toast celebrating the school’s online master of business administration program, which had just earned the top spot in U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings for the fourth year in a row.
Earlier that morning, they learned Fox received the ranking as a result of submitting inaccurate data on its GMAT scores and acceptance rates. Whether it was intentional or accidental had yet to be determined.
During the past two weeks, Breslin-Knudsen was one of several witnesses asked to recall the events of the champagne toast — and the entire timeline of events leading up to and following the false rankings submissions — as part of the prosecution in the trial of former dean Moshe Porat, who is charged with wire fraud and conspiracy for his role in leading the scheme to falsify submissions from 2014 to 2018.
The false submissions misled Fox applicants, students and donors into believing the school offered highly rated business degree programs, The Temple News reported.
Porat’s trial began on Nov. 9 at the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse, located on Market Street near 6th. If convicted, he could face up to 25 years in prison on the most serious charge, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Former Fox administrator Marjorie O’Neill and former statistical science professor Isaac Gottlieb were also indicted for their roles in the submissions and pleaded guilty on May 25 and June 3, respectively.
O’Neill’s plea agreement could’ve required her to testify against Porat, but prosecutors decided not to call her to the witness stand.
The misreported submissions came to light in 2018 after Poets & Quants, an online publication for graduate business education news, published an article noting that Fox reported all of its online MBA students submitted GMAT scores. In actuality, only about a fifth of the roughly 250 incoming students in the program at the time submitted GMAT scores.
The GMAT is a business education exam with four sections taken by students in an MBA program, according to MBA.com.
Porat was ultimately removed as dean on July 9, 2018, when former President Richard Englert and former Provost JoAnne Epps asked Porat to pick between two letters: one signifying his choice to step down as dean and the other, his termination. He was replaced by current dean Ronald Anderson, but is still a tenured professor making more than $300,000 a year, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
During his time as dean, Porat’s salary without benefits ranged between $500,000 and $600,000 a year.
The prosecution — led by assistant United States attorneys Mark Dubnoff and Nancy Potts — called 13 witnesses to the stand during Porat’s trial. Witnesses included:
- Breslin-Knudsen, former senior vice dean at the Fox School of Business until 2018.
- John A. Byrne, author of the Post & Quants article on Jan. 8, 2018, which alerted Fox administrators to the data errors.
- Deborah Campbell, senior vice dean at Fox.
- Theodore Chung, chair of Jones Day’s investigations and white collar defense practice, which Temple University hired in 2018 to conduct an investigation into Fox’s misreported data.
- Brian Coughlin, a Federal Bureau of Investigations agent who investigated the Fox false submissions.
- Epps, a senior advisor to President Jason Wingard who is currently on sabbatical.
- Ibrahim Fetahi, former Fox online MBA program student, who was part of a class action lawsuit against Temple.
- Aubrey Kent, the senior associate dean of faculty affairs at Fox and the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management.
- Christine Kiely, the vice dean of graduate and international programs and admissions at Fox since 2015.
- William Rieth, former senior director of graduate enrollment at Fox from March 2017 to January 2019.
- Virginia Roth, executive assistant to the dean at Fox. Roth was Porat’s executive assistant during his time as dean.
- Ara Sardarbegians, former Fox online MBA program student, who was also part of class-action lawsuit against Temple.
- Phyllis Tutora, senior director of international and executive programs at Fox since October 2016.
Collectively, the witnesses’ testimonies portrayed the false submissions as a byproduct of Porat’s long-held fixation with rankings, not an innocent data-entry mistake.
Breslin-Knudsen said rankings became Fox’s major strategic objective under Porat’s leadership, even though the school had previously put “not very much” emphasis on them. She testified that Porat tasked a commission with improving Fox’s rankings in the early 2000s, initially naming the group the Rankings Committee before switching the name to the Strategic Communication Committee in the fall of 2009.
Porat thought having high rankings would improve Fox’s appearance, which would increase enrollment, and told Breslin-Knudsen that U.S. News and World Report’s rankings were the most important because they held the most prestige, she testified.
Witnesses also described the environment Porat cultivated within Fox with Tutora describing Porat as a micro-manager, while Breslin-Knudsen recalled him having a “temper” leading him to be “extremely vocal and basically deride a person.”
Roth testified Porat’s mood and behavior would fluctuate based on who he was meeting with, remembering him as “a steam-roller, you were either on the truck or in the way.”
