Lessons from the Emory University Data Scandal

Editor’s Note: As summer winds down, Research Access will be getting you ready to go “back to school” with two weeks of posts on the topic of education. Between August 20 and 31 we will be doing a series of posts that will have you ready to put on those new clothes, pack your lunch box and shine up that apple for the teacher.

After a three-month investigation, officials at Atlanta’s Emory University admitted last week that the school purposefully provided false information about its student body’s performance on standardized tests to external college ranking surveys including the influential list produced annually by U.S. News & World Report.

Not surprisingly, those responsible have resigned. But in the big picture, much more important than their individual career paths is that the reputation of Emory University has been damaged.

Cheating is, of course, a particularly sensitive issue for an educational institution.  Integrity is at the heart of any serious organization’s reputation, but it is part of a university’s DNA.

One clear lesson from this scandal is that you must respect the integrity of data. While there may be “lies, damn lies and statistics,” it will be increasingly difficult to get away with manipulation as the information age moves into the big data age.

In this case, the deception was uncovered when a new Dean of Admissions uncovered the score discrepancy and reported it the school’s provost. In the future data anomalies will be detected by algorithms and automatically escalated.

Another lesson is that in the new paradigm surveys and data are more important than ever. In the case of universities, admissions data compiled in the U.S. News & World Report presumably have a tremendous impact on their livelihood. As information proliferates across the world and competition increases, the impact of these university rankings will only increase.

Every educator, and indeed every educated individual, should take these lessons to heart, lest they follow in Emory’s footsteps.

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About Dana Stanley

Dana is the Editor-in-Chief of Research Access.

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