Rankings Pressure as a Motivating Force for Fraud

The Chicago Tribune has picked up on part of the University of Illinois College of Law’s audit report that many readers lament as par for the course. While it’s unknown just how common intentional fraud is at U.S. law schools, the pressure is common among law schools to improve U.S. News rankings. It is easy to see why it sometimes translates to bad behavior.

College of Law admissions dean Paul Pless revealed another motive was at play [in starting its new admissions program]. By admitting high-achieving students in their junior years, without a law school entrance exam, the students’ high GPAs would be included in the class profile but no test scores could potentially drag down the class.

As the former dean’s own words explain:

“That way, I can trap about 20 of the little bastards with high GPA’s that count and no LSAT score to count against my median. It is quite ingenious,” Pless boasted in a 2008 e-mail exchange with an acquaintance about iLEAP, the early admissions program now in its fourth year.

Schools often admit “splitters”—high GPA/low LSAT or high LSAT/low GPA—to achieve higher and higher median scores. Admissions offices are restrained by the need to report the low LSAT or GPA along with the high LSAT or GPA because each low number drags down the median. Pless’s iLEAP program is a way to get credit for the best quality of the splitters (their high GPAs) without the LSAT median sinking downwards.

A review of the investigative file shows the intense culture in which Pless worked, one focused on improving the academic credentials of the incoming classes in part as a means to improving the already well-regarded school’s ranking.

The college’s strategic plans and annual reports focused on that ranking. Pless’ salary increases were tied to it. The law dean and other top officials exchanged emails about the benefits of different combinations of test scores and GPA medians to achieve it.

While most law school administrators wouldn’t so brazenly (and sloppily – professional email communications at a public school are usually subject to open records laws) brag about the novel ways they’ve boosted medians, they all have their bag of tricks. They all know that job security is often tied to maintaining or improving those numbers.

The same pressures exist for improving employment statistics too, though far less is known about intentional changes to underlying employment data. While it’s difficult to spin poor admissions numbers without resorting to fraud, it is far easier to use misleading tactics to dress up the unimpressive reality facing most law school graduates in today’s job market. This is particularly true when the entity charged with policing law schools, the Section of Legal Education, has failed to actively investigate what admissions and career services offices are doing.

It’s odd, to put it lightly, that these pressures exist in the first place. Serious thought needs to be given to the institutional incentives that law schools face, particularly when those incentives seem to run against the interest consumers have in receiving information that’s presented in a fair and accurate manner.

As of now, there are few if any incentives to blow the whistle on unethical admissions practices. It is likely that unethical practices have spread beyond Villanova and Illinois, but they are difficult to catch. These practices would not even be uncovered at the semi-decade inquiries from the ABA site visit teams—an important event for ABA accreditation.

It seems that we may have moved beyond the presumption that all law schools are operating ethically. It’s crucial, for the sake of the schools acting ethically as the gateway to the legal profession, that the bad apples be uncovered. We hope the schools with nothing to hide step up and ask LSAC to audit the past ten years of admissions data at all ABA-approved law schools. The costs of conducting such an audit will pay dividends of restored credibility.

Illinois Admissions Data Fraud Update

The University of Illinois College of Law issued a final report today upon the conclusion of its investigation into inaccurate class profile data shared by the College of Law. We have attached the press release to the end of this post, as well as links to the final report and several statements by the University of Illinois representatives.

Not only are the law schools inolved in intentional fraud losing credibility, but so too are the law schools that do not stand up against these bad actors. All LSAC-member law schools need to demand that LSAC audit all admissions data for the past ten years.

Press Release: College of Law Student Profile Data Inquiry Complete

URBANA—The University of Illinois today issued a final report upon the conclusion of its investigation into inaccurate class profile data shared by the College of Law. The report concluded that the intentional inaccuracies were limited to six of the 10 years reviewed, that a single individual was solely responsible for these inaccuracies, and that the college lacked adequate controls to prevent, deter and detect such actions.

In addition to its findings, the report included a set of eight recommendations, including correction of the erroneous data, implementation of “best practice” processes and controls that include data monitoring, auditing and segregation of duties as well as steps to ensure a continued University culture of integrity and ethical conduct. During the course of the investigation, the college’s assistant dean of admissions was placed on administrative leave and subsequently resigned.

