UMKC vs. The Star: The ‘he said, she said’ of the Bloch Controversy

U-News Staff

It isn’t every day that Kansas City Star columnist Mike Hendricks receives a tip on academic fraud. In 2013, two UMKC faculty members disclosed to Hendricks that there were discrepancies with the school’s rankings.

Hendricks has written professionally for 30 years. On the subject of academia, however, he was a novice.

In 2014 Hendricks jumped on the story.

Something smells fishy

The tips Hendricks received acknowledged that the faculty was in on the rankings. He told the school’s Strategic Marketing and Communication Department what he was looking for. Hendricks said the department gave him his first push- “there’s nothing to it”.

Interviews with staff were closely monitored. He was not able to disclose the names of faculty who lead him on. It didn’t matter who said what, the devil was in the details.

On the Bloch school’s website, 29 academic clubs were listed, however, roughly 85 percent of those links lead to nowhere.

According to information given from the school, 100 percent of entrepreneurship program graduates went on to start businesses. With seniors required to start their own business as a final project, the actual numbers are below 50 percent. Off the record, professors told Hendricks that the clubs didn’t exist. They knew these claims weren’t accurate. This was the data that was submitted to the Princeton Review.

Along with the data submitted to the Princeton Review, UMKC’s number one ranking in the Journal of Product Innovation Management ame up. The results of this journal even made the faculty skeptical.

The data in this journal ranked UMKC number one in the world for innovation management, right above M.I.T., Stanford, and Harvard.

The methodology behind the study was proven correct by an audit from Price Waterhouse Cooper. That didn’t mean the methodology was conventional.

Hendricks discovered the authors of the study gave credit to UMKC for research developed. Traditionally credit would be given to the school while the researchers were still employed by it. Their method accounted for work of current and former UMKC researchers regardless of which university they worked for. Essentially, if a former UMKC researcher did work for KU, their work was counted as UMKC’s in the study.

A glance into the authors of the study finds close ties to the Bloch School’s lead scholar- Michael Song. The authors were students at the university in China where Dr. Song used to teach. In fact, he was the only person mentioned by name in the study.

Even with these findings the Price Waterhouse Cooper audit still considered the number one claim valid. While the methodology was non-traditional, the data still met the parameters.

Hendricks was on to something. It wasn’t long before the school sent him a rebuttal.

There’s nothing to see here

“13 pages, single spaced,” recalled Hendricks. He received a long response from the school’s Strategic Communication Department criticizing his methods, defending the school’s rankings and disqualifying his expertise on the subject of academia. Quite a response to prove the school had nothing to hide.

In an interview with John Martellaro, director of UMKC’s public relations, he mentioned their department had no knowledge of any inflated statistics.

The 13 page response was to give “our side of the story”, according to Martellaro. The department felt that Hendricks, a columnist with no background in higher education, was not qualified enough to be making these allegations. His sources were considered by the department to be faulty at best.

He did know that the journal’s ranking was criticized, but the audit by the PWC supported its claim.

Hendricks received assurance from the Strategic Communications Department, and even Henry Bloch, that there was nothing to find. He said they told him his findings were based on claims from a disgruntled faculty member.

Then Hendricks and The Kansas City Star put together their own panel.

Tattle-tale

In the summer of 2014 The Star notified the Princeton Review of their findings.

“If there is something wrong, no big deal”- said Hendricks, summarizing the Princeton Review’s response.

According to Dean Dave Donnelly of the Bloch School, the school was first aware of possible ranking discrepancies since 2012. They contacted the Princeton Review of their findings as well, receiving the same answer.

In July of that year, Hendricks and staff of The Star published an article titled “UMKC’s Misleading March to the Top.” The story contained all of The Star’s findings on the journal ranking and the Princeton Review fraud. Michal Song was placed in The Star’s line of fire as being responsible.

The Star’s approach seemed almost hostile to the school. The Princeton Review was allegedly in support of the findings and the independent study was validated. To the Strategic Communications Department, however, the article appeared to be an assault on the school’s integrity.

It wasn’t until the Princeton Review performed its own audit that everything changed.

The balloon bursts

Sunday night, Feb. 2,, the Princeton Review stripped UMKC of its 2014 ranking. By Monday morning, Chancellor Leo Morton acknowledged inflated statistics for the years 2011, 2012, and 2014 as well, causing the rankings from those years to be stripped, too.

The Princeton Review gave the Bloch School the cold shoulder. Dean Donnelly said there was no comment from the Princeton Review after Chancellor Morton came clean about the fraudulent rankings.

By the following Tuesday “UMKC Loses its Top Rankings in the Princeton Review” was published in The Star.

“If the school had come clean last spring, they would have saved themselves,” said Hendricks. “They made us [The Star] feel like we had to dig deeper.”

Chancellor Leo Morton emailed a statement to UMKC’s faculty and student body the same day The Star’s article was released.  In the statement, Morton admitted the fraud, but he also supported the independent study’s number one claim. Morton also urged for complete honesty and transparency among UMKC’s faculty and staff.

By the following Monday, the Chancellor appeared on Up to Date on 89.3 KCUR.

“We took a hit to our brand,” said Morton. “We are doing everything humanly possible to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Impact

The falsified ratings might lead to consequences for the School, however it’s hard to gauge what those will be.

According to Chancellor Morton and Dean Donnelly in a Q&A forum with the students, the school still has a “long list of letters of support” from businesses and donors.

Morton mentioned “rankings aside, the value of these programs are impeccable”.

Director of Public Relations John Martellaro was unable to answer what the potential impact could be.

Hendricks, when asked about the impact, said the impact would be very little. He went on to describe how The Princeton Review is essentially just Yelp or Consumer Reports for colleges. It might affect potential applicants.

In his reports he detailed that The Princeton Review has no connection with Princeton University. He also mentioned the Review never discloses their methods for ranking.

He discredited college ranking as a whole. “The whole pursuit of rankings in higher education is a disease, it’s unhealthy.”