Claremont McKenna’s Watergate?
Administration must re-earn trust of CMC community
The events of the last few weeks have tested the cohesion of the entire Claremont McKenna community and brought into question the College’s integrity.
News that the school reported false SAT scores for incoming freshmen to ranking organizations, the Department of Education, credit agencies, its academic accreditor, and the general public since 2005 shocked us all and propelled our tiny campus into the national spotlight. No longer are we the best school that nobody has ever heard of.
While national media attention has died down and everyone is doing their best to move forward, the SAT scandal has raised questions regarding the honesty of the college administration. In an interview a few days after the College announced the manipulations, CMC President Pamela Gann laid out a three-part plan to deal with the incident: find and fix the problem, report the corrected the data, and repair the College’s reputation and rebuild trust.
The Third Step
The first two steps of this plan were swiftly executed and the responsible administrator, former Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Richard Vos, has resigned. But since the scandal was announced on Jan. 30, many challenges have arisen that hinder the implementation of this third and final step.
“If the administration is not able to pull this together in a way that is satisfactory to the public we are all going to have a major issue,” explained Brad Johnson CMC ’08, an editor emeritus of the Port Side. “I have heard a concern among alums, that what they are doing may be tainted by this…that their education will become undervalued.”
Repairing the trust of students, parents, faculty, staff and alumni is only a fraction of the solution; the College must also make amends with rankings agencies and the larger academic community. Business and personal finance magazine Kiplinger removed the college completely from its “Best Values in Private Colleges” list on account of the false scores even though CMC’s real scores would not have changed its rank. Kiplinger’s editorial director, Kevin McCormally, justified the removal in a blog post: “We believe the best way to preserve the integrity of our rankings – and the trust our readers put in them – is to make it clear that deliberate falsification of the data will not be tolerated.”
While the College’s rankings have not yet been been changed in any other publication, the ultimate repercussions of the scandal have yet to come to light. SAT scores only account for 7.5 percent of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. However, the alumni giving rate and undergraduate academic reputation – two criteria that could be affected by the College’s handling of the situation – account for 27.5 percent of the ranking combined.
Foreboding rumors have circulated concerning the repercussions from the Department of Education and our academic accreditor. There is even a possibility of our credit rating being affected. In a Washington Post article, Ralph A. Wolff, President of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges to which the college submits internal reviews for academic accreditation, pointed out that any falsification of data “raises an integrity issue.”
While numerous College officials declined interview requests, the administration provided the Port Side with an official statement. The statement points out that the Board of Trustees has engaged outside legal counsel to review “admission-related data processes” and will take appropriate actions in response to the findings of the report. “The College remains committed to acting in a manner that reflects the longstanding integrity of our institution and we will continue to update the members of our community about our response to the matter as we are able to do so,” the statement concludes.
While the petty details of the scandal may never be known for certain, the incident has caused many to question CMC’s culture and administration in general. Ask nearly any CMCer to speculate about Vos’s motivations and they will be quick to point out the aspirations of President Gann and the Board of Trustees to advance the college’s national visibility.
“My first reaction to the news was, ‘Of course it’s CMC.’ I am surprised but I wish I was more surprised,” said Johnson.
While it is hard to criticize the administration for how it handled the situation initially, the true test of the administration’s commitment to honesty will come only as more information comes to light.
“I am very happy that the College did not engage in a cover up. This was a huge step; it was not an easy decision to make but it was the right one,” said Johnson. “The question is what they are going to do later? Once the [College] has completed its internal inquiry and gets a flavor for the situation, they need to share that information with the full CMC community.”
Stepping back, it is also hard not to question the role that the administration played in causing the scandal in the first place. In an interview with students, Gann remained vague when asked whether she placed any pressure on the Admissions Office to improve SAT scores.
“We do not have explicit goals for SAT scores,” Gann said in an interview with the Port Side and CMC Forum. “We have aspirations, but that’s not an explicit goal. These aren’t hard and fixed.”
While Gann is quick to differentiate between “goals” and “aspirations,” winter 2010’s feature in CMC Magazine – which celebrates Gann’s tenth anniversary at the College and details the rise in median SAT scores over each year – suggests that this was something the administration strove for, regardless of having an explicit goal or not. “Academically, CMC’s entering students are stronger now than they were ten years ago,” the article boasts. “Median SATs have risen from about 1350 to 1410.”
And as a lawyer, Gann is aware of her word choice. “Aspirations” and “goals” may have distinct meanings in her mind. But coming from the president of a college to a lower administrator, however, “aspiration” and “goal” mean practically the same thing.
Furthermore, until the CMC community hears Vos’s side of the story, his motivations for fabricating test data will remain unknown. What is certain is that all of the pieces of the puzzle do not fit. Vos had a long and storied history at Claremont McKenna. He could have easily retired having played a part in transforming CMC from a school that accepted 49 percent of its applicants to a school that accepts just over 11 percent. Why would he jeopardize everything for 10-20 measly SAT points? After nearly twenty years at the College, what made him start the manipulations of the past seven years?
While the administration has “fixed” the present problem, the more general concern is whether the College will be able to prevent problems like this in the future, a solution which most likely requires CMC to reevaluate its institutional culture. Like cancer, the tumor has been cut away. But who is to say it won’t metastasize in the future?
Johnson believes that the ambitious, win-at-all-costs, type-A personality that characterizes CMC may be causing the College to drift away from its founding mission to “educate its students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership in business, government, and the professions.”
“We alums love CMC for its good side but it is getting harder and harder to ignore its problems,” said Johnson. “If the administration is not able to present itself in a way to recapture its collegiateness, it will be hard to support in the future. We are a college, not a corporation.”
It seems that our biggest strengths are becoming our biggest weaknesses.