February 1, 2012
Claremont McKenna College has announced that for several years, it deliberately provided U.S. News and World Report and other providers of college rankings inaccurate data about its students’ SAT scores. The story appeared in dozens of outlets. The New York Times story is here. The ABC News/AP wire story is here. The Inside Higher Ed story is here.
The New York Times had a further story yesterday headlined “Gaming the College Rankings,” by Richard Perez-Pena and Daniel E. Slotnik in which they reflect on this and other instances of misreporting of data to U.S. News and other rankers. I’ve written often about the harm done by rankings: instances here, here, here, here and here.
What especially struck me about the Perez-Pena and Slotnik article, however, was the word “gaming” in the headline. Now I know that those who write articles for newspapers and those who write headlines are often different people, but in the text of the article the authors say “In fact, several colleges in recent years have been caught gaming the system — in particular, the avidly watched U.S. News & World Report rankings — by twisting the meanings of rules, cherry-picking data or just lying.” So “gaming” is their word.
By what stretch of the meaning of words is what Claremont McKenna did “gaming” as opposed to lying? I take gaming to mean something like ‘technically correct’ or ‘within the rules’ but nevertheless fostering a misimpression. That’s not what CMCC did. They lied. Lying by a college, whose mission must be (if it’s a college) to engage students and teachers in the pursuit of truth, is a very big deal — a much bigger deal than “gaming.”
The Times is not alone. Bloomberg News’s Jane Shaw refers to the incident as “mischief.” It’s more than that. Shouldn’t we expect newspapers to know lying when they see it?
One other observation. CMCC President Pamela Gann attributed the reporting of false data to one official, apparently the Dean of Admissions, who has now apparently resigned. But how and why was one person — someone who had a strong interest in the results — wholly responsible for the data submitted? CMCC has an office of institutional research. That office (says the college website) “coordinates the collection and dissemination of campus information for internal and external purposes, as directed by the Dean of the Faculty. The OIR is committed to maintaining high standards of data integrity and management, while safeguarding the confidentiality of personal data.” Why wasn’t this office responsible for verifying and submitting the data?