The investigation found that admissions decisions, including scholarship awards, appear to have been made based on the true data originally provided by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), the national admissions data clearinghouse. And it doesn’t appear that any students whose data were changed had any knowledge of those changes. In other words, there is no information indicating that changes to individual Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores or the grade point average (GPA) of any students affected any admissions decisions on particular applicants to the College of Law. The 114-page report (www.uillinois.edu/our/news/2011/Law) is the culmination of an investigation that began Aug. 26 after the University Ethics Office was alerted to potential discrepancies in student profile data—median LSATs and GPAs—for the current College of Law Class of 2014 that had been posted on the college website and disseminated in emails.

Following preliminary confirmation of the discrepancies by the ethics office, the Office of University Counsel informed University President Michael J. Hogan, the Chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus and College of Law leadership. At Hogan’s directive, the University engaged independent outside legal counsel and forensic data analysts to assist in the inquiry. The primary investigative team consisted of the law firm Jones Day, operating under the direction of Theodore Chung, and data analysis firm Duff & Phelps, operating under the direction of Margaret Daley. The report was prepared by Jones Day and Duff & Phelps under the direction of Donna McNeely, the University’s ethics officer, and Scott Rice, the chief legal counsel for the University’s Urbana-Champaign campus.

Hogan directed that the scope of the inquiry be expanded to include 10 years of data and that it go beyond median LSAT and GPA statistics to include the college’s acceptance rates, financial aid and scholarships, bar exam passage rates, and career placement data.

The investigative team spent two months conducting interviews, forensic data analyses and review of approximately 125,000 documents. The work included exhaustive comparisons of data from LSAC and the internal data reported by the law school.

“The report is detailed, thorough, and rigorous, and demonstrates how seriously the University and campus took the initial allegation,” Hogan said. “We are committed to the reliability of data and to a culture of transparency and integrity.”

“The campus has already begun to implement the recommendations in this report,” said Phyllis Wise, vice president of the University of Illinois and chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus. “Additionally, we will work with each of our colleges to ensure that appropriate checks and safeguards are in place to help ensure that all current and future data are accurate, complete and verifiable.”

The investigation determined that “the College reported and/or publicly disseminated inaccurate LSAT and GPA statistics with respect to the class of 2008 and the classes of 2010 through 2014.”

In four of the years, these inaccuracies were based on changes to the LSAT scores or GPAs of individual students that were received by the college from LSAC. In two of the years, no individual data were changed, however, the class LSAT statistics reported by the college differed from the data maintained by LSAC. In all six years, statistics reported by the college were higher than the LSAT and/or GPA values supported by the true student data. College profiles of the classes of 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009 contained no such inaccuracies.

The investigation also revealed that “the college reported and/or publicly disseminated inaccurate acceptance rate data with respect to four classes—the classes of 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2014,” according to the report. “With the exception of 2008, these inaccuracies are attributable to both over-counting the number of applicants and under-counting the number of admissions offers for these classes.”

The investigative report concluded that Paul Pless, the college’s former assistant dean for admissions and financial aid, “knowingly and intentionally” miscalculated key data. The admissions dean was placed on administrative leave Sept. 7 and resigned from the University last week. Over his seven-year tenure, Pless had the responsibility for reporting this data, and the college showed steady, and occasionally dramatic, improvement in the main factors used to gauge the academic credentials of a law school class. According to the report, data analyses and the investigative records indicate that data discrepancies were not random or the result of inadvertent errors.

“Numbers were altered specifically, and often just slightly, to meet recruitment goals and ranking targets indicating an attempt to demonstrate that the College of Law brought in an even more highly credentialed class,” said Margaret Daley of Duff & Phelps.

The investigation found no information indicating that, prior to the commencement of the investigation, any person other than Pless knew that erroneous profile data had been reported or disseminated by the college.

The University publicly disclosed the matter Sept. 9 and subsequently released corrected profile data for the class of 2014 and for the classes of 2011, 2012, and 2013. It has kept the American Bar Association (ABA), the accrediting organization for law schools, informed of developments and fully cooperated with the ABA, which appointed fact finders who visited campus for its own investigation. The University will continue to cooperate with the ABA as it concludes its investigation and reviews the University’s report. The report was submitted to the ABA today.

The University also has been in contact with the rankings staff of U.S. News & World Report.

According to the investigative report, there is no evidence of intentional misreporting in any of the other areas examined in the inquiry–financial aid and scholarships, bar passage rates and career placement data.

