Here are the takeaways from my telephone conversations Wednesday with two George Washington University presidents, past and current, after U.S. News & World Report designated the school as “unranked.”
Steven Knapp, GWU president since 2007, says he still can’t put a date on the beginning of the admissions data-reporting problem that led to the surprising U.S. News action.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, GWU president from 1988 to 2007 and a professor there now, called the U.S. News action a “mean-spirited” response to a “blunder” on the part of the university.
First, a bit of background. Last week the university disclosed that it had overstated the academic credentials of incoming freshmen. Originally, it reported that 78 percent of those entering the school in fall 2011 had been in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The university said the correct figure was 58 percent, and it said that the data-reporting problem stretched back more than a decade. In a blog post last night, I explored questions about the high school ranking statistic.
The core problem with the university’s data-reporting: It included estimates of how many students were in the top 10 percent, rather than relying solely on documented class-rank information. That blended approach led to a distortion of a statistic in the U.S. News ranking formula.
In September, U.S. News ranked GWU 51st among national universities, tied with Boston and Tulane universities. Now the school is unranked.
Knapp said this about rankings:
“If what we do that improves the academic quality of the institution also improves rankings, that’s great.” But he added: “We’re not trying to do things just for the sake of rankings....What you need to focus on is improving the quality of the institution in every way that you can.”
Asked about the public relations setback, he said: “How people interpet this, being out of the rankings for a year, I don’t know.”
On when the reporting problem started: At least a decade ago. “But we don’t know exactly when it occurred.”
On the problem itself: “That should never have occurred. ... We are holding people accountable for that error.”
On whether the university was seeking to inflate its reputation: “If there was a culture of inflating things, you would expect more than one thing to be inflated.” But that wasn’t the case, he said.
He added: “We’re committed to ideals like truth, honesty, transparency.” Full and accurate disclosure is essential, he said, “no matter what you think the consequences might be.”
Here is Trachtenberg’s take on the U.S. News action.
“It’s foolish. The inaccuracy in the data is such a trivial portion of the ranking that it seems to me mean-spirited on their part. What they should have done is recalibrated and re-ranked the institution on the basis of the data they now have.”
He added that the university was not “cooking the books....This is somebody who made a blunder.”
Trachtenberg said that estimating the data was wrong, but not a deliberate misdeed. He added: “If we were going to call people criminals every time they made an estimate and got it wrong, the weatherman would be in big trouble.”
Trachtenberg rejected any suggestion that the school was deliberately cutting corners in an effort to inflate its ranking under his tenure.
“If you were doing that, you would have done those kind of things in a broader and more comprehensive way” — which did not occur, he said .
But he acknowledged: “Like anybody else, we want to look good., of course. And we wanted to do better, and we were trying very hard.”
I asked Robert Morse, the chief architect of the U.S. News rankings, for an interview yesterday. He declined.