Government & Politics

UMKC Bloch School submitted false data for rankings, but results might not have changed, auditors say

University of Missouri-Kansas City Henry W. Bloch School of Management officials falsely submitted some data, an audit found. But the report found no reason to believe the school’s top ranking was not deserved.
University of Missouri-Kansas City Henry W. Bloch School of Management officials falsely submitted some data, an audit found. But the report found no reason to believe the school’s top ranking was not deserved. The Kansas City Star

Officials at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s business school knowingly submitted false data when applying for rankings and awards from national organizations, according to a report released Friday by the University of Missouri System.

The audit by an international accounting firm found no reason to believe those rankings were undeserved even after accounting for misinformation.

It also did not challenge an article by two Chinese scholars that ranked the school’s entrepreneurship program No. 1 in the world and that became the centerpiece of a UMKC marketing effort.

However, on page after page, the report by PricewaterhouseCoopers backs up and amplifies findings of a 2014 investigation by The Kansas City Star.

The newspaper articles described a pattern of exaggerations, misstatements and cherry-picking data at UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management in pursuit of top rankings.

Among the auditors’ key findings:

▪ A top official at the Bloch School said he felt pressured by his boss to do things that were improper in pursuit of top rankings. He said he feared for his job if he did not submit flawed or false data to the Princeton Review, which has ranked the school’s graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship programs in its annual top 25 every year since 2011.

▪ The report also found that the academic journal article ranking UMKC No. 1 in the world in innovation management research was edited in part by Michael Song, who was then the head of the Bloch School department receiving the top ranking.

The report reveals previously undisclosed details about Song’s involvement, including his telling auditors that he might have written parts of the paper for the Journal of Product Innovation Management, or JPIM.

Song’s involvement with the paper that gave him and the university top marks was not disclosed in the article. Nor were the authors’ affiliations with UMKC disclosed to the editor of the journal that published the paper, nor were readers informed.

The auditors noted that the work was not subjected to the same rigid standards as top academic papers.

▪ The audit also talked about how much Henry W. Bloch, the business school’s main benefactor, valued rankings as affirmation for the school that bore his name, according to the school’s dean at the time. But the report found no evidence that rankings convinced Bloch to support the school monetarily, including a $32 million gift for a new building.

The university system’s Board of Curators commissioned the audit on July 31 at the request of Gov. Jay Nixon. The governor said an independent review was necessary in light of The Star’s investigation.

The report’s findings also were reviewed by a retired business professor and consultant.

UMKC officials said that professor’s independent analysis of the report “validated” UMKC’s top ranking in the article published in JPIM.

But in a statement, Chancellor Leo Morton said, “I take seriously the report’s conclusions on the three areas of flawed data in the Princeton Review application.”

The Bloch School’s current dean, David Donnelly, has appointed a special faculty committee to oversee future rankings data submissions.

At least one outside observer said the report shows that changes are needed.

“PricewaterhouseCoopers learned a lot that does not make the university look stellar,” said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website that monitors scientific retractions, fraud and scientific integrity. “I think that it found things that don’t make the university look as positive as it would like.”

Princeton Review

The Star’s investigation focused on the importance that Bloch School administrators placed on high rankings to increase enrollment and attract donations.

That theme surfaced, too, in the PricewaterhouseCoopers report. In a quote from a 2011 email, then-Dean Teng-Kee Tan coaxed top administrators to raise the school’s standing in the Princeton Review rankings to impress the school’s chief benefactor.

“Henry Bloch gets very upset when our rankings go down,” Tan wrote. “We must do everything we can to increase it when we can by all means necessary.”

The entrepreneurship program’s managing director at the time, John Norton, was responsible for submitting rankings applications. He told auditors that he felt pressured by Song “to do things that were improper in relation to” the Princeton Review submissions.

The report said he went along anyway “for fear of job security.”

Norton was not available for comment Friday, a university spokesman said. Neither was Song.

Among the false data submitted, the report said, were the numbers of student clubs and mentorship programs and enrollment figures for the entrepreneurship program. The Star’s stories also raised questions about those numbers.

In its application, the Bloch School told the Princeton Review that it had 27 to 29 officially recognized clubs and organizations specifically open to entrepreneurship students.

In fact, most of those clubs did not exist, the auditors said. Instead, Norton told them Song put together a “wish list” of clubs and instructed a graduate student to post those clubs on the university’s website.

The current head of the entrepreneurship program, Jeff Hornsby, told PricewaterhouseCoopers that he had all but five of those listings removed from the website after he replaced Song last year.

“He believed 29 clubs never existed at the university in any capacity,” the report said. “He stated that ‘there is no defending that number.’”

Also inflated was the number of mentorship programs, the report found. UMKC told the Princeton Review its entrepreneurship program had 78 mentorship programs. Norton told auditors the number was Song’s, who based it on individual specialties of the more than 130 business executives who advised students.

Norton told the auditors he did not agree but submitted the number anyway.

At most, there were five or six mentorship programs for entrepreneurship students “and 78 was never a reasonable number,” Norton said.

When he raised those concerns, Norton told auditors, Song said, “This is what people do.”

One thing UMKC did is include non-degree-seeking students when it answered Princeton Review questions that were aimed at students seeking degrees.

One question asked how many students had started a business. Instead of counting “formally enrolled,” degree-seeking entrepreneurship students who had done so, the university reported the number of participants in a one-year program, open to nonstudents, that awards a certificate, not a degree.

One requirement for those so-called e-scholars was that they start a business to get that certificate. So the percentage of students starting a business was 100 percent. Had formally enrolled students been counted as well, the percentage would have been lower, the report said.

