As the nation's top business schools wait for word on whether any of their students used a test prep site to get a sneak peak at the main business school admissions exam, school officials aren't shying away from using the "E" word—expulsion—if serious cheating is found.
A BusinessWeek survey of the top-ranked full-time MBA programs found that while admissions officials recognize there may be various levels of possible cheating arising from use of the now-shuttered Scoretop.com Web site, many are not ruling out harsh sanctions for current students, applicants, and even graduates. At the same time, the officials generally endorsed the overall validity of the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and indicated they have no immediate plans to change admissions procedures because of the incident.
The scandal erupted June 23, when the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) disclosed it had won a legal judgment against the Scoretop site (BusinessWeek.com, 6/23/08) in federal district court in Virginia. GMAC had accused Scoretop of copyright infringement, saying the site had published "live" GMAT questions and other copyrighted material. The court awarded GMAC $2.3 million, plus legal costs. GMAC was subsequently able to seize Scoretop's domain name, as well as a computer hard drive containing payment and other data with about 6,000 names of users who had paid at least $30 for a subscription.
Judy Phair, a spokeswoman for GMAC, says e-mails notifying those 6,000 people of the ongoing investigation have all gone out, but she could not provide a time frame for when its investigation would be completed, which leaves open the possibility that students involved in the investigation could begin classes in the fall. Although the situation has caused a great deal of uncertainty and concern (BusinessWeek.com, 7/1/08) among applicants, Phair reiterates that users who had merely visited the site and didn't subscribe "have nothing to worry about."
"Our focus is people who actively traded questions, shared questions, verified questions, and said 'I just took the exam,'" she says.
Scope of Scoretop Activities
GMAC had previously said it could cancel scores if there is "compelling evidence" the test taker knowingly violated GMAC rules, and it will keep schools and students informed during its investigation. GMAC says it has already canceled one score of an individual who bragged in a Scoretop chat room about using the site to gain an advantage on the test.
Rod Garcia, admissions director at MIT's Sloan School of Management, says the school hadn't received any information from GMAC about any specific students. But he says conclusions regarding any student depend on the scope of his or her activities on the Scoretop site.
"There needs to be a distinction between whether he or she posted a question or just visited the Web site," Garcia says. As for penalties, he says: "We would consider kicking current students out, or rescinding admission offers. For alumni, we would definitely consider revoking degrees. In our business, it's something that we are prepared to do, because there could be similar situations in the future."
Mae Jennifer Shores, admissions director at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, says the school is "in a holding pattern until we have actual evidence that someone has cheated," adding the school would consider a number of options if any names of applicants or current students surface in the probe. "We could prevent them from being admitted if they're prospective students. Another option for current students would be to prevent them from graduating. I'm not sure what we'd do about alumni."
Joe Fox, director of MBA programs at Washington University's Olin School of Business, says possible penalties depend on information received from GMAC. The actions could range "from simply ignoring it, if it doesn't seem like anything," to expulsion or rescindment of an admission offer, Fox says. "We wouldn't do anything without contacting the student or prospective student first to give them a chance to tell us their side of the story."
Duke University's Fuqua School of Business spokesman Chris Privett said via e-mail: "In the event that we learn of individuals who have violated the GMAC testing policies, the penalty would be consistent with that which would apply to anyone who has lied or cheated to gain an advantage either in the admission process or as a student at Fuqua." Those penalties "range from suspension to expulsion to revocation of a degree, depending on the infraction," he added.
A number of schools declined to discuss possible penalties until they heard more from GMAC. (See a full list of responses.) Brian Lohr, director of admissions at University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, says the intent of the students would be a key issue. "If there's a person that knowingly cheated to get a good score, then that's an issue and we're not going to stand for that. If it was unknowing, then we're in a real gray area. We need to step back to reevaluate. I don't know what we'll do at this point. It's serious and we want to take it seriously."
Greg MacDonald, admissions director at University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business, says: "Of course, every B-school enrollment manager hopes they don't see any names of their students on that list. …If we find students enrolled here with names on that list, we have to find out what that means. We'll follow up, and investigate further. I don't know what the outcomes will be, but we have to go through it deliberately and carefully."
"We wouldn't enroll someone who had knowingly cheated, but at this point, it's difficult to pinpoint who's guilty and who's not, so we're leaving it up to the officials and the legal team at GMAC," says David Hofmann, associate dean for University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Reconsidering the GMAT?
Meanwhile, school officials say there's no rush to change internal procedures or their reliance on the GMAT as an admissions requirement because of the scandal.
"Based on info we have so far, I'm a lot more concerned with the cheating and less concerned with the overall validity of the GMAT," says Dawna Clarke, admissions director at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "The incident surrounding Scoretop is an unfortunate anomaly. But in the grand scheme of the thousands who take the GMAT—we're just hoping it's an unfortunate anomaly. And I'm not going to let this one anomaly change my opinion of the whole GMAT."
John Roeder, admissions director at Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management, says the number of people who had used the Scoretop site was "alarming to us and to any school," but says any penalties involving Vanderbilt students would be handled on a "case-by-case basis." He adds: "As far as the GMAT test goes, I really do feel confident there are enough security measures in place to prevent some of these things from occurring in the future."
The incident is the second major ethical scandal to hit business schools in two years. In spring 2007, two dozen Duke MBA students were either suspended or expelled by the school for their involvement in a final exam cheating incident.
Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University professor who has studied cheating and plagiarism among undergraduate and graduate business students, says that in the current situation business schools are in the difficult position of evaluating the individual motivation of each student.
"If you've got somebody and you're convinced they knew what they were doing, they were trying to beat the system, then you shouldn't accept them," McCabe says. "If you got somebody who could somehow convince you they were concerned about being left behind, that they paid for the site but didn't use it much or didn't get that much help, they might say, 'Apply a penalty but please consider my application.' I might consider that."
Reporting by Andrea Castillo, Sara Hennessey, Matthew Lawyue, Louis Lavelle, Francesca Levy, and Dan Macsai.