University President John C. Bravman's remarkable admission last week explained in two-plus pages how previous administrators had reported inaccurate test score averages that were key to establishing Bucknell's perceived national quality ranking for seven years.
President Bravman revealed the manipulation of data that inexplicably excluded some student test scores, creating the appearance that Bucknell's student body had better average standardized test scores than they actually did.
The president's account described how leaving a certain number of students' scores out of the calculations improved the overall number by 7-25 points during the period under scrutiny.
Noting that the numerical omissions were "relatively small," Bravman stated that they nonetheless "violated the trust of every student, faculty member, staff member and Bucknellian they reached."
The upshot of the event was that new admissions officials encountered a statistical anomaly, sensed something wrong, tracked it to seven years of reported inaccuracies. The university instituted an independent audit of the data reporting going forward. The university now awaits conclusions from U.S. News and World Report, which used the numbers to establish Bucknell's rank among America's Best Colleges.
As President Bravman concluded, an institution can often demonstrate more about its character in how it handles situations when it made mistakes than when it did things right.
On that score, President Bravman and his team should be congratulated for their candor, forthrightness and their highly principled descriptions of their intentions.
Some possible practical considerations adhere to the revelation as well.
After a seven-year pattern of sculpted data, an unexplained restoration of integrity that reverberated through to public ranking may have led others to wonder what was happening to Bucknell under the new regime. Perhaps it was better to reveal than to have been exposed.
By not probing too vigorously to the bottom of motivation or management during the years of statistical distortion, the university allows a degree of ambiguity. Did anyone purposefully rig the numbers, or did an alternative approach to data averaging simply require course correction?
Recent highly publicized scandals elsewhere in which malice of forethought was a factor resulted in purged records, heavy fines and demands for financial reparations. Uncertainty may have advantages.