Gov. Jay Nixon calls for an inquiry into UMKC business school rankings

Gov. Jay Nixon has asked the University of Missouri Board of Curators to review rankings attained by the business school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

During a meeting with the Kansas City Star Editorial Board on Thursday, the governor said he had written a letter requesting that an independent review of the rankings “be undertaken promptly and that the results of this study be made public along with any recommendations for policies.”

The letter to Don Downing, chairman of the board of curators, followed an investigation by The Kansas City Star showing a trail of exaggerations and misstatements by the Henry W. Bloch School of Management that raised questions among university faculty and students about the validity of the rankings.

UMKC responded Thursday with a statement that it welcomed a review, and that it was confident of the validity of the rankings.

The board of curators has scheduled a closed session for Friday, and a source with knowledge of the meeting said it would address the UMKC rankings issue.

Nixon’s letter was referring to two rankings: One from a 2011 Journal of Product Innovation Management (JPIM) study that placed UMKC’s business school first in the world in innovation management research, and the top-25 rankings that year and others in Princeton Review for the business school’s Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

The Star’s findings were published Sunday.

“When I picked up the paper Sunday morning it was the first time I knew that anybody was even looking at that stuff,” Nixon said Thursday morning. “So that’s the first time I had any knowledge of it. So we kind of looked at it ourselves.”

In his letter, also sent to University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton, Nixon said the newspaper article raised “serious questions about the integrity of the scholarship and strategies that have been employed to raise the profile of the institution.”

The letter went on:

“The issues raised by the Star’s investigations are troubling because they go to the fundamental matter of the university’s integrity...

“It is essential that UMKC, and the entire University of Missouri System, establish that the claims and reputation of its academic programs are founded on trustworthy, accurate information in which we all can have confidence.”

In Sunday’s story, UMKC denied that it had engaged in a pattern of exaggerations or took any short cuts in order to win national and global rankings.

A spokesman for the University of Missouri system said Wolfe would have no comment Thursday.

A statement from Downing said, “Whenever there are claims made against any of our university campuses or our people, it is our responsibility to evaluate all the facts and look at the entire situation before determining our course of action. That is what we are in the process of doing.”

In UMKC’s statement Thursday, a spokesman said that the public deserves to know that claims about academic programs are founded on accurate information, and that the situation now calls for a thorough review.

The statement took issue with The Star’s report.

“We have not violated the public trust; we say this with confidence, based on multiple reviews of these issues conducted in academic circles long before the Kansas City Star became involved — reviews that found these criticisms to be without merit,” according to the statement.

“The newspaper chose to ignore the extensive evidence we have provided to them of both the previous investigations into these charges, and of the many highly regarded world-class programs at the Bloch School.”

The Star’s article, however, did summarize an investigation by the publisher of the JPIM material. The Star noted that the journal had conducted a peer review of the study after questions arose about its methodology and a potential conflict of interest between its authors and the university.

The three unnamed members of that review board said they were untroubled by the relationships between the study’s authors and officials at UMKC. Members of that panel agreed they would have published the paper themselves, although they said it could have been improved and that all rankings papers include some subjectivity.

It was that subjectivity, however, and the undisclosed relationship between the authors and UMKC that raised red flags for three independent experts who analyzed the study at The Star’s request. The Star’s investigation also found exaggerations and distorted data in the university’s application for Princeton Review rankings.

The Star’s story followed months of reporting that included interviews with dozens of people inside and outside UMKC and reviews of thousands of pages of internal UMKC documents obtained through an open-records request.

It addresses the Bloch School’s struggle to be included among the top-ranked business schools in the nation and how that changed in 2011 after it received top rankings and a long-sought-after $32 million gift from Henry Bloch to build a state-of-the-art facility for the school.

The Star found professor Michael Song, who was hired to lead UMKC’s Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and then-dean Teng-Kee Tan as key in the university’s efforts to gain national recognition.

At the time the JPIM paper was written, the two authors were working on the UMKC campus as visiting scholars at the Bloch School. The scholars’ yearlong visit from China was at the invitation of Song and Tan.

The Star’s experts who analyzed the JPIM study said it appeared the study’s methodology may have been structured in such a way to ensure that the Bloch School and Song received the top rankings.

UMKC and JPIM officials said, however, that the relationships with the authors do not negate the study’s findings.

Song dismissed as “nonsense” any allegations that the JPIM paper was rigged to deliver the number-one rankings. The study’s authors did not respond for comment.

In the Princeton Review rankings, The Star found several questions about the university’s use of data it submitted. For example, UMKC claimed 100 percent of graduate entrepreneurship students had launched businesses, but the school only counted students in a one-year certificate program, and starting a business was a requirement for them to complete the program.

UMKC denied that it exaggerated or took shortcuts to win the Princeton Review rankings.

The Star’s Mike Hendricks and Dave Helling contributed to this report.

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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