Annu Subramanian: Without malice, but with intent

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Annu Subramanian

Over the last week, the University has continuously stressed that its misreporting of admissions data was “without malice.” In other words, this was all a big mistake – not something administrators did intentionally to boost rankings.

And as GW was just kicked out of the U.S. News & World Report’s top college rankings, it seems likely that the University will maintain this stance as it faces a harsh line of questioning and audits.

But let’s put the language aside for a moment and look at the facts.

The University admitted last Thursday to erroneously inflating information about high school class rank to U.S. News for more than a decade. When it came clean about this mistake, the University also said it misreported the 2011 freshman class’ admissions data by 20 percentage points: 58 percent of GW’s 2011 freshman class graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, but GW reported 78 percent did. Only a third of high schools nationwide rank their students, and the admissions office used a formula based on grade point averages and test scores to estimate who else fell in the top 10 percent of their classes.

Administrators have stressed that they didn’t intentionally doctor the data to boost GW’s rankings, and that it was an honest mistake. The fact that GW took swift action to rectify and be upfront about this mistake is encouraging, particularly in light of recent events at other universities.

Take Emory University, for example. An internal investigation last August found that Emory's admissions leadership purposefully inflated statistics for more than a decade. Whereas universities are asked to report the SAT and ACT scores of enrolled students, Emory reported data for admitted students, thereby inflating the perceived achievement of its incoming classes. That this falsification continued with Emory’s admissions leaders’ knowledge is troubling.

Under GW’s definition, Emory’s actions were committed “with malice.”

But comparing these two incidents also raises a number of questions about whether the University acted with intention – “malice” or not.

See, numbers can’t rearrange themselves. They don’t inflate themselves, and they certainly don’t spontaneously create algorithms to compensate for missing data.

Yet, somehow, the University repeating that its own mistake was “without malice” has assuaged some concerns about the misreporting. Somehow, it has sent a message that a mere human error began this mistake, and being candid and taking steps to fix it is enough. “Without malice” has come to imply “absolved from blame.”

Whether it was done with the motive to improve rankings to arrive at a value that is a 20-percentage point departure from the facts, someone in admissions certainly did – sometime in the last decade, whenever the error originated – change the flawed formula.

If the University simply reported the data it had on freshmen who made it into the top 10 percent of their high school classes without adding in estimates, GW wouldn’t be in this mess. Like dough requires yeast to turn into bread, the admissions data needed meddling to be leavened.

The admissions data didn’t inflate itself, so this wasn’t a mere reporting error, and it isn’t a blameless mistake. Indeed, the data might not have been changed specifically to boost rankings, but they weren’t an accurate response to what U.S. News asked for.

Whether U.S. News was right or wrong in kicking GW out of the rankings is a question for another column. But it has every right to be skeptical – and it should be skeptical – of GW’s “without malice” stance.

I'm not saying that losing a ranking is the apocalyptic fiasco some communities have made it out to be. I'm also not advocating for administrators to be fired over this. The problem with the approach being taken today implies that numbers weren't intentionally changed – that someone was just asleep at the wheel – but that just can't be the case.

Malice or not, there was someone who believed estimations could be made to compute class rank. And malice or not, GW now suffers the consequences.

Annu Subramanian, a senior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet senior columnist.

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