Assistant dean bears sole blame, probe finds

CHAMPAIGN — A single assistant dean at the University of Illinois College of Law manipulated test scores and other data over six years to preserve the college's top 25 national ranking, winning substantial raises in the process, a new report concludes.

The assistant dean, Paul Pless, resigned Friday after being on paid administrative leave since Sept. 7. He did not receive any buyout from the university, according to campus legal counsel Scott Rice.

The UI on Monday shared the results of an investigation into the law school's student profile data by university officials, outside legal counsel Jones Day and the Duff & Phelps advisory firm.

It found the college had inflated median grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores for the law school classes of 2008 and 2010 as well as 2011 through 2014.

Previously, the UI reported that the law school had posted incorrect data for those last four years but said it would continue to look back 10 years.

In two of the years — the classes of 2008 and 2010 — individual students' grades were not changed, but overall statistics reported were higher than actual figures.

In another new finding, the report said the college had published inaccurate acceptance rates for four classes, those slated to graduate in 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2014. The changes made the college appear more selective than it actually was — reporting a 29 percent acceptance rate for the class of 2012, for example, when the real figure was 37 percent, investigators said.

The report puts the blame almost solely on Pless, former assistant dean of admissions, who was hired in August 2003 three months after graduating from the UI law school.

Pless changed LSAT scores and GPAs of students after receiving them from the Law School Admissions Council and the college, then reported those revised scores to the American Bar Association, U.S. News & World Report and other third parties, the report said.

However, the report also said the college lacked adequate controls to "prevent, deter and detect" the problems, concentrating too much authority in Pless' hands. Two deans and two interim deans didn't appreciate the compliance risks and regarded Pless as an "outstanding employee" with exceptional data management skills and "strong tendencies toward forthrightness and transparency."

"This led dean after dean to certify to the ABA that (the College of Law's) selectivity statistics were accurate when, in fact, they were not for six of the 10 years reviewed," the report said.

UI officials pledged to implement the report's eight recommendations, including an audit of student profile data reported in future years.

Rice and attorney Ted Chung of Jones Day said there's no evidence the inflated numbers were used in admissions decisions.

Rather, the changes appear to have been made after students were admitted, said Chung, who also was lead counsel in the state Admissions Review Commission that investigated the UI's Category I admissions scandal.

Investigators also found Pless did not act at anyone's direction, Chung said. The college under Dean Bruce Smith appears to be "appropriately committed to the principles of integrity, ethics and transparency," the report said.

Instead, the report paints a picture of an admissions dean with a singular focus on meeting the college's ever-increasing standards for its incoming classes, an effort to boost its national rankings.

"We don't criticize that" as long as it's done appropriately, Chung said Monday.

The figures reported for the Class of 2014 were the culmination of a pattern of increasingly inaccurate data going back to at least 2008 (for the Class of 2011), the report said.

Whereas he needed to change only two students' scores in 2008 to meet the college's goals, Pless this year changed a majority of LSAT scores and almost a third of the GPAs for the entering Class of 2014, according to investigators.

The college had made a concerted effort to recruit the most "highly credentialed class ever" this fall and announced in August that it had succeeded, the report said.

The Class of 2014 was touted as having a median LSAT score of 168 (96th percentile) and a median GPA of 3.81, beating an ambitious five-year goal of 3.7 set in a 2006 strategic plan.

On Aug. 22, Pless quoted those figures in a presentation to UI law faculty and was congratulated for his achievements, the report said.

Four days later, the UI Ethics Office received information about possible inaccuracies in the data and notified top UI officials, setting the investigation in motion.

Officials soon found the actual median scores were 163 and 3.67, respectively — a drop of four points from the median LSAT score the previous year.

Pless had changed the LSAT scores of 109 students and the GPAs of 58 students; in five cases, LSAT scores were inflated by 12 points, the report said.

Pless could not be reached for comment Monday.

During talks with investigators, Pless contended that he "may have inadvertently made 'mistakes' in organizing and sorting student data related to the Class of 2014 and that such mistakes may have resulted in the miscalculation of that class's selectivity data," the report said. "The findings of the investigation do not support Pless's explanations."

The sheer number of changes — 213 over four years — constitute at the very least "gross incompetence," the report said. And the increasing rate of errors each year points to "intentional manipulation" intended to keep up with or improve on previously manipulated numbers, it said.

Investigators concluded the changes were made "knowingly and intentionally by Pless, and Pless alone." He similarly inflated the number of applications to the law school, and understated the number of admissions offers made, to improve the acceptance rate, they said.

Chung said investigators don't have a "crystal clear view" of Pless' motivations, but the report notes that his success in recruiting talented law school classes earned him a series of pay raises that pushed his annual salary from $72,000 in 2004 (his first year as admissions dean) to $130,051 in 2011 — at a time when other college employees were "receiving little, if any, pay increases."

Though his pay wasn't based on incentives, his performance was "substantially tied to the academic credentials of the classes that he recruited," the report said, quoting college emails. Pless also had a national profile and had been courted by other law schools.

Asked if the university might bring legal action against Pless, Rice said, "We haven't closed any doors on anything. That's just something we'll evaluate going forward."

Smith issued an apology to the legal-academic community, the university, alumni and students.

"The investigation has concluded that a single individual — no longer employed by the college — was responsible for these inaccuracies. The college takes seriously the issue of data integrity and intends to implement the report's recommendations promptly and comprehensively."

This story appeared in print on Nov. 8.

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Alexander wrote on November 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm

I'd be hoping that there are criminal charges brought against Pless. His fraud led to financial reward. (That said, I'm not holding my breath, seeing how many CEOs of banks did worse and haven't been charged with anything.)