Rankings, Ethics, and Transparency

By: Nate Falk | Feb 01, 2012 | 418 Views Opinion |

Claremont McKenna College is a “Top 10″ liberal arts school.

It is on the front page of the Education section of the New York Times. Publications like USA TODAY, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, TIME, Bloomberg, ABC, and countless others are all writing about us. Finally, people all over the country are talking about that “small, selective liberal arts college in California.”

Credit: hhsprincipalsoffice.wordpress.com

This is definitely not how I pictured it would happen.

Students and professors are shaking their heads in disgust, and Pomona students are preparing “S-A-T” chants for the next basketball game.

I am the first one to tell you that rankings matter. You may, in fact, recall the Forum article I wrote last fall in which I argued that CMC’s rise in the national rankings changed people’s perception about the school. Claremont’s ascension into the ‘elite’ tier of liberal arts colleges convinced many students who would have otherwise gone elsewhere to choose CMC. Perhaps you are one of them.

So, yes, rankings do matter.

Do they matter too much? What could drive a “senior administrator” to adjust already-great scores? There are many unknowns here, but one thing is absolutely clear: there’s no excuse for cheating. Period.

No increase in applications, donations, or rankings could possibly justify risking CMC’s reputation. Nothing can justify fudging the numbers at any time. The fact that the admissions office apparently did it for six years straight is truly disturbing.

Claremont McKenna prides itself as an institution that educates leaders. CMC graduates often go on to run for public office or lead successful businesses. Teaching ethical conduct, no matter the circumstances or competition, is one of the most important lessons a school can teach.

The blame game has already started. Former Dean of Admissions Richard C. Vos is no longer employed by CMC. Honestly, I don’t know who is responsible. Instead of calling for scapegoats, however, I am calling for answers.

The administration owes the Claremont community a further explanation.

Where is the transparency after-the-fact? The news broke after one vague email to the student body, and after 36 hours, the Office of Public Affairs has not released any more information except that the Dean of Admissions has been replaced. Trying to close the book on the issue with an email saying we caught the bad guy and hired lawyers won’t suffice. I understand that there may be legal reasons certain details cannot be revealed, but some very general questions need to be answered before we can move on.

I want to know how these discrepancies came to light. Why now? The administration apparently found out about this in January. Does that mean January 1st? Does that mean Monday morning? Does the timing of this incident just happen to be after applications have been turned in? Was there internal or external pressure to climb the rankings? Were there cutoffs the admissions department were told to meet? Were there incentives in place that may have motivated the individual to manipulate the scores? Most of all, I would like to know how this could have happened – for six years – without anyone else knowing about it at a college that is built on leadership, accountability, and integrity.

The fact that President Gann publicized this information is an important first step. This could have been swept under the rug completely, but it wasn’t. An official from Public Affairs has agreed to address the Student Senate next week. That is a crucial next step.

We need more information. We need to have an open discussion about what happened and how we can move forward from here. The best way to get past this is to understand it and learn from it. Transparency is the only way to end the speculation and conspiracy theories. Only shedding light on the issue will bring us closure.

Is this the end of CMC as we know it? No. Will future employers look at recent grads any differently? Probably not. But will CMC’s reputation be stained indefinitely? Maybe.

Current, future, and past students had nothing to do with this incident, but we now have to pay the price.

The pride that I have in my peers and professors at Claremont McKenna remains unchanged. My professors are no less brilliant, and my peers are no less amazing. The spectacular experience that I have had here as a student cannot ever be taken away from me. My future degree is not any less meaningful to me than it was on Sunday.

But we need information. We need answers.

We need to talk openly about this, because this matters. Yes, rankings matter. Ethics, however, matter more.

About the Author

Nathan is back at Camp Claremont finishing his dual major in Applied Mathematics and Economics. He is originally from Lafayette, Northerncalifornia. He loves surfing, San Francisco Giants baseball, and his chocolate lab Ella.

  • Concerned Alumnus

    I am a CMC alum. Please let it be know that in return for my continued financial support I will expect some real answers by the administration. Otherwise, I will have to refrain from supporting CMC financially. However, I will continue do what I can to help students and alums with my time and other non-financial resources. I hope that other alumni will do the same. 

