I don’t pretend to have the answer to this age-old question (as in THE answer), but in light of the recent news coming from the Emory University campus located just a few miles from my university, I’d like to at least weigh in. The news, in short, is that for about a decade, a couple individuals who were responsible for collecting and reporting admissions data at Emory intentionally lied about things like SAT scores and class rank. Now these folks didn’t tell crazy lies; instead, they only modestly inflated the numbers so that no one would be the wiser. U.S. News and World Report has apparently indicated Emory’s ranking would not have changed if accurate data had been used. That may be the most interesting part of the whole story.
I know the business of higher education pretty well. I also know Emory and President Wagner reasonably well. In my opinion, Emory is a terrific institution and Jim Wagner is not only a great President, but he is also a really good person — thoughtful, ethical and kind. To be clear, he has not been implicated at all in these misrepresentations. The news organizations will kick Emory around a bit for a week or so and then move onto something else. It’s certainly a sad day for this great university, but I am certain that Emory will recover quickly. They have done the right thing by disclosing all this and they will continue to do the right things.
But back to my central question. Why in the world would highly respected and well-trained professionals do something like this? Just a couple years ago, Atlantans asked themselves the same question about the “cheating scandal” in the Atlanta Public Schools that cost the Superintendent her job as well as hundreds of others in the system. I knew the Superintendent well and many other administrators who were also forced out. The ones I knew best are all good people. You may have noticed I put the words cheating scandal in quotes. I still do not believe that some highly-organized, system-wide conspiracy existed that directed employees to cheat on state-wide tests. I have not seen evidence of that three years later. Some teachers were just plain cheating. Some principals did the same. The behavior of many others who have been accused, I believe, falls short of being labeled cheating. Those details aside, what I think did happen was that a lot of people, including leadership, became focused on reaching a set of numbers that in the end have far less meaning than we ascribe to them. Rewards were based on achieving those numbers. And, at least with regard to APS, severe federal and state punishments descended upon the system for the failure to hit those numbers. When so much is at stake and the wrong thing is being measured, even good people will begin to bend the truth.
I think about all the criminal activity that has happened in the financial industry over the last decade. It’s easy to just say that all these folks were just bad people and crooks (it sure is easy to say that), but I think the biggest problem lies with the system. We have gone from a system that rewarded people for long-term results that benefitted large numbers of people to one where whomever could make the fastest and biggest buck for a few people got rewarded to an obscene extent. And when the bubble collapsed, they all kept their money and stayed out of jail. Nice.
So back to Emory and the handful of other schools in the last few years where cheating on test scores has been discovered. What’s at stake here and what is being measured? My institution, Oglethorpe University, is fortunate that we are not forced to play the whole ranking game. We do end up in most books or ranking systems that list the country’s best colleges and universities and that’s a nice thing for sure. But whether we are 157 or 196 really means little to us or our students. Instead, we are concerned every day with providing the most rigorous, relevant, and affordable education we can.
Could what happened at Emory happen at Oglethorpe? I’d like to think not because I know the people here who are responsible for reporting this same data, but no one should ever be so smug. There have been people from time to time who have worked for us about whom I would not be as certain. Would it have benefitted us as an institution to add forty points to our median SAT scores? I guess so, but in some very small way. It looks like it didn’t help Emory all that much either. Would it have made the individuals responsible for recruiting students look better? For sure. Would it have made me as President look better? The answer there has got to be yes, as well.
In the end, our institutions are just people working within a culture. People will make bad decisions from time to time. It is the responsibility of the culture of the institution to encourage and reward ethical decision-making based on things that really matter. When the culture and the system fail to work, self-correction is the only alternative. That’s what Emory is doing now. I hope someday the system in which Emory operates which rewards numbers over learning outcomes will change, but I am not holding my breath.