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Differing ‘Admission Priorities’ Prompted VP to Falsify Data

A former admissions chief who falsified admissions statistics at Claremont McKenna College felt pressure to “maintain or increase” the SAT scores of freshman classes, but that pressure “did not exceed the norm” for senior-level administrators, according to findings of an external investigation released on Tuesday.

Richard C. Vos, the official who manipulated the data, acted alone, and none of the college’s other leaders knew of his actions, the report says. A disagreement over “admission priorities,” the report’s authors conclude, may explain his motivation for altering the numbers he presented to the college and the public. Mr. Vos could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

In late January, Mr. Vos, then the vice president and dean of admission and financial aid, resigned after admitting that he had reported inaccurate SAT statistics for each freshman class going back to 2005. The following day, Claremont McKenna’s president, Pamela B. Gann, announced that that the college had hired a law firm, O’Melveny & Myers LLP, to conduct an external investigation. The announcement served as a reminder that admissions numbers—scrutinized by presidents and trustees, students, and parents—are not always what they seem (one expert described the “the elasticity of admissions statistics“).

Moreover, the incident underscored the importance of oversight. The lack of internal verification procedures enabled Mr. Vos to conceal his actions, the report said: He was a “long-time and trusted executive who closely controlled and exercised ultimate authority over the reporting of admissions statistics.” The investigation also revealed that Mr. Vos altered other admission statistics, including ACT scores, class rank, and application totals.

Although Mr. Vos said he was solely responsible for the falsifications, he told the lawyers who wrote that report that Ms. Gann had “pressured him” to improve the test scores of incoming classes. The report, however, states that Mr. Vos enjoyed his job and felt secure in his position, and that there was no evidence that he was subject to “coercive or improper” pressure. Mr. Vos “suffered no disciplinary or economic consequence” for reporting false median SAT scores below his goals in 2008, 2009, and 2010, according to the law firm’s findings.

“While we believe that the VP sincerely feared disappointing the president if he did not meet his goals,” the report says, “we concluded that his subjective fear cannot reasonably be viewed as the product of undue pressure.”

What motivated Mr. Vos to fudge the data? A disagreement over “admission priorities,” the report concludes. In 2002, Claremont McKenna adopted a 10-year strategic plan, which included goals for enhancing the academic quality of its students. Among the most important benchmarks for measuring that quality were SAT scores. This long-term plan informed the annual admissions goals that Mr. Vos set each year, in consultation with Ms. Gann.

In 2004, the year Mr. Vos apparently began falsifying data, he reported a median SAT score of 1400 for the first time. The actual median was 1390, according to the report. Mr. Vos later told a college official that in 2005, when the median SAT score was also below 1400, he began inflating SAT scores because he “could not bring himself to tell the president about this development,” the report says.

During the investigation, Mr. Vos offered an explanation for fabricating the SAT scores. “He explained that the president’s admission priorities, while achievable, did not match his own,” the report says. “The VP stated that the college’s applicant pool could support the goal of maintaining or incrementally increasing SAT scores. He also acknowledged that achieving the SAT goal required some adjustments to the priorities applied in the admissions process. Rather than make some adjustments, however, the VP applied his own admission priorities. The VP stated that he knew what was in [the college]‘s best interest when it came to admissions decisions. And, although he embraced and achieved some of the president’s admission goals, he felt she had too many goals and that some must give way. When the VP’s admissions decisions did not produce the targeted SAT statistics, he chose to falsify the SAT statistics to conceal the outcome from the president.”

In other words, Mr. Vos apparently decided to reward a number of applicants for their qualitative attributes—such as leadership qualities and personal interests—rather than for their grades, test scores, and class rank. He did so, it seems, in keeping with the college’s holistic evaluation process, but also at the cost of quantitative measures of each class’s academic quality. It’s unclear whether Mr. Vos perceived that the college’s emphasis on improving academic quality threatened its ability to enroll a diverse class, but such a tension is common inside the admissions offices of selective colleges.

In an interview on Tuesday, Ms. Gann described the college’s admissions goals as “totally reasonable and totally commonplace.” She said she did not recall Mr. Vos expressing any concerns about those goals. “In general terms, we felt at the college that the admissions area was very high-performing,” she said. “In retrospect, we were basing that evaluation on what turned out to be misreported … admissions statistics.”

When asked if she would have been satisfied with Mr. Vos’s performance had he reported the correct numbers between 2004 and 2011, Ms. Gann’s response was “not entirely.”

“If I had seen the actual data, we would have had a conversation about his holistic admissions process,” Ms. Gann said. “The report clearly states that the … academic goals could clearly have been met with some adjustments in shaping the class.”

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