  • Proud Stag

    Great job Nathan, this article touches on all the important aspects of the situation. What the administration did was wrong, transparency from here on out is key, and the pride that I and almost every other student have in our school remains unchanged. I think it’s important to realize that although CMC’s reputation may bear somewhat of a blemish, this fiasco does not affect the quality of the education we are receiving. I’m still around the brightest and most brilliant people I’ve ever encountered (both faculty and students), and I wouldn’t change schools for anything. Manipulating numbers is wrong, and many see it as unprecedented, but there have been other cases around the country too http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/01/education/gaming-the-college-rankings.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha23 

    Those schools are still functioning and are considered strong academic institutions, and the same will happen to us. Great article Nathan, keep up the good work. It’s students like you who encourage answers and accountability that will cause CMC to persevere and continue onward as the elite college it was, regardless of numbers.

  • Athena

    This article perfectly captures the sentiments of the majority of the stags. Or if it doesn’t, it should. Of course we still all love our school – how could we not? However, our school IS founded upon critical thinking and analysis, and that is exactly what we must use in this situation. Your article raises several questions which are important to have answered. I am also curious to know where the funds to pay the law firm are coming from. Overall, great writing, great article, great questions.

  • Anonymous Alum

    CMC seems to have one good gut-wrenching scandal every 10 years or so. When I attended there was the striptease scandal (in the late 1980s) which made its way into the LA Times. Then there was that psych professor who committed a hate crime on her own car. And now this. My advice to the students there now: Remember that few people outside of your tiny community are going to remember this in a week. US News and World Report will knock the school down by quite a few notches for sure, maybe even take CMC out of the top 20 (hopefully not the rankings entirely), and, yeah, it will take years for CMC to recover from that. But recover it will.

    What led to this nightmare was probably some kind of perverted bonus structure that gave this administrator money based on rankings in US News. Also, CMC has always felt some insecurity about itself because, honestly, most people who attend didn’t pick it as a first choice. But so what. It’s an outstanding second choice and always has been. CMC should embrace its roll as such and not doctor its SAT results to pretend it’s something that it isn’t.

    As for the President. She is gone. This kind of stupidity would never have taken place under Jack Stark. There must have been some kind of misguided bonus structure in place as an incentive for this VP to do this.

    • Another alum

      I don’t necessarily disagree with any of your conclusions, but at least one reality has changed significantly since your time at CMC: the percentage of CMC students for whom the College was their #1 choice is significantly higher than almost any other school in the country.  Last time I checked, it was a clear majority of the students.  That reality is the basis for why student love for the place is so evident and so passionate.

      • Anonymous Alum

        I did not know that. Well the test scores (even the real ones) are certainly higher than when I attended.

    • A Stark contrast

      Agree wholeheartedly. The College’s inept response to ethical lapses by faculty and staff would not have happened under Jack Stark. Gann is gone. And with David Dreier not seeking reelection to Congress some trustees and big donors will undoubtedly try to draft him to serve as Interim President.

      • Anonymous Alum

        Hopefully Dreier will do it.

      • The 21st Century

        Um…. I don’t think this is very fair considering the era that Gann has had to lead in. Yea, perhaps under Stark nearly 15 years ago, we would have gotten more than an impersonal email. Oh wait, was email even widely used back then? Was the internet/social networking as viral as it has gotten today? No, and that is a huge consideration that has been missed here. Comparing Stark and Gann’s tenure is like comparing apples to oranges. The CMC back then and the CMC now are two totally different battlefields in every possible way minus the still-gross mid-quad dorms/other facilities. 

        As much as I would also like the administration to be more transparent, upfront, and personal about this incident, it is important to understand that it has gotten much trickier for them to do so. What we need to figure out is a way they can appease the students, their most impacted stakeholders, without having every little thing they say appear 20 seconds later in breaking news on the internet. Hating on the president is only doing more harm than good right now. Let her do her job.
        And I’m sorry, after Dreier’s poor form this summer dealing with the debt ceiling, I don’t want him as president. Especially, if this is what he considers a back-up career now that he’s being squeezed out of his district. 

  • alum

    I have to disagree – I really don’t want to hear about how this came to light or how it was hidden for so long. Any more press releases or statements are just going to feed the news publications across the country to write about this even more, doing more damage to our brand and reputation.

    Imagine: “BREAKING: President of College Caught Falsifying SAT Scores Admits that…”

    It doesn’t really matter what else comes out of this – any more news about the situation will just remind people that this happened or spread the word to people who haven’t heard about it already.

