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OU employs law firm to investigate misreporting of alumni donations during Boren tenure

Whitehand with shadow

The sign in front of Whitehand Hall Dec. 3.

OU misreported alumni participation and donor data to U.S. News and World Report, prompting the university’s new administration to conduct an internal investigation with the help of a private law firm, according to multiple sources and data obtained by The Daily.

Multiple sources connected to OU’s development department in Whitehand Hall, which oversees the production of alumni participation statistics, have confirmed that the university inflated the percent of alumni donors it reported to U.S. News & World Report over multiple years during former OU President David Boren’s time in office.

The Daily is using information from anonymous sources because they feared retaliation. Their identities are known to The Daily.

The Daily reached out to Boren spokesperson and former presidential press secretary Matt Epting, but he pointed The Daily to Bob Burke, Boren’s official spokesperson on this matter. Burke, a lawyer who ran Boren’s first senate campaign in 1978, said Boren declined to comment on the story.

Sources also tell The Daily that outside law firm Jones Day, in conjunction with OU’s general counsel, interviewed former and potentially current OU employees on the subject of misreported data beginning as early as the summer of 2018.

U.S. News & World Report, a popular media outlet that produces an annual “Best Colleges” list by ranking universities on multiple criteria over the prior two years, uses a university’s alumni giving rate to determine overall alumni participation. This counts as 5 percent of a college’s overall ranking determination, according to the publication’s methodology.

In its most recent report, which reviewed giving for 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, U.S. News reported OU’s alumni giving rate as 13.8 percent.

However, university data obtained by The Daily shows OU’s internal numbers are different than those reported to U.S. News. According to the data, OU’s alumni giving rate per college for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 averaged at approximately 7 percent, roughly half of what was reported by U.S. News.

While it’s unclear whether this misreporting was intentional, The Daily’s sources say it’s been “an open secret” in the development department that numbers going back potentially as far as 10 years were inflated.

In an email to The Daily, university spokesperson Kathy Kesler sent a statement confirming that data had been incorrectly reported and that the university has completed an inquiry. Kesler did not confirm Jones Day played a role in the inquiry.

“The university found that incorrect data had been previously reported. We provided corrected information when we found that incorrect data had been provided previously. I cannot speculate on how this correction will change our rating by US News & World Report,” Kesler said in the statement. “Due to this, the university conducted an inquiry in to this matter. This review is now complete and issues have been corrected.”

Current OU President James Gallogly confirmed before the Dec. 11 Board of Regents meeting that Jones Day conducted a review and the university responded accordingly. There will be no legal action taken, he said. 

"There’s no litigation," Gallogly said. "Instead of this being about somebody versus somebody else, when somebody comes in and says there’s misreporting we either give it to the auditors so it’s independent or we give it to a third party, and in this instance Jones Day conducted a third-party review and made recommendations, which we followed." 

OU Board of Regents chairman Clay Bennett said on Dec. 11 that he does not believe the Jones Day report will be released to the public. 

The university terminated Tripp Hall, former vice president for university development under Boren, and J.P. Audas, who served as director of the OU Alumni Association, on Nov. 1 during a round of staff layoffs. Hall and Audas had both served closely with Boren for more than 20 years. The December regents meeting agenda listed their departures as retirements, with Audas’ retirement effective Dec. 2 and Hall’s on Feb 1. 2019.

The Daily reached out to Hall and Audas three times over the phone Monday and left voice messages but neither responded by the time of publication.

Jones Day is the ninth largest worldwide law firm by revenue according to law.com. Its client list includes numerous Fortune 500 companies such as Goldman Sachs, and Jones Day has experience investigating misreporting in higher education.

When Emory University in Georgia misreported standardized test scores in 2012, the school said it conducted the internal investigation using Jones Day in the school’s public statement of apology. Another 2012 Jones Day investigation at Tulane University found business school administrators had falsely increased test scores.

At Tulane and Emory, the investigations found administrators had purposefully inflated reported numbers and it led to the termination of responsible administrators.

Though it’s unclear to what level Gallogly, Boren and OU’s Board of Regents are participating in the investigation, Gallogly and the regents held a private meeting the morning of the Oct. 24 regents meeting to discuss the “performance of institutional president(s)” and “pending investigations and potential litigation attendant to University administration transitions and reporting,” according to the regents’ agenda.

The Board of Regents recently announced another private meeting for the same purpose scheduled for its next regents meeting Dec. 11.

Judith Wilde, a researcher at George Mason University studying higher education, said the use of an outside law firm in an investigation of this type often indicates a desire for the university to be transparent.

“If nothing else, it means the university wants to at least appear — and they may really want to be — very transparent and say, ‘If we’ve done something wrong, we want to know about it,’” Wilde said. “I would imagine that with that law firm, it’s a fairly high price, so they probably are looking to be transparent and say, ‘We weren’t aware, we want to show you we weren’t aware, and there will be repercussions.’”

Wilde said that since this investigation is looking into activities taking place under a previous administration, communication between the Gallogly and Boren administrations would be key.

“It’s going to depend on to what extent the two administrations are friendly,” Wilde said. “If there was a lot of unfriendliness with the previous administration and the new one coming in, maybe there’s something more going on, but I don’t want to theorize that happens on a regular basis.”

Following the June 19 regents meeting where Gallogly announced OU was facing a financial crisis, Boren released an op-ed the next day saying the university’s finances were not that dire. Documents obtained by The Daily in November showed Gallogly told Public Affairs officers they could not share the op-ed without the permission of Gallogly or Board of Regents Chair Clay Bennett.  

Don Heider, executive director of the Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said that though it is clearly unethical to misreport numbers, the idea that U.S. News’ “Best Colleges” list can be used as an accurate judge of university quality is questionable.

“A huge percentage of their rating is based on reputation, which is where (U.S. News) just asks other universities what they think of that university. What does that tell you? I don’t know what it tells you,” Heider said. “However, they’ve become important because so many consumers look at what U.S. News does. So then there’s a temptation for universities to either report your best numbers or make slight adjustments to make yourself look better.”

In fall 2017, OU and its administration celebrated the first time the university ranked in the top 100 universities, coming in at 97 overall on U.S. News’ list. In fall of 2018, OU had fallen back to 124th on that list. OU Vice President for Public Affairs Erin Yarbrough said in September that it was difficult to determine the cause of the decline, but that OU would “continue to review data that is submitted to ensure accuracy.”

U.S. News punishes misreporting by removing guilty schools for one cycle of the “Best Colleges” list, which Wilde said is not a very consequential punishment considering the frequency at which the list comes out.

“I think most universities want to consider that part of their training, part of the education they give students is an ethical training,” Wilde said. “So if the university is doing something unethical, how can they really be training ethical students?”

Editor’s note: For those who have information regarding OU misreporting data, The Daily can be reached by email at dailynews@ou.edu or reporter Nick Hazelrigg can be reached at hazelriggn@gmail.com.

Update: This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 11 to include comments and information from OU President James Gallogly and Board of Regents Chairman Clay Bennett. 

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