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How Tulane’s B-school is moving past scandal

(Poets&Quants) — When Ira Solomon became the dean of Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business in July 2011, he arrived with a desire to create a school that would provide students with not only business skills but also a set of ethical values.

Little more than a year into the job, however, Solomon was confronted with a thorny ethical issue of his own. In the fall of 2012, the school’s admissions team had disturbing news. The latest GMAT scores for the entering class and applications to its MBA program were shockingly low. So low, in fact, that the numbers suggested that previous data had been falsified.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God,’” recalls Solomon, a professor-turned-dean who had spent nearly three decades at the University of Illinois teaching accounting. “We did a little bit of legwork to verify that the situation was as it appeared. And within the next 24 hours I was on the phone with the provost and university legal counsel. Then, they took over at that point, as they should.”

What Solomon discovered would ultimately shake the school to its core. After a lengthy investigation by law firm Jones Day, Solomon found out that the school had inflated its reported GMAT scores by an average of 35 points for the past five consecutive years. It also had claimed to have 116 more applicants per year than it actually had to make itself appear more selective.

The investigators determined that “a single business school employee” was responsible for the mess. Solomon has never publicly called out the person but has said in a statement that “the individual is no longer at the school.” 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. (UC-Davis recently confirmed that Sandefer is no longer an employee at the school.)

The falsified numbers, which were sent to U.S. News & World Report for its annual ranking of the best business schools, helped push Freeman into the top 50 MBA programs in the U.S., with a rank of 43 last year. When Solomon informed U.S. News of the fraud, the magazine immediately tossed the school from its rankings. Based on reported data this year, the Freeman School plummeted 24 spots to a rank of 67.

The rankings tumble along with the ripple effect of all the bad news has exacted a terrible blow on the school. Freeman’s acceptance rate ballooned to 82.9%, up from the reported 56.7% number last year. GMAT scores also have taken a hit — dropping from an average of 670 to 629. And only 54.9% of students had job offers at commencement this year, down from a reported 78.8% last year.

Solomon, however, says the incident only slightly diminished the school’s pool of MBA applicants. “Interestingly enough, our applicant pool has only been modestly lower than what the actual applicant pool had been,” he says. “We have seen a decline of what was the actual applicant size in the last few years, but it’s not major.”

With the worst of the scandal behind him, Solomon is now focused on restoring the school’s reputation and credibility—especially in light of his original vision for his work at the school, teaching values and ethics. He’s added several members to the leadership team, including veteran admissions director Patrick Foran, the former director of Manchester Business School’s outpost in Miami, after a seven-year stint as MBA admissions director for the University of Florida.

He has developed a plan to update Freeman’s website and social media campaigns to provide more extensive information on the school’s programs. He also plans to offer more financial aid to applicants to entice the best to come to Freeman. Solomon has expanded the school’s career center and created a strategic planning team to guide future moves to rebuild Freeman’s reputation.

Solomon says his vision for the school remains unchanged. “I want to help the school in its quest to become an emerging global leader in the graduate and undergraduate business education space,” he says. “The reality is that Tulane students have very good reputations for being mature and being loyal.”

Solomon asserts that students interested in entrepreneurship or finance should still consider Tulane on their top five list. But he acknowledges that it will take time for the school to climb back into the top 50 on the annual U.S. News list.

“I’ve talked with deans of other business schools, and they tell me that there seems to be a natural life cycle with these types of recoveries,” he says. “But if we’re talking about rankings in particular, they don’t happen over night. And if I didn’t think we could reemerge as a truly outstanding business school, I would be doing something else.”

Even though Solomon shows unwavering confidence in his ability to get Tulane back on track, he admittedly sees this experience as one of his greatest challenges.

“We cannot change the past, we can learn from it and change the future,” he says. “And that’s what we’re doing. If we were to have this conversation a few years down the road, it would have a very different flavor. Because you would be talking about how Tulane has improved its educational offerings and continued to attract truly outstanding faculty. And how it’s quite a story on the positive side of things.”

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