Editor-in-Chief Kyle Murray, Managing Editor Elijah Knodell, and Deputy News Editor Emma Burris met with the acclaimed author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell to discuss his findings from an investigation into the Columbia U.S. News Scandal.
On June 8, author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell aired an episode of his popular podcast Revisionist History titled “The Pushkin Prize for Egregiously Deceptive Self-Promotion” dedicated to exploring the intricacies of the Columbia U.S. News scandal. In this episode, Gladwell converses with Columbia mathematics professor Michael Thaddeus, who published the initial report on Columbia’s inaccurate U.S. News statistics.
Gladwell alleges that Columbia’s data manipulation and response to the scandal is “gratuitous,” “remorseless,” and “reckless,” comparing the behavior of University administration to that of US Representative George Santos. While Gladwell, like Thaddeus, finds the entire U.S. News rankings system to be futile, he especially disapproves of Columbia’s behavior regarding the rankings, stating that they had “broken the most fundamental of promises to [their] own community.”
“I’ve been saying for years that the U.S. News rankings are a fraud,” Gladwell said in a press release prior to the release of the podcast episode. “Now we have an elite institution involved in what looks an awful lot like an attempt to defraud that fraud. It’s like if someone wrote Bernie Madoff a bad check. It’s a bit of a head spinner. But that’s what we specialize in at Revisionist History.”
After consulting with a data scientist who employed a recreation of U.S. News’ ranking algorithm to discern which statistics were responsible for Columbia’s ascent to #2, Gladwell believes that there was an intentional effort behind the scenes to skew the rankings, not an accidental flaw in the University’s fact-collecting methodologies.
“This argues powerfully for some kind of premeditation on the part of Columbia—I mean we have no idea what they did, so this is all in the realm of speculation. But they basically manufactured a 12-point swing*, and it’s very hard to imagine how you can manufacture a 12-point swing by the seat of your pants,” Gladwell said in the episode.
Shortly after the podcast episode aired, Gladwell spoke with Bwog about his team’s findings and his personal opinions about the scandal. Below, he also shares thoughts on why Columbia dropped out of the U.S. News undergraduate rankings, an event left undiscussed in his podcast, as the decision occurred only two days before the episode aired.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Kyle Murray: In light of recent news—a few days ago Columbia dropped out of the U.S. News undergraduate rankings. We were curious about your opinion, especially from this outsider point-of-view, about navigating these college rankings. Do you think that this was motivated by the futility of the U.S. News rankings or as a means of avoiding this reassessment that’s likely to occur? A mix of both? Some unknown reasons? What’s your view?
Malcolm Gladwell: I think it’s 100% that the Columbia administration is terrified of what any kind of in-depth investigation of their data submissions and their methodology would look like. I think that the thing that’s unstated in all of this is that the University administration is in legal jeopardy. I talked about it in my podcast, but this parallel case** with the business school at Temple in Philadelphia. That guy was sentenced in federal court. He’s appealing his decision, but he was all set to go to jail. There are prosecutors in New York right now watching this very closely because this is fraud, right? If in fact it is a deliberate attempt to mislead students and teachers. There are a whole list of reasons why Columbia might be motivated to take this action. Number one, without question, is that they don’t want to go to jail and they are hastily trying to cover their tracks right now. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s what’s motivating them.
KM: On that, because you had brought up the example with the Temple University business school—I’m curious to see if you believe there might be any differences in treatment, especially given the relative cultural differences we might perceive, with Temple’s business school versus Columbia.
MG: Do I think there’s a close analysis between the Temple case and the Columbia case? To the extent that you’re trying to analyze the seriousness of these two infractions, the argument made of the Temple case was that Temple’s false elevation of its rankings led to a material increase both in number and quality of students who are applying, and also ultimately the amount of money made by the school. Students so closely use the rankings as a way to decide which school to go to that you can draw a bright line between your ranking and the amount of money you make.
Do I think this applies to the Columbia case? Absolutely. If your school is ranked #2, you’re going to have a visibility among potential applicants, and also among donors. People are a lot more excited to give to a school because it’s the second-best school in the country than they are to a school that they think is the 18th-best school in the country. So, I don’t think in that sense there’s any difference between the two cases. In both cases, a determined prosecutor could make the argument that if fraud is proven, that there was some material benefit to Columbia from fudging its numbers.
Emma Burris: In light of the U.S. News scandal, how do you think other universities will react? Do you expect other universities to reevaluate their ranking participation, and possibly even drop out of the rankings altogether?
MG: My cynical view is that Columbia was not the only university fudging its numbers. It’s really hard for me to believe that of all the schools that are involved here, only Columbia University is playing these games. In fact, I was walking along the street in Manhattan a couple weeks ago, and a guy stopped me and said, “Thank you.” I said, “Why are you thanking me?” He said, “Because those blog posts you wrote talking about the Columbia U.S. News scandal got me a lot of legal work.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “Well, all these schools have called me up and have said that they’re terrified of what will happen to them.” I go, “Can you give me any names?” He goes, “No I can’t!” and walked away. I didn’t even get his name.
So my point is, lots and lots and lots of people—there are various degrees to which you can massage these numbers. It’s evidence of the stupidity and pointlessness of the U.S. News system. These categories you’re using are so arbitrary and so difficult to define. There’s lots and lots of gray area. So are other schools exploiting the gray area? I think you would have to be incredibly naive to believe that they are not. I expect that there’s going to be this great scramble over the next few weeks and months amongst schools trying to assess their liability here and think about the best way forward—the cleanest and simplest way to resolve this potential legal jeopardy. So do I expect people to drop out [of the U.S. News rankings]? Yes, I do.
Elijah Knodell: Do you think that other universities are equally doing the various things that you’ve talked about? Do you think that the moral of this scandal will be that people will start to believe less in U.S. News?
MG: Yes, I mean, that’s my hope. The U.S. News rankings clearly were started back in the 80s as a marketing gimmick, trying to breathe some life into a dying magazine brand. It’s taken on a life of its own, but I don’t think even the people that started the rankings ever imagined it. They’ve turned it into this kind of incredibly influential arbiter of university quality. They were never intended to be that.
The algorithm that they’re using to determine quality is a joke, let’s be clear. You and I could get together in ten minutes and come up with a better way to rank the quality of universities. So, the whole thing is this ridiculous thing that spiraled out of control. I think as schools start to drop out of this, the balloon may finally be popped. Now, will someone else come in and take U.S. News’ place? Maybe. But I would be happier with a system where there were multiple evaluation methodologies out there, and if as a prospective student, you had your choice. I think there are so many different ways to analyze what distinguishes one school from another that we would be well-served by ten methodologies as opposed to one dominant.
EB: You’ve been very outspoken about the U.S. News rankings for a while now. How do you predict the rankings will specifically play a factor in college admissions down the line?
MG: I think the problem is that the choice of going to college, of choosing a college, has turned into this kind of prestige-oriented system where students are encouraged by their peers and parents to try to get into the highest-ranked college they can. That is the stupidest possible way of choosing a college that I can come up with. My hope is that we’ll move away from choosing schools based on their ranking and move towards some much more realistic and useful and rational ways of choosing a college.
If someone chose to go to Columbia because Columbia was ranked #2 in the U.S. News rankings, they are too dumb to go to Columbia. If that was your reason, you’re an idiot! What are you thinking about! Right? You’re clearly a highly intelligent high school senior—there’s a thousand questions you should be asking, rather than the ranking of the school from U.S. News methodologies. The whole thing is so stupid that I’m hopeful that maybe we can liberate—particularly parents are the people who are driving this—we can liberate parents from just how asinine it is to choose your college based on rankings.
KM: On that point, there’s both the issue that when students are making a choice they’re focusing too much on rankings. But also when students get on campus themselves, there’s this issue that if we’re all still immersed and focusing on U.S. News, how do we think these schools are reacting? Are they trying to cater to students or are they more or less catering to these rankings in general?
MG: The answer to the question is to the extent that schools are reshaping themselves to maximize the U.S. News rankings, they are harming and not helping the quality of their education. Let me give you a couple of examples. It really matters in the U.S. News algorithm the ratio of students to teachers. Right? Colleges are powerfully disposed to have small classes. You may think, That’s a good thing! We would like to encourage that! and my answer is: No it’s not! It can be a really bad thing. If you have a fantastic professor—an all-star professor—you want that professor to have the largest possible class they can have. If a thousand people want to go into a massive lecture hall and hear from some brilliant Nobel Prize-winning economist who is a fantastic teacher and is just way better than everyone else at communicating the joy and beauty of economics to their undergrads, go for it! You shouldn’t be thinking in the back of your heads: Oh, this is going to screw up our rankings.