UNRAVELLING THE RANKINGS
In September 2017, Rieth said he was asked to review Fox’s intended submissions for the 2018 U.S. News and World Report rankings, where he noted several errors, including issues with the acceptance rate and the number of GMAT test-takers.
He alerted O’Neill about his concerns because she was responsible for assembling the submissions, but the errors were not corrected before it was sent out, Rieth testified.
Rieth learned the submissions were not corrected on the morning of Jan. 9, 2018, when U.S. News and World Report released its rankings data. He told his supervisor, who then informed Porat and several other senior administrators during “the deans meeting” — a weekly meeting held on Tuesdays at 11 a.m. where Porat spoke with the school’s senior administrators.
The deans meeting on Jan. 9, 2018, began at 11 a.m. as scheduled, and was set to continue until the luncheon and champagne toast, which took place around 1 p.m.
Porat said he could not recall at what point during the deans meeting he learned about the misreported data, suggesting in his deposition the meeting may have been split into two parts — one half before the toast, and one half after where they learned about the misreported data.
“I wouldn’t do a champagne toast if I knew I had a mistake,” Porat said in his deposition.
Breslin-Knudsen, Kent and other witnesses who attended the deans meeting on Jan. 9, 2018, said they were “certain” they learned about the misreported submissions before the toast, and it was “absolutely not” a possibility the meeting was split in half as Porat suggested.
Multiple attendees at the deans meeting tried to convince Porat to cancel the toast, but Porat “quickly shut down” their ideas, Kent testified.
“There was no reason in his mind to not go ahead,” Kent testified.
The elevator ride up to the toast was “extremely awkward” because Fox’s senior administration had just learned about the misreported data, Breslin-Knudsen said.
After 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 9, 2018, Breslin-Knudsen and O’Neill walked to the Temple University Station to catch a train on the Paoli-Thorndale line. Breslin-Knudsen asked O’Neill how she had made errors in the rankings submissions. O’Neill responded that Porat had told her to submit the 100 percent GMAT figure to the rankings survey, Breslin-Knudsen testified.
Tutora testified that O’Neill had a tendency to round up pieces of data in her spreadsheets. Tutora did not mention to anyone that O’Neill’s math did not make much sense to her.
In the days following Jan. 9, 2018, Fox administrators self-reported their error to U.S. News and World Report concerning the number of incoming students who had taken the GMAT.
Porat and Gottlieb told other Fox administrators and Epps that, even if they provided accurate data, Fox would still be ranked No. 1 or drop to No. 2, witnesses testified. However, Gottlieb emailed Porat on Jan. 13, 2018, writing that the ranking for Fox’s online MBA program would sink to sixth if the school reported accurate data.
Despite knowing about the errors, Fox administrators sent an email to the school’s donors and potential donors on Jan. 22, 2018, touting the No. 1 ranking.
U.S. News and World Report removed Temple’s rank from their list of schools on Jan. 24, 2018.
On Feb. 12, 2018, Kyle Smith, a student at Fox’s online MBA program, filed a complaint against Temple, which became a class-action lawsuit, the Penn Record reported. Lawyers argued that Fox engaged in fraudulent business practices when it misrepresented data to rankings surveys, misleading students who paid money to attend, what they thought was, a No. 1 Online MBA program.
“I still feel like I’ve been bamboozled,” Sardarbegians testified.
In December 2018, Temple settled the lawsuit with Fox students from the Executive MBA, Global MBA, Part-time MBA, MS in Human Resource Management, MS in Digital Innovation in Marketing and Online Bachelor of Business Administration programs, paying them more than $5.4 million, The Temple News reported.
After U.S. News & World Reported unranked Fox, Temple hired Jones Day, an international law firm, to independently investigate the misreported data. The investigation lasted from February 2018 to May or June 2018. Jones Day interviewed 17 people connected to the incident and reviewed 32,000 documents, Chung testified.
In its final report, Jones Day concluded Fox falsified more numbers than just the percentage of new students who took the GMAT, and found Fox’s work environment contributed to the problem, according to Jones Day’s report.
“The Dean’s focus on rankings, coupled with his personal management style, caused Fox personnel who interacted with the Dean on ranking-related matters to feel pressure to perform in this regard,” according to the report.
Porat filed a $25 million defamation lawsuit against the university on May 2, 2019, claiming Temple damaged his health and destroyed his reputation, The Temple News reported.
Porat requested a stay on his defamation case on March 24 after he learned federal prosecutors were seeking an indictment against him, The Temple News reported. The indictment came on April 16, The Temple News reported.