Iona College Admits Reporting of Falsified Data

November 08, 2011

Iona College says it has misrepresented various kinds of student data over the past decade to its accreditor, the U.S. Department of Education, and state agencies, according to a report the college made public on Tuesday.

Warren Rosenberg, the college's provost and a tenured biology professor, was suspended in August in light of the allegations and has since resigned. He was responsible for submitting the faulty data, college officials said.

The Roman Catholic institution in New Rochelle, N.Y., inflated the SAT scores and high-school grade-point averages of freshmen, reported lower acceptance rates and higher yield rates than it actually had, and provided inaccurately high graduation and retention rates, the report said. Iona also reported smaller than actual faculty-to-student ratios and double the number of alumni who gave money to the college each year.

Elements of those data were sent to the U.S. Department of Education, as well as to state authorities and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Iona's regional accreditor. They were also sent to credit-rating agencies, the College Board, the NCAA, and entities that rank colleges, such as U.S. News & World Report.

Sister Patricia McGinley, special executive assistant to the college's president, said the college could not be certain of why Mr. Rosenberg had provided inaccurate information.

Possible repercussions from the federal government or other agencies are not clear at this point, but Sister McGinley said she hoped that the college's effort to be transparent would work in its favor.

Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the department was aware of the situation and working with the college to correct its data. He said that repercussions for institutions that misreport data range from the department's helping the colleges rectify problems to its losing access to federal-aid dollars.

Mr. Briscoe said that data misrepresentation is not common, and that internal controls prevent some degree of misreporting. But it does occur. Iona's report comes on the heels of the release of a final report by the University of Illinois, whose law school misrepresented data about new students. Data-reporting errors have also come to light this year at Dickinson State University and Villanova University.

Richard J. Pokrass, director of communications for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, said the disclosures were unlikely to affect the college's accreditation, as the data points do not directly relate to accreditation standards. Wildly inaccurate data or evidence of widespread fraud could influence accreditation status, but that does not appear to be the case with Iona, he added. Still, Mr. Pokrass said, colleges that uncover misrepresentations have a moral responsibility to notify their accreditor.

Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News & World Report, said that the publication does not redo rankings, but it is not clear how much Iona's position would be affected because the college's report does not disclose the details of its errors year-by-year.

Sister McGinley said Iona had been communicating with entities that received the misreported data since the college became aware of the allegations regarding the falsified numbers. The college established a collegewide Integrity in Reporting Committee this fall to review ways to improve data reporting. The college also plans to establish a formal Office of Institutional Research to oversee the collection and submission of data to outside entities.

The college and its new president, Joseph E. Nyre, have been working to remake the college's reputation and improve openness in the wake of this and other recent problems Iona has faced.

Last year The Chronicle revealed that an employee—later revealed to be Sister Marie E. Thornton—stole roughly $800,000 from the college. She was arrested and later pleaded guilty to embezzlement. On Tuesday she was sentenced to 2,000 hours of community service, according to local news-media reports.

Michael Jordan, chair of Iona's Faculty Senate, said that the college had handled the revelation of the misreported data well, providing full disclosure of the facts as they unfolded.

"The college has taken a number of steps to try to assure that this will not happen again, and that's the right strategy, that's to be applauded," he said. "We are waiting to see essentially what the external reaction will be, so it's sort of like everybody is holding their breath."