Similarly, it really matters in [Columbia’s] rankings what percentage of your faculty have a terminal degree—have a PhD—or part-time versus full-time. Fine, I can see the point in that. But at the same time, imagine that the most brilliant investment banker on Wall Street wanted to come teach a class at Columbia. This person does not have a PhD; this person is not going to become a full-time faculty member. They have a job! But maybe they want to share their knowledge with the undergrads once a week. The school shouldn’t think twice; they should say: Fantastic! Or if a Broadway producer wants to come and teach in the English department about what it means to put Shakespeare on stage, maybe they don’t even have an undergrad degree!
The whole point of Columbia is that Wall Street and Broadway are down just subway stops away. You shouldn’t be discouraged from hiring those kinds of people because you’re worried about the rankings in the back of your minds. The whole thing is nuts! I can imagine a situation where you could fashion a brilliant faculty that’s heavily reliant on people who don’t have PhDs, who are not full-time faculty, but who have special areas of expertise and want to teach a class. That could make for an amazing education! The point is we want to maximize the flexibility of colleges and not inhibit it. And I could go on on this, but there’s no doubt in my mind that adherence to the requirements of the U.S. News rankings is causing colleges to impair the quality of education they offer to students.
KM: Absolutely, it seems like the choice that colleges face is compliance or misrepresentation.
EB: Columbia has historically abstained from releasing their Common Data Set, but began publishing their reports for their undergraduate schools in the wake of the U.S. News scandal. And although some of the statistics appear more truthful—like the change from 82.5% to 57.7%*** of the classes having under 20 students—others still seem questionable, like the reported student-to-faculty ratio is [still] 6:1. Do you think the release of the Common Data Set is a step in the right direction? Or should we apply scrutiny to it?
MG: Well, I think both are true. It is a step in the right direction. But given their track record here, it would be useful and important to say, “Wait a minute, can you please give us the underlying methodology behind all of these numbers?” I mean, they have lost the trust of the undergraduate community—and the broader world—when it comes to statistically describing the University. If they want to regain trust, they have to adopt a policy of complete transparency. And that means telling all of us where these numbers come from. You [students] should say to them, “Well, why should we believe you since you lied before? How do we know you’re not still lying? Tell us how you reached that number—particularly that student-to-faculty number.” They need to show you the exact pathway they took to come up with that statistic.
EK: And just kind of on that point—in the statement when [Provost Boyce] announced the release of the Common Data Set, she said that: “Anything less than complete accuracy in the data that we report—regardless of the size or the reason—is inconsistent with the standards of excellence to which Columbia holds itself.” But [they’re] not going to own up and say, “You know, this is how exactly we’re trying to fix the issue, and we’re revising our methodologies this way.” There’s no specifics. There’s just sort of an attempt to whitewash over the cracks that everyone knows [are] there.
MB: Let’s be clear why she’s doing that. And that’s because everything she says is being filtered through the Columbia legal team. This is what happens when a university begins to realize that they have legal liability. Every statement a university official makes is potentially of relevance in a legal proceeding. We have to understand—they’re terrified. That’s what’s going on here. I am not even surprised in the slightest that she’s speaking, as you correctly say, in this kind of weird, legalistic doublespeak. It’s because she’s not speaking her mind.
KM: And a point you were talking about earlier, about the scrutiny that’s applied to the Common Data Set and this sort of chipping away at the University’s own ability to report on itself truthfully, or in a manner that aligns the truth. Something that Bwog had looked at this past year was how during on-campus tours, a lot of the data that the University was still reporting on, even after the U.S. News scandal****, was still in line with statistics that were misleading.
If students are calling into question college rankings—or even if the college ranking system as a whole is inaccurate—and the data on campus tours as well is something we can’t really trust either…Number one: How can the students themselves discern differences between institutions when trying to find [a good] fit? And number two, what does this represent for universities as supposed places where truth reigns?
MG: To answer the first question: An arbitrary ranking should never—as I said before—have been part of the way that a high school senior chooses a college. We should be going back to much better and simpler and more meaningful ways of choosing. You should go to Columbia because you’ve read something about the University, there are people that you want to study with, you want to be in Manhattan, there’s a particular program that they excel at that that excites you.
There’s a million reasons why you should choose [a college]. If you want to be in a little tiny college town in the middle of nature, don’t go to Columbia! If somebody gives you a financial deal that’s better than the deal that you got from Columbia and your parents don’t have a lot of money, don’t go to Columbia! If you have read the books of John McWhorter and love John McWhorter, and you want to take John McWhorter classes, come to Columbia! Take a bunch of John McWhorter classes!
The truth is that it just doesn’t matter in the way that students believe. The factor that determines the quality of your education is not the institution you choose, so much as you—the student. You are the one who determines the quality of education. You make the choices about which professor to study with. Every school in America has good professors—it’s your job to find them. You decide how seriously you’re going to take your studies. You decide whether you’re going to participate meaningfully in campus activities—right?
You know, you guys are all in the newspaper. That was a decision you made, and that will add immeasurably to your experience at Columbia. You could just sit in your dorm room and smoke dope if you wanted to. Even though you’re at one of the greatest universities in the world, you wouldn’t get a great education if you did that. I think we need to get back to the notion that it’s up to the student. If you want to be engaged, you can get a great education at 200 universities in this country. And if you don’t want to, you can’t get a good education—even if you get into Harvard, or Stanford or Columbia.
And as to the truth question—that to me is the biggest issue in all of this. There’s a reason in my podcast why I ended with Columbia’s Code of Ethics. In a million years, it would never have occurred to me that the single biggest violator in the past generation of Columbia’s Code of Ethics would be the Columbia administration. And that’s just bananas! If I was an undergrad at Columbia, I would be so angry right now with the administration. And the idea that you guys are paying a premium for an education based on the idea that the school you chose will confer some reputation [or] benefit on you once you graduate. They have just strung that away. How they turn around and continue to charge full tuition…this is beyond me.
They have an obligation to make good with the students who they’ve harmed. By the way, are they slacking off in their enforcement of the Honor Code and Code of Ethics when it comes to students? Did they suddenly suspend it and say, “It’s okay if you cheat from now on because we’re cheating?” No! So call them on their hypocrisy!
EB: Yes, that’s definitely a very good point—something that we’re all thinking about. You’ve mentioned that in your podcast episode, Temple University’s business school Dean Moshe Porat was sentenced to 14 months in prison after manipulating University data for the U.S. News rankings. Do you foresee someone ever being held accountable for the Columbia U.S. News scandal?
MB: Well, I think it is incumbent on the administration to do a proper investigation. Let’s remember that Temple—once they heard there was a possibility of wrongdoing in their business school—they brought in an outside law firm to do a thorough investigation. They identified the miscreants and turned them over to the U.S. Attorney’s office. You know, Columbia has not come clean at all. They haven’t said a single word about how it is that they systematically misrepresented the data. So I think either they do it, or someone from the outside has to. At some point, they have to explain how this happened. So if they don’t do it, someone else is going to end up doing it for them.
EK: We’ve talked a lot about—and that’s kind of the main takeaway—that we need to collectively find a way to divest ourselves from these ideas about college fit being tied to prestige, and certainly that prestige is something quantifiable. But I’m interested in trying to figure out what the path forward from that looks like when we have a whole generation of high school students who are applying to college who, that’s their whole world. That’s their whole universe that has been hammered into their heads for the last however many years. That this is how you decide, and this is what’s important.
With Bwog’s reporting on campus tours—what we found was that not only were the same debunked statistics that Michael Thaddaeus proved to be false used in the campus tours, really the whole campus tour was structured around those facts. They take you around campus, and [even though] you’re outside these great, beautiful buildings, these libraries with millions of books, they’re saying: Oh, well, we have a 6:1 student faculty [ratio]. Your classes will be under 20 students. There’s this very statistically-oriented approach to college admissions and we’re so entrenched in that. You would think a campus tour would be a good way to immerse yourself in a college and see that real idea of fit that you want. But if that’s not possible, I’m a little cynical that there is a way out of that mindset.
MG: But there is a way out! I agree with you, it’s gonna be hard to do a transition, but the way out has to come from the students. I mean, students need to separate their ambitions from the institutional goals of the college they go to. People such as yourselves, who are at the school, need to be clear in telling incoming students what’s great about Columbia. The bottom line is that Columbia didn’t need to lie because they absolutely, without question, are one of the great universities in the world! This is the transcendent irony. They’re not some forgotten, dying institution somewhere in the middle of nowhere that needs to lie in order to prop themselves up. They’re a legit, world-class institution, and its quality is obvious to anyone who attends it.
So, the administration is clearly incapable of making that argument. So you should! You should just say to freshmen and to incoming students what you found great about your experience. That’s the only way there’s ever going to be a kind of redefinition. I met more interesting, weird people in my first three months at this school than I’d ever met in my life and learned so much from having arguments at two in the morning. That’s an incredibly important thing to learn about a school: that I’m gonna meet people I’ve never met before. And: I had a professor who blew my mind the first class I sat in—I never imagined that I could have my intellectual world turned upside down like that. That’s a legit thing to learn. Or: Every weekend, I get on the subway and I go downtown, and I discover stuff. You know, those are all the things we should be talking about. Just stop with the prestige and start talking about the real mechanics of education.
