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The Names on the Dishonor Roll

August 1, 2008

News of the list spread quickly.

Released this week by The Spokesman-Review, of Spokane, Wash., it contains almost 10,000 names of people believed to have purchased degrees from an illegal diploma mill that shut down in 2005. So when it became clear that dozens of the names could be traced to e-mail addresses that end in ".edu," the possibility that there could be instructors in academe who were hired under false pretenses -- a degree from an unaccredited, or worse, nonexistent institution -- left some administrators nervous that they would receive that dreaded phone call about a beloved professor.

So far, at least, there is no evidence that any lecturers or faculty members both knowingly purchased degrees from the company -- which launched in 1999 and sold some $6 million of high school, college and graduate diplomas to customers around the world -- and used those degrees to successfully secure a position in higher education. But a handful of people on the list may have gone so far as to obtain degrees without using them to further their careers. While that is not illegal, it could be troubling in an industry, like higher education, that views degrees and other credentials as something close to sacred.

Eight people have been convicted so far in the federal case against the diploma mill, with at least two people sentenced to time in prison. The company produced degrees under the auspices of several nonexistent universities, including St. Regis University, St. Lourdes University, All Saints American University, Hartland University and Concordia University (not to be confused with a number of colleges and universities named Concordia in both the United States and Canada). But perhaps more ominously, it offered fabricated diplomas from real institutions, such as the University of Maryland, Texas A&M University and George Washington University.

The list, culled during the federal investigation but not made public by the government, was obtained by the Spokane newspaper as part of its ongoing investigation into the diploma mill. By identifying some people on the list who had e-mail addresses with government or military suffixes, the Spokane publication and others have raised concerns in sectors beyond higher education. Federal officials have warned that people on the list may not necessarily have purchased degrees; it contained the names of people contacted during the course of the investigation as well as some who may only have inquired about a diploma.

“It is an overinclusive list," said Bud Ellis, criminal chief at the United States attorney's office for the Eastern District of Washington. The day after the list was released, The Spokesman-Review published the names of 27 people on the list who "didn't necessarily buy degrees but were associated in other capacities with the investigation." (One of them, Dale Gough, is an expert on diploma mills at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.) At the same time, there's the possibility that there are others on the list from academe who did not use their institutions' e-mail addresses in order to purchase a degree.

One of the four clearly identifiable academics on the list, Debra Loguda-Summers, curator of the Still National Osteopathic Museum and the National Center for Osteopathic History, at Missouri's A.T. Still University, declined to comment on her inclusion on the list, as did officials at the institution. For the handful of others in academe who could be identified, the stories behind their inclusion on the list say more about the various reasons people turn to online degree programs than about laws broken or ethics violated.

Take Hirotsune Tashima, a professor and director of the ceramics program at Pima Community College, who turns up on the list as a recipient of a Ph.D. from St. Regis University. While Tashima, an internationally known artist who was overseas for an art show, had presented the diploma to his prospective employers, according to Dave Irwin, a spokesman for the college, the institution was determined to be "unaccredited" and the degree wasn't credited during the hiring process.

Tashima's resume, updated last year, does not mention the Ph.D. He made the college aware of the degree when he applied for the position, Irwin confirmed, but in the end, he was placed on a salary schedule consistent with a master's degree. He did not respond to e-mails asking for comment.

"He was hired on the basis of his MFA and his artistic credentials," Irwin said. "He was fully qualified for the position."

Marc LaBella, who teaches science at Ocean County College, said his name was on the list not because he'd bought a diploma ... but because a friend did so on his behalf, as part of what he described as an "honorary degree" program set up by the company under the St. Regis University name.

"It wasn’t a degree. Someone gave me as a gift an honorary degree from this company and it turns out it was a bogus degree," said LaBella, who added that he'd spoken with the federal prosecutor on the case about the possibility of testifying in court. (The letter he received about the diploma, he said, contained misspellings as well.)

Several weeks later, LaBella said in a follow-up e-mail, a representative of the university asked him to join its "adjunct faculty." "I had checked out the list, and there were many faculty from U.S. institutions on it," he said.

After submitting a photo and biography, he said, "I asked when I could start teaching, and was told not for a while, until their faculty database was complete -- I was never paid by this organization nor did I teach for them. One day, I received an email saying that I should check out the site, as there was something strange about my bio. When I logged on -- my bio had been changed to the extent that I was listed with degrees and experience that I never had. I immediately sent a letter to St. Regis, demanding that my name be removed from the list, and within one week, it eventually was -- the archival record should reflect this as well."

Ellis, the prosecutor, said he wasn't aware of any honorary degree program being run by the company, but he couldn't deny its existence, either. Ocean County College officials confirmed that they had transcripts from LaBella's time in school, including both his bachelor's and master's degrees earned at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

For Nicholas J. Grimaudo, an instructor at St. Petersburg College with a dental degree, two master's and a Ph.D., all from the University of Florida, turning up on the list was a surprise. "There’s slander involved here. I’ve already contacted a lawyer about this," he said when asked about his inclusion.

He said that he could think of two reasons why his name would be on the list. First, he said, he'd had problems in the past in which someone had used his identity to make purchases with his credit card. And second, he said he had enrolled in an online degree program -- possibly Concordia, although he wasn't sure -- but "never followed up" once he "realized that they weren’t accredited programs."

After dabbling with getting an online degree, he said, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program in educational leadership and policy at the University of Florida, which he received last year.

As for the online option: “It was a bogus thing, you could tell, they were going to send you a degree for doing nothing.”

David Moltz contributed reporting for this story.

 

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