Norton said Song told him it was OK to use e-scholars solely in answering the Princeton Review questions. Norton did not agree, he told the auditors, but submitted the information anyway.

More recently, the director of content development at the Princeton Review told PricewaterhouseCoopers that using only e-scholar numbers “would not be acceptable.”

Song remains on the faculty as a professor, but Donnelly asked him to step down from his administrative duties when Donnelly replaced Tan as dean last March.

One reason, Donnelly told auditors, was that faculty said Song was out of the country too much, doing consulting work for universities overseas.

Donnelly said he didn’t think Song was “being upfront with him” about the Princeton Review data, the report said, and questioned the way Song and Tan provided certain answers in the rankings application.

“He stated that he ‘could not trust’” Song, the report said.

The auditors’ report also found that UMKC exaggerated and misreported data submitted to the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship in 2012.

That’s when USASBE awarded National Model program designation to the Bloch School’s graduate entrepreneurship program. The undergraduate program received the award in 2014.

Accompanying the PricewaterhouseCoopers report was an analysis by a professor of business hired by the curators to review and comment on the report.

Robert D. Hisrich, a professor emeritus of entrepreneurship at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., acknowledged the inaccuracies in the Princeton Review applications but said, “I cannot conclude that the inaccurate information made a material difference in UMKC’s rankings.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers asked the Princeton Review, which is not affiliated with Princeton University, to recalculate the rankings with accurate data, but it declined.

The No. 1 ranking

Hisrich also reviewed the report’s findings with regard to the No. 1 ranking that UMKC’s entrepreneurship program received in the “Perspective” article published by the Journal of Product Innovation Management.

Perspective articles include opinion pieces and reports that have not been subjected to peer review — examination by outside experts who do not know the identities of the authors.

Neither The Star nor the audit questioned whether UMKC’s program deserved to be ranked above competing programs at Harvard, Stanford or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The JPIM article ranked Song as the top scholar in the field of innovation management and UMKC as the top school.

Hisrich said the JPIM article’s methodology and the circumstances surrounding its publication “were consistent with generally acceptable professional practices.”

But methodologies and data selection are often a judgment call, according to one of three anonymous reviewers who looked over the article at JPIM’s request.

“If a different methodology were used, then it is possible that a different outcome might be found,” the reviewer wrote. “... It is very difficult to criticize a methodology as right or wrong, per se, based on the judgment of its author(s).”

In its story last year, The Star called on three other experts to review the JPIM paper. All three questioned the methodology. They said it appeared to favor UMKC.

The dates of the study mirrored Song’s publication career, and the journals whose articles were counted differed somewhat from an earlier study from 2007.

The Chinese scholars’ study ranked three researchers at UMKC in the top 50 in the world, pushing UMKC to the top spot. One of those researchers was not as highly ranked and another wasn’t ranked at all in the 2007 study.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report found no fault in the way the data that supported the new ranking were counted, or in what The Star’s experts considered to be a nontraditional method of ranking universities. A more traditional method would not have ranked UMKC at the top because most of its researchers’ work occurred at other universities, before they came to UMKC.

The two authors, PianPian Yang and Lei Tao, told the auditors, “We disclosed in full the methodology and research design.”

Among other details revealed in the report was Song’s involvement in the writing, editing and publication of the article that ranked him as the world’s top scholar in innovation management research.

Song told The Star last spring that he could not recall what, if any, role he had in the paper’s publication. “Did I see a version of their paper? I don’t really remember.”

But he told PricewaterhouseCoopers’ auditors that “he was very involved in helping clarify the strategy portion of the rankings paper.”

According to the report, Song said he may have written parts of the paper beyond basic editing and grammatical changes. He and the authors also said the paper was largely completed by the time he saw it and submitted it to JPIM for publication.

“Our ranking article was written and related research was completed before we arrived at UMKC in August 2010,” Yang and Tao told the auditors.

Journal editor Anthony DiBenedetto told the auditors that he found no fault with the paper itself but was not pleased that Song didn’t tell him the two authors were visiting scholars at UMKC.

Hisrich, the professor the curators hired to review the report, was not troubled by that lack of disclosure, he said in a phone interview Friday. The authors met Song in China before their acceptance as visiting scholars at UMKC. Tan and Song signed their visa requests. Their connections to UMKC and Song were not publicly disclosed until The Star reported it more than two years after their paper was published.

As a reader, “it would have been nice” to have that information, Hisrich said, but the undisclosed affiliations would not have brought UMKC’s top ranking into question.

The $32 million gift

One other point Hisrich highlighted was the audit report’s findings concerning a $32 million gift that Henry Bloch gave for a new building at the business school.

“The $32 million gift of Henry Bloch was not motivated by past and future rankings,” Hisrich wrote, “but primarily by the needs of a new facility to accommodate increasing enrollment.”

However, in a recorded interview last summer, Bloch told The Star that absent top rankings, he doubted that he would have written checks worth millions of dollars to the university.

“No, I don’t think I would have,” he said.

After that interview, however, Bloch sent a statement to The Star that put more emphasis on the university’s space needs as his motivation for making the bequest.

In a statement released Friday through UMKC, Bloch said, “It’s time to get back to the important work of building on the successes of the Bloch School and continuing the fine work they’ve been doing to meet the needs of its students and Kansas City’s business community.”

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419, oremail mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report: umurl.us/PWCreport

The Hisrich analysis: umurl.us/RHreport

The Star's original stories: www.kansascity.com/news/local/article811395.html

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