I will just be curious about how riled up are [the students at Columbia] about this. Is this a big deal or not a big deal?
EB: I feel like it was more of a big deal when it first happened and it’s blown over for the University—or at least they are trying to make it blow over. For the students, it has as well. It’s still something that is in the back of our minds, but I remember people being much more upset about it in the fall. It hasn’t really been a topic of conversation this past semester.
MG: Yeah. Well, that’s your job! Bring it back.
KM: Yeah, I think if it’s not the forefront of the conversation, I do think for a lot of students, it does rest in a chronic way. As mentioned, there’s this growing, improper choice of college fit—which is, instead of finding schools that align with values or that could be the best benefit for you specifically, it’s just picking whichever one might bring them the most institutional clout. But on the other part of that, if you have a school that’s composed almost entirely of valedictorians or salutatorians and students who are only used to being number one, and now being shown—almost in a publicly embarrassing way—Well, you’re not what you thought you were!
I think there’s this little toll. Just perusing online forums—I’ve only been at the institution for two years, but even when looking through some of the history, there seems to be a lot more anonymous posting about dissatisfaction with the system or your other ways to game the system, whether by taking proper classes, you know, if they feel like things are ruined, at least they can try to get the highest grades, which is also an issue at the institution. So, I think now you don’t know what the elephant in the room is, or what’s causing this level of annoyance at just the way things are, but I do think there’s some detraction for a lot of people because of it.
MG: Yeah, it’s gonna take a little while to heal it. Your job is to get the administration to finally have an honest conversation about what happened and what they’re doing going forward. Talking to a lawyer only gets you so far, and at a certain point, you’ve got to start talking with your students.
KM: In late spring, one of our senior staffers interviewed Michael Thaddeus, kind of [asking] one year after the fact: What’s the response? One of the issues we found, about how do you get students riled up, is that a lot of systems that are meant to give students a voice are frankly obfuscated. Like the University Senate, whose website hadn’t been updated since 2019. Although funnily enough, I checked last night and they’re announcing a website upgrade, which is timely. But it seems that a lot of these mechanisms that are meant for critique have been frankly lost to just Oh, you need to update your website. Oh, these links are old. It really puts a lot of the problem on students to self-organize themselves.
MB: One last thing you have to get to the bottom of: why the Provost is leaving. That seems to me like such a kind of red herring waiting to happen. I mean, did she quit? Was she fired? Is she a possible target of legal investigation? Is the school trying to cut its ties with her? There’s a million things that need to be kind of uncovered there. And is she someone who might potentially talk about what happened? She clearly must know something. But that’s where I’d like to know more.
*The U.S. News undergraduate rankings are calculated on a point-based system out of an overall score of 100. For example, Columbia’s most recent score is 84, which ties them at #18 with the University of Notre Dame. Ranking categories include Graduation and Retention Rates, Social Mobility, Graduation Rate Performance, Undergraduate Academic Reputation, Faculty Resources, Student Selectivity for Entering Classes, Financial Resources per Student, Average Alumni Giving Rate, and Graduate Indebtedness.
**On March 11, 2022, Moshe Porat was sentenced to fourteen months in prison after being convicted of fraud in connection with a scheme to artificially inflate Temple University’s Richard J. Fox School of Business and Management’s rankings in the U.S. News rankings. Porat served as Dean of the school from 1996 to 2018. During that time, Fox’s part-time MBA program rose from #53 in 2014 to #7 in 2017. After becoming aware of the potential misconduct, Temple hired law firm Jones Day to conduct an internal investigation. As a result of this investigation, Porat was fired, with Temple President writing, “The Fox School, under the leadership of Dean Moshe Porat, knowingly provided false information to at least one rankings organization about the online MBA.” Porat’s sentence was stayed by an appellate court on May 9, 2022, and he continues to appeal his conviction.
***According to the 2022–23 Common Data Set, 1147 out of a total 1988 (57.69%) class sections had less than 20 students.
****At the time of Bwog’s investigation in September 2022, a representative of the URC declined to respond to any questions about revising the statistics used in the tour guide manual following the U.S. News scandal.
Malcolm Gladwell via Deneka Peniston