  • Alum ’09

    Since when are we a college built on “accountability” and “integrity”? In my time at CMC I hardly remember any focus at all on those values. Yes, they are things a liberal arts college (or any institution made up of human beings, really…) should absolutely hold in high regard. But read our mission statement and motto:
    http://www.cmc.edu/about/mission.php
    Where are they? I don’t see them. I do see “crescit cum commercio civitas” aka “money makes the world go ’round.” Higher rankings increase the value of the school, as you say, so maybe in our administrative culture it’s worth cooking the books–at least until you get caught.

    Let’s stop comforting ourselves with the belief that this is a school where values are so strong that things like this shouldn’t happen. It happened. Clearly, those values aren’t strong enough. If we as a community want to value integrity and character, then let’s make them the focus from here on out, instead of pretending that we already do such a good job at it.

  • Pingback: College Releases Official Corrected SAT Data « Forum | The Official Student Publication of Claremont McKenna College()

  • Cmontgomery

    For better or worse the administration is waiting until the law firm’s investigation is complete rather than sending the community information which may or may not be true. Slowly leaking out information would only make the rumor mill spin faster rather than satisfactorily answering our question. Unless the investigation finds otherwise, the administration dealt with the situation promptly and properly once it came to its attention. Although it is frustrating, we must wait until the investigation is complete to know the truth. If the investigation is unsatisfactory (I see no reason why it would be as it is being done by a highly respected independent law firm) then that will be the time to demand more information. As members of the CMC community, it is up to us to prove that the mistakes of one individual do not define us as a school. CMC is an amazing place and through our continued hard work and good deeds may we show all of those who are only now learning of CMC that this incident is not indicative of the CMC we know and love.

  • Andrew Crawford

    The Administration and Board of Trustees have probably hired a crisis manager to deal with the situation. They are choosing silence as they have had this information for quite sometime. They will wait to see if it dies down and quietly go away. Articles such as Nathan’s will and should keep it alive. Why would a man with 18 years in his position suddenly in 2005 choose the path he chose with no incentive? There are alot of other questions but what is heartening is that a free and independent voice, the Forum, is carrying the traditions of a free press forward. Keep it up and take to the streets or mount a sit in if necessary to compel the Administration to come completely clean. CMC was founded on a libertarian philosophy in the 40’s. Things have changed over the years but none of us, alums or students, have once considered honesty and transparency to be values tossed aside in the running of our great institution. Vox clamantis in deserto.

  • Pingback: CMC’s SAT Scandal: A Recap « Forum | The Official Student Publication of Claremont McKenna College()

  • CMC parents

    This article has the right focus.  It falls short where it applauds the administration for “agreeing to meet with the Student Senate on the matter.” THE ADMINISTATION SHOULD BE DOING WHAT IT IS THERE TO DO — EDUCATE.  In a school of teaching Leadership, it should LEAD.  To do this means REQUIRING A SCHOOLWIDE MEETING TO USE THIS UNFORTUNATE SITUATION AS A TEACHABLE MOMENT.  What students take away from this should not be left to the rumor mill.  There are 2 important points to be made.  One is that, as this article so aptly points out, integrity matters more than ratings. That even a “little cheating” is not OK, it still crosses the line.  Is a little cheating acceptable in class, and who decides what a “little” is?  And, due to great reporting, we know that what were reported as small numbers, actually alter categories which are used to make decisions and thus are NOT SO SMALL.

    Lesson two should be that with Leadership also comes ultimate responsibility.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the U. S, President could say that whatever disaster has been mishandled was FEMA’s fault and not his.  Naturally, the response by our national leaders, in a much larger administration, is that if it happens under my watch the buck stops here.  Does that mean President Gann has to leave?  We do not know.  What we do know is that the example should be set that in LEADERSHIP, the leader takes the good and the bad.  How she responds to the challenges and opportunities at hand should determine her fate. 

    The silence is sending a very different message — it’s no big deal, it’s unfair, cover-it-up so it goes away. This is not what we sent our children to a school to learn. And, it is horrifying for us to learn that integrity is NOT part of the school’s motto. It should be, and now would be the time to change that so that the emphasis of the importance of what has happened and how unacceptable it is is not lost. That type of action will help the school heal internally and externally better than waiting for the headlines to abate. 

  • Beverlyhiatt

    I am a CMC parent of two graduates.  This very unfortunate incident does not change my admiration for CMC.  It is important to get the story out and get past it. 

  • Angela Angelabird

    Gann’s “leadership” sucks ! i bet you any thing by the time this so called “independent”
    Law firm report comes out, there will be no paper trail back to her. The “scapegoat” is
    paying very well not to speak. No one will ever know what really happens. Gann needs
    to step down.