When the University announced Thursday that it has been inflating freshman admissions data for more than a decade and submitting that flawed information to U.S. News & World Report, it was expected that at most, GW would slip slightly in national rankings.
But Wednesday, the magazine surprised everyone by kicking GW off the 2013 top colleges rankings list entirely.
Administrators, including University President Steven Knapp, prided themselves on being transparent and upfront with the community after discovering the error and apologized for the mistake.
But while those gestures were well-intended, the fact remains that this has been a public relations nightmare for GW.
What is perhaps most frustrating is that there is no way to know how the rest of this crisis will play out. Last week, U.S. News Director of Data Research Robert Morse said GW would likely just bump down a few slots in the rankings as a result of the faulty data. And then on Wednesday, the magazine took the almost unprecedented action of booting the University off completely. It seems that any hope of controlling this matter is out of GW's hands.
But GW does have control over its own information.
Throughout this mess, the Office of Admissions has been on lockdown.
Associate Vice President and Dean of Admissions Kathryn Napper declined to comment to a reporter Wednesday on the University being kicked off the rankings, after days of deferring all questions to the University’s media relations office. Napper has headed the admissions office for 15 years, and administrators have said the formula error that botched data goes back more than a decade.
As the long-serving leader of the admissions office, Napper is obligated to give the community answers. This public relations disaster will not go away if the admissions office hides from it.
Knapp and other University leaders have also refused to tell the community how it is holding the admissions office accountable.
While it is encouraging to see that the University will have another office check admissions data moving forward, it is also a shame to see that the only reason a system of checks and balances is being added is because of blunders. It is also worrisome that GW cannot trust its own admissions office to provide and maintain accurate records.
When students matriculate to GW, they put their faith and trust in the University to not only provide them with an education but also to ensure that their degrees carry value in the years after they receive their diplomas.
As an institution that is transitioning and looking to improve its academic standing and physical campus, GW has been highly concerned with its public image in recent years, building up a stronger public relations shop and rolling out a rebranding campaign and strategic plan. These kinds of sloppy errors make the University look unorganized and unprofessional, as if it cannot manage itself.
GW will be able to make it back onto the list next year, but that doesn’t change the fact that this incident is embarrasing. And it doesn’t change the fact that students and alumni feel let down.
Who could blame them? This mistake could damage the University’s reputation for years.