“On behalf of the University of Illinois College of Law, I wish to apologize to the legal-academic community, our University, our alumni, and our students, who are among this nation’s most talented and dedicated future lawyers,” said Bruce Smith, Dean of the College. “The investigation has concluded that a single individual – no longer employed by the college – was responsible for these inaccuracies. The college takes seriously the issue of data integrity and intends to implement the report’s recommendations promptly and comprehensively. As the report properly recognizes, the College of Law remains one of the nation’s premier law schools. We are confident that we will justify that assessment with data that are accurate, transparent, and unimpeachable.”

The key recommendations among the eight made in the report are the following:

  • The college’s dean should promptly correct all erroneous data, conduct a comprehensive review of control procedures, and implement “best practices” for staffing and operations of the admissions office.
  • The college should implement “robust” internal monitoring and audit functions “to ensure that internal controls are functioning properly and that all data reported …are accurate and supported,” and should review whether “any other data for which a discernible risk of miscalculation or misreporting exists.”
  • The U of I and the college should embrace the opportunity to champion reforms that would be a model for heightened transparency, avoid placing undue emphasis on any particular data or factor in the admissions process, and continue to reinforce a culture of and commitment to openness and integrity.

The Need for Auditing of Law School Admission Data

We advise all of our readers to take a look at Professor Jerry Organ’s latest piece on the need for auditing law school admission data. His concerns come in the wake of the scandal at the University of Illinois College of Law, where the school has admitted to a pattern of fraud over the last few years. Villanova admitted a similar pattern in January.

As Professor Organ explains:

[T]his behavior is problematic because it not only misleads prospective law students and others regarding the law schools in question, it also erodes the ability of law schools generally to instill in their graduates a professional identity reflecting the highest ethical standards.

Something must be done about this. We have continually reiterated that the Law School Admissions Council would be the cheapest method of ensuring accurate admissions data. All ABA-approved law schools are members. Representatives of LSAC have said that LSAC is not interested in auditing admissions data, despite presently having the capabilities to do so.

A number of pre-law advisors raised this issue with the LSAC at the Pre-Law Advisors National Council Board meeting in March of this year. At that point, however, the LSAC representative expressed no interest in having the LSAC serve as an auditing check on law schools, noting that the LSAC is a membership organization and that any such action would require the consent of the member law schools. Daniel Bernstine, the President of the LSAC, recently was quoted in a National Law Journal article: “That’s just not something we have done historically, and I don’t see why we would. We are not in the reporting business. We don’t distinguish between our [law school] members.”

Despite President Bernstine’s protestations to the contrary, LSAC is in the reporting business. It reports annually the aggregated results of those who take the LSAT and jointly with the ABA publishes the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to law schools, in which the inaccurate data from Villanova and Illinois was reported for the last few years. It also issues a variety of reports to law schools and to pre-law advisors.

Professor Organ has created a survey to gain input on how to best deal with admissions data integrity. You can complete this survey here or by filling it out below.

We will report the results of the survey when Professor Organ makes them available.

Potential admissions data fraud at Illinois


Paul Pless

The Chicago Tribune reported over the weekend that an admissions dean at University of Illinois College of Law has been put on leave pending the outcome of an investigation into the fraudulent reporting of admissions data on the Illinois website. While the data does not appear to have been submitted to the ABA Section of Legal Education, this would still violate Standard 509 because it covers all basic consumer information, not just information submitted to the Section.

Above the Law reports that the investigation will be conducted by Theodore Chung of Jones Day. NonTradLaw reports that the dean is Paul Pless. Confirming this suspicion, Mr. Pless’s profile has disappeared from the Illinois website.

According to Charles Cooper from NonTradLaw:

We need law schools, we need new lawyers, but we don’t need vast numbers of uninformed, indebted, and unhappy law grads. And inflated stats, to some extent, draw in applicants who have no place in law school. This has to stop, at this point, it’s got to stop sooner rather than later.

He is, of course, correct. We expect this to reignite the discussion about auditing all consumer data. While the task will be very difficult and costly for employment data, admissions data would be extremely cheap to audit if the Law School Admissions Council were to cooperate. All ABA-approved law schools are members. Representatives of LSAC have said that LSAC is not interested in auditing admissions data, despite presently having the capabilities to do so.