The word has been out for a little while now.  Emory University, due to the actions of a handful of less-than-scrupulous administrators, falsely reported undergraduate admissions data to school ranking institutions.

Thankfully, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the scandal resulted in at least one of the former Emory administrators responsible for the misreported data admitting his fault and resigning from his current post outside Emory.  And U.S. News and World Report recently disclosed that the revised data would not have lowered the school’s top 20 ranking over the past two years and would have only had a “small to negligible effect” in earlier school rankings.

But even with the resignation, the misreported data is still a blemish on Emory’s otherwise strong reputation.

Both as an alum and a current graduate student, the news was extremely disappointing to me.  One of Emory’s points of pride is its focus on ethics.  It has a considerable academic center devoted to the study and practice of ethics.  Emory strictly enforces its academic honor code in all its courses.  Further, Emory’s vision statement specifically calls the University to be world-recognized as an “ethically engaged” institution.  The thought that someone would intentionally try to game Emory’s ranking was disappointing.

My response, however, was more tame than that of many others.  Many commenters on news sites and blogs I read while researching this story seemed infuriated, letting loose on Emory and Atlanta in general.  One commenter on the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s report on the subject suggested that Emory’s “curricula of deceit” was comparable to the Penn State sex abuse scandal.  One commenter on the New York Times blog post, Bob, claimed the scandal was symptomatic of Atlanta’s “inferiority complex.”

Some of them were extremely venomous.  On the blog for Georgetown Law Professor Jonathan Turley, one commenter named Swis said that, because Emory is a Methodist school, the scandal was evidence of Christian self-aggrandizing and deceit.  And one AJC blog entry on the subject had a commenter who compared the actions of the Emory administrators to mindless Nazi soldiers.  (Guess it didn’t take long for Godwin’s Law to take effect.)

Unlike some more conspiratorial individuals, my familiarity with Emory’s administration and operations leads me to believe that the misreporting was isolated to those administrators immediately responsible.

Further, while this may just be the self-aggrandizing nature of my belief in the mystical sky god talking (Thanks, Swis!),  I think that there are three moral lessons to take away from this whole incident.

First, honesty is in fact always the best policy.  The administrators who did this were either extremely negligent or intentionally dishonest in their reporting practices.  As the reported corrections suggest, the inflated numbers were noteworthy: SAT scores were over-reported by 40 points, and the top decile by 9-12%.  But as the comments by U.S. News and World suggest, the school’s spot in the top 20 would not have been affected had the real figures been reported in the first place!  The entire scandal, thus, was prompted for no discernible reason.

Second, Emory brought the controversy upon itself by doing the right thing.  When Dean of Admissions John Latting discovered the data discrepancies, President Wagner and the Emory administration could have handled the matter internally.  Instead, they chose to investigate and take the heat by publicly disclosing the findings.  The nasty comments and the hit to the school’s reputation, in this way, were self-created by Emory. It’s a classic example of what happens when someone chooses to do the right thing and is penalized as a result.

Finally, I have a message for incoming Emory freshmen (or incoming freshmen at ANY college) who may be worried about the value of their degree.  Emory may be a top-20 school, but that ranking is a direct product of its strong academic programs, a community that takes its purpose as a major research institution – and the responsibility to others that such a role entails – seriously, and a stellar faculty that includes individuals like award-winning novelist Salman Rushdie and His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama.

However, those things must be utilized by YOU, the students, to have any real value.

A fancy name on a piece of paper is no substitute for real skill or ability: your life and experience is what YOU make of it.  While I’m proud of Emory’s success and the education I have gained while here, it doesn’t define my life or my career.  My work and achievements do that, and your work and achievements should define you as well.

Ultimately, nothing about a school’s ranking data will take away the students’ opportunities to educate and define themselves.  And even if Emory’s overall ranking does suffer, every undergrad there still has the chance to benefit from a world-class education.   Hopefully, that fact won’t get lost in the numbers.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin