Note: This is the last of three blog posts on the case of U.S. v. Porat
It’s time to wrap up this series on wire fraud and college rankings. We have already surveyed several questions posed by U.S. v. Porat, the federal criminal case involving the disgraced former dean of the Temple University business school, who is charged with wire fraud for providing false information to U.S. News & World Reports to boost his school’s ranking in the annual survey of graduate programs published by U.S. News. (See here for more details about this novel case.) To the point, what all these questions boil down to is this: what thing of value, e.g. money or property, did Dean Porat obtain as part of his (alleged) fraudulent scheme.
For their part, Professor Kerr (see here) and former prosecutor Levy (here), who have guided our analysis thus far, both seem to suggest that the federal wire fraud case against Porat is weak because, even if he did commit fraud in the literal sense by sending doctored data to U.S. News, he did not literally receive anything of value in return. But I beg to differ for the following reasons. First off, it’s essential to point out the following key fact about this case: when Porat (allegedly) sent fake data to U.S. News to boost his school’s ranking in the U.S. News annual survey of graduate programs, his school’s ranking did not just go up one or two places. It shot up from #25 all the way up to #1! It therefore does not take a genius to figure out what the thing of value was that Porat obtained as part of his (alleged) fraudulent scheme. In short, the thing of value was this #1 ranking from U.S. News.
(As an aside, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this blog post, being #1 is a huge deal in North American culture and in the competitive worlds of sports, business, and academia generally. The song below captures this spirit perfectly!)
Seen in this light, the myriad concerns and technical difficulties identified by Kerr and Levy about this case evaporate. To begin with, it does not matter that the U.S. News survey is silly or flawed, that it’s methodology is opaque or easily-gamed, or that it makes no effort to audit or verify the data it is sent. Why not? Because at the end of the proverbial day what really matters with these admittedly dumb and easily-gamed rankings is just one thing–which school gets the #1 ranking. The #1 ranking confers on the top school a kind of unofficial seal of approval, and this seal of approval, however dubious or undeserved in fact, is the thing of value that triggers the wire fraud statute when the ranking is obtained under false pretenses.
Furthermore, Levy’s question about whether the identity of the deceived has to be the same as the identity of the defrauded is now beside the point. It was U.S. News who was deceived (when Porat allegedly sent the fake data to them) and it was thus U.S. News who was defrauded when it assigned the #1 ranking to Porat’s business school. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, given that Temple business school’s online program would not have received the #1 ranking but for Porat’s (alleged) scheme, the students did not, in fact, “get what they paid for” (to borrow Levy’s apt phrase) when they attended Temple’s business school. They thought they were paying for an academic degree from a business school with the #1 online program in the country; what they got instead was a degree from a third-rate school run by a bunch of thieves. Case closed!