Over the last several years, about a half dozen former reporters and editors at The Kansas City Star have bailed on the paper and gone to work at the University of Missouri-Kansas City as the university launched an aggressive effort to raise its profile and enrollment.
The first to go — and the highest-ranking person — was then-Assistant Managing Editor Anne Spenner, who ran The Star’s Metro desk for several years. Others followed her, including several reporters and editors from The Star’s features section, which Spenner headed before moving to Metro.
Spenner got a fancy title — vice chancellor of marketing and communications — and the horizon looked beautiful. Her job, essentially, was to protect and promote the UMKC “brand.”
Back at The Star, her move left some people wondering if she had made a mistake because her newspaper career appeared to be on an upward arc. In making the change, however, she must have decided that the cracking foundation underpinning the newspaper business didn’t bode well for the long term. So, she bolted and soon started hiring other Star staffers with whom she had worked closely.
For all of them, the horizon looked bright…until yesterday. Now, Spenner and some of the others who left the paper must be second-guessing their decisions to leave the paper.
That’s because yesterday, The Star published online — and in today’s printed edition — a 5,000-plus-word investigative story that essentially alleges that UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management cheated its way to the top of some prestigious business-school rankings. The main story is titled “UMKC’s misleading march to the top.”
Reporting and writing the story were Mike Hendricks, a former Metro columnist who returned to reporting a few years ago, and Mara Rose Williams, The Star’s longtime education reporter.
One academic study, published in the Journal of Product Innovation and Management, rated the Bloch school the top business school in the nation, ahead of such universities as Harvard and Stanford.
The Star blew the lid off that report and others. At the time that study was written, the reporters said, “the two authors were working on the UMKC campus as visiting scholars at the Bloch School.” The authors also had close ties to a UMKC professor with whom they had previously worked at a Chinese university, and they apparently structured the study so that the Bloch School received the top ranking.
In other words, the whole thing was rigged. The Star said the man who was dean of the school when the hanky-panky was taking place — Teng-Kee Tan — resigned last year “for health reasons and sent word that he was unable to respond to requests for comment.”
I’ll bet he’s sick.
One of the people who couldn’t weasel out of talking to the reporters was university spokesman John Martellaro, himself a former Star reporter and editor. Martellaro was paraphrased as saying that UMKC was not embarrassed by the disclosures of impropriety.
Hendricks and Williams completely disrobed the Bloch School, however, and nothing that any university spokesman says can dress it up.
What we’ve got is a university — not just the Bloch School — lodged under a pile of shame. I would think nearly everyone who works there feels embarrassed. The stain is broad and deep. It’s going to be pretty, pretty difficult to promote the UMKC “brand.”
Years ago, when the newspaper business was going strong, most of us reporters and editors would scowl when asked about the possibility of moving to public relations jobs. We wouldn’t “go to the dark side,” we vowed, where we would have to “spin” facts in favor of the institution or company that was paying our salaries.
As the newspaper business faltered, however, many reporters and editors had to change their tune and seek haven in the world of public relations, promotions and marketing.
I can’t blame Spenner and the others who went to UMKC. It would be reasonable to think that you could hold your head high while working at the biggest university in western Missouri.
But, no, cheating takes place everywhere, even at institutions of higher learning.
The whole mess makes me very glad that I was able to squeeze out a career in the newspaper business. I made it to 60, got the pizza and sheet-cake retirement party and drifted happily off into substitute teaching, golfing, blogging, political activism and volunteer work.
I realize, though, that if I had been born in the ’50s or ’60s, instead of the mid-1940s, I might have been the guy who had to try to maintain a straight face and tell Hendricks and Williams that UMKC was not embarrassed by a full-fledged scandal.