Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Claremont McKenna College: Anatomy of a higher education scandal in the social media age

That  might seem like a little bit of hyperbole, but I have noticed a very deliberate change in the way my Alma Mater communicates with me after a story about the college manipulating SAT scores broke.

We only cheated "this much!"
So as the story goes, one lone dean decided to fudge the numbers. Not a lot, just a little bit so he could show a trend line of average SAT scores that was steadily going up. The dean has since resigned, fallen on his sword and now the case is closed. Right?

Well it probably shouldn't be. My main problem with the college essentially sweeping this story under the rug was that they seemed to skip a couple of the steps of crisis management.

They never really owned up to this breach of trust. Pamela Gann's email simply said, "the individual has taken full responsibility and has resigned his position from the College effective immediately. At this time, we have no reason to believe that other individuals were involved"

Really? No other individuals? Regardless of the practical impossibility that this dean was the only person with access to this data, this response doesn't address the bigger issues at play here. Institutions of higher education and Claremont in particular, are obsessed with their ranking (we are #9 this year). One of the key metrics that determine this ranking is the SAT scores of the incoming class.

There is no way this dean would chose to do something so obviously dangerous to his career unless he was being pressured. He was being pressured by Pam Gann and her administration who will stop at nothing, including sacrificing the foundational values of the college to raise its rankings in the magazines.

Its disgusting. And to add insult to injury the College has very clearly contracted a PR firm to beef up its communications and do damage control WITHOUT EVER REALLY ADMITTING THEY DID SOMETHING WRONG. They have basically skipped the step of admitting to a mistake and instead have chosen to blame a scapegoat and sweep the story under the rug. They want to pretend this isn't a serious issue, but they pretty clearly do understand that this scandal is a major threat to Claremont's credibility and reputation.

My first clue that this scandal was going to be handled very poorly came from Facebook on the day the story broke in the New York Times:

As you can see, the Hootsuite (a program that allows you to schedule updates in advance) post from the college went up as if nothing was happening, while the online student publication was breaking the news and using social media the way its is supposed to be used. Bad move CMC, bad move. Mistake #1 don't pretend like nothing is happening, it makes people very suspicious.

Next came the half-hearted attempt to use a hashtag (on Facebook?) to show that no matter what happens, CMC students would always be "#CMC4Life..."

Now don't get me wrong, I certainly will be #CMC4Life. But this campaign raises the obvious question: why should this scandal cause me to question my loyalty to the school in the first place? If it was really just one rouge dean, why should I worry? The answer is because the college's administration really does understand how this shift in institutional culture represent a real threat to the college.

And then the emails started coming.  I did a little checking and over the 5 months previous to this scandal breaking, the college and its alumni organization sent me about .2 emails per day. Since this scandal broke, they have pulled out all the stops and are now sending me an email on average every other day telling me how great everything is.

The PR consultants have earned their money. This glossy new campaign they dreamed up has totally distracted me from this scandal that was never fully resolved. Again I will quote our college president's email (the only official statement that has been released as far as I can tell) "Second, we have engaged outside legal counsel from O'Melveny & Myers to complete an independent review of our admission-related data processes... Finally, we are reviewing our internal data gathering and reporting processes and will strengthen them to ensure that this type of conduct will not occur in the future."

So when will the results of this independent review be made public? Will they ever? I doubt it. Because I know what any real investigation would conclude:

"Claremont McKenna College as a systemic problem. The lack of unbiased oversight and unrelenting pressure from administration officials to improve the ranking of the college will cause incidents like this to happen again. Without a change in leadership and a re-evaluation of the college's ethics and practices nothing will change and the institution will continue to sacrifice its values of honesty and integrity in order to be more favorably ranked."


  1. Erik,

    An interesting post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and as a fellow Washingtonian (Bainbridge Island High School), I love to see fellow alumni engaged our great state.

    A couple items to consider.

    First, the initial #CMC4life was an idea of mine and a couple other CMC alumni who are passionate about CMC and the success of the organization. The College had nothing to do with the effort, and we were not prompted or paid to do it. In the heat of the story, we simple wanted to reiterate our love and support for CMC at a time when embarrassing and bad news was coming out. If it was a fail, it failed because not many others shared the sentiment or reaction that myself and a cadre of friends felt. But if a social media idea from a couple people does not take off, is that a fail or is that the nature of the Internet? Perhaps if the launch effort has resource and staff dedicated to it, you can call it a fail because money was spent but results were not achieved. In this case, however, no money was spent – no resources expended.

    Any failure of the hashtag to take off can be attributed to

    Subsequent to the efforts of myself and others, the College and/or students picked up on the #cmc4life concept and started advancing that idea. This likely leads to the false perception that the College was behind the initial effort you cite, rather than a few fellow alumni expressing their grassroots support.

    Second, I have no knowledge that the College hired an outside PR firm. Indeed, the fact that I don’t have knowledge of that leads me to think they actually did not hire one. But I don’t work for the College so I don’t know that for certain. I do know that a new PR executive started at the College in December. He arrived just in time for the Condoleeza Rice-Pitzer matter and then was hit with the SAT scandal. Welcome to CMC!

    The new PR director had some key post to fill and objectives in mind when he started, and the wheels were in motion for the revised CMC email update format and frequency. The College has a history of not engaging and communicating consistently with its various audiences at a more appropriate pace. It was starting to do just that when the SAT scandal hit, leading to the perception that one was a reaction to the other.

    None of these facts dispute or seek to undermine your concern with the bigger issues you raise about responsibility and properly addressing the SAT scandal in the eyes of alumni and others. That is a subject with many opinions and viewpoints, and the right answer may not be known and the right action may or may not have been taken or will be taken. Plus, there could be all sorts of legal issues and meeting schedules (quarterly Trustee meetings, for example) that are slowing down the pace of comment and engagement by the powers at the College.

    Most importantly of all, I am glad you join me in being cmc4life.


    Ryder Todd Smith ‘96