Who Cooked The Books At Tulane?

by on January 24th, 2013

Bill Sandefer was director of admissions when the false data was reported to U.S. News. This is his LinkedIn photo.

Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business yesterday admitted on Jan. 16 that it falsely inflated its average GMAT scores by an astounding 35 points for five consecutive years from 2007 to 2011. The school also conceded that it had falsely increased the number of completed applications it received by an average of 116 applications over the same time period.

The false reports went to U.S. News & World Report so that Freeman would be ranked more highly by the magazine’s annual lists of the best full-time MBA programs in the U.S. The disclosures were made as a result of an investigation by the law firm of Jones Day, which had been called in last month to do the probe by Tulane University’s Office of General Counsel.

The impact of the fraud is not yet clear. But from 2010 to 2012, Tulane’s Freeman School increased its ranking by 10 full places to 43rd last year from 53rd in 2010. Among other things, the school’s current position in U.S. News’ ranking was based on an apparently inflated average GMAT of its enrolled MBA class of 670 and a lower-than-actual acceptance rate of 56.7% Average GMAT scores loom large in the U.S. News’ methodology for calculating its MBA rankings, with a total weight of 16.25%. A school’s acceptance rate, which would be lower based on an inflated number of total applications, receives less weight, only 1.25%.

A major blow in reputation to the Freeman School’s MBA program

The disclosures are a major blow to the reputation of the Freeman School, which has a relatively small full-time MBA program with an enrollment of just 170 students. “To me, this is not an issue about rankings, but about reputation,” said Freeman Dean Ira Solomon, in a statement. “It is about the integrity of the business school and those who work in it.” U.S. News had earlier said it would study Tulane’s final report with the correct data before any determination can accurately be made of what, if any, impact this will have on the Freeman School’s ranking.

In a statement, the school said that “the timeline and data reported suggest a single business school employee falsified data and submitted it to U.S. News & World Report. The individual is no longer at the school.” The school declined to name the official who falsely reported the information. “As a matter of university policy, actions involving personnel are not discussed publicly,” Freeman said.

Director of admissions Bill Sandefer left the school last year

The school’s director of admissions for the five-year period for which false data was reported had been Bill Sandefer, who left the school in 2012 to become the senior director of graduate admissions at UC-Davis’ Graduate School of Management. Sandefer served as director of admissions at the Freeman School for 15 years before joining UC-Davis last summer. While at Tulane, Sandefer oversaw recruiting and admissions for Tulane’s six graduate management programs, including the full-time MBA, part-time MBA and masters programs.

According to a news release announcing his appointment at UC-Davis, Sandefer has been “very active and visible in the graduate management education industry, serving in key roles with the Diversity MBA Advisory Board, the Graduate Management Admissions Council, the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors, and the Council on the Advancement and Support of Education Conference.” Sandefer could not be reached for comment.

Average and median GMAT scores are among the most important criteria tracked by an admissions office because they represent the single best data point to determine the quality of an enrolled class. Unlike grade point averages which can differ significantly in some countries, GMAT scores are comparable across the world. So it is highly unlikely that a person holding the position of admissions director would not be aware of fraudulent reporting.

GMAT and other admissions data are usually handed over to a communications official at a school who would then turn them into U.S. News & World Report. Even if the numbers were not inflated in the admissions office, it would be unusual for the director of admissions to not notice the discrepancy once they were published by U.S. News–especially over five consecutive years. A 35-point difference, moreover, would have brought the school’s reported GMAT score down to 635 from 670 last year, a fairly significant change.

‘You either don’t know and should or there is something funny going on’

“You either don’t know and should, or you know and there is something funny going on,” said an admissions director of another top business school when asked for comment on the situation. The fraud was discovered shortly after Sandefer left Freeman in the fall of 2012, as the school prepared to submit data to external audiences relating to its full-time 2012 MBA program. “Discrepancies were found between accurate data being reported for the current year and data reported for the previous year,” the school said in the statement. As the school’s standards and admission criteria had not changed, Dean Ira Solomon raised a concern with the Office of the Provost.”

On Dec. 19, 2012, when Freeman submitted data for the 2012 academic year to U.S. News, the magazine was notified that inaccurate data had been provided for the MBA classes that entered from 2007-2011. Corrected data for 2007 through 2011 was submitted to U.S. News & World Report on Jan. 15. The Jones Day investigation verified the extent of the fraud.

The misreporting lasted for five years because ‘there were no significant year-over-year variations’

Freeman said it took so long to discover that data was being misreported because “there were no significant variations from year to year. Regarding the applications, there were no unexpected variations in the number of applications from year to year. The first time the discrepancies became apparent was during the preparation of the 2012 data.” “I sincerely regret that these events occurred and that one person could so negatively impact how others see us as a place of learning,” said Provost Michael Bernstein in a statement. “I am, however, proud of the manner and rigor by which Dean Solomon, Tulane and Jones Day took to get to the bottom of this concern and create an even stronger framework for future reporting.”

The dean of the school during the time was Angelo DeNisi, who led Freeman from July of 2005 to June of 2011. He has since joined the business school faculty  as a professor of organizational behavior. DeNisi’s successor was Solomon, an accounting professor who joined the school as dean in July of last year.

Jones Day, the school added, has suggested a series of steps to assure that data collecting and reporting will be as accurate and reliable as possible. Additionally, the Freeman School had instituted a new system of controls in 2011 to govern the collection, analysis and reporting of data. The new controls enabled school officials to uncover the discrepancies that triggered the investigation.

The school said it is “very confident that the system of controls implemented during the fall of 2011 will assure the accuracy of the data. This and an institutional culture that consistently strives to improve will assure that this type of misreporting does not happen again.”

Sandefer was succeeded by Patrick Foran in August of 2012. Foran had been director of the Manchester Business School’s Americas Center in Miami, FL, for nearly three years and had been MBA admissions director at the University of Florida before that for almost seven years.


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