Diploma mill operators often manage to stay one step ahead of the law, changing their location or how they operate whenever state or other authorities zero in for a crackdown. And the laws and other tools available to regulators, higher education officials, students and others to stop degree mill operators are few and flimsy. So occasionally they turn to alternative tactics to fight the degree mills and other companies that help them do business.
Last month, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers filed a federal trademark infringement lawsuit against the American Universities Admission Program. The program, which says it is based in Sarasota, Fla., operates among other things a service in which it evaluates the academic credentials of foreign students to help them gain admission to American universities. ("AUAP guarantees your admission into the best American universities possible with the best available conditions!" it boasts on its Web site).
On the site, and on the analyses it does of individuals' credentials, the program lists itself as a member of the American Council on Education, NASFA: Association of International Educators, and the registrars' association, which is among the leading evaluators of foreign students' academic credentials. (Evaluators of foreign degrees in the United States are not regulated, and most traditional colleges use AACRAO or a service that belongs to the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services.)
None of the groups listed by AUAP claim it as a member (AUAP was at one point an affiliate member of AACRAO, but the association discontinued the program's membership last year), and AACRAO's lawsuit aims to stop the program and its owner, Jean-Noel Prade, from suggesting otherwise. "The harm to AACRAO is real and present," the association argues in its legal complaint. "Defendants are providing evaluations of foreign academic credentials of less than adequate quality," and the program's use of the AACRAO name "will mislead academic institutions into believing that AACRAO has reviewed or endorsed AUAP's services." The lawsuit asks a federal court to stop AUAP from using the name or logos of the registrar's group.
Exactly what is the connection between AUAP's credentialing of foreign students and the diploma mill industry? AACRAO officials declined to comment directly on the case or on the target of its lawsuit, but in a memo to its members about the suit, the association said the following: "AACRAO and other legitimate higher education organizations are under constant assault by diploma mills, fake accrediting bodies and/or credential evaluation mills. These entities typically attempt to misappropriate AACRAO's respected and reputable name to further their fraudulent and deceptive activities. Unfortunately, many such operations are beyond the reach of American law. Where AACRAO can take action, however, it will do so with the full force of the law to preserve the association's reputation and its intellectual property rights in its trademarks."
Alan Contreras, who heads the State of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization and is a national watchdog on diploma mills, connects the dots more directly. He asserts that Prade, the owner of AUAP, also owns a series of "faux French degree suppliers that use variants on the name 'Robert de Sorbon.' To add credibility to the degrees issued by those institutions (which Oregon, among other states, declines to recognize), Contreras asserts, "an 'evaluation service' magically appeared that made itself look like it was AACRAO-related. It did this because AACRAO is one of the best known 'names' in the international degree evaluation business.
"The net effect of this," Contreras added, "is that AACRAO's name is being used to promote foreign diploma mills, and AACRAO quite rightly objects to having its reputation trashed."
Attempts to reach Prade were unsuccessful. An individual with a French accent who answered the telephone at the number listed on the American Universities Admission Program Web site said that Prade was unavailable for comment because he had been hospitalized with four broken vertebrae sustained in an accident. A second individual who answered a later telephone call from a reporter said that the person who answered the first call had been Prade's wife. Both said they were unable to speak about the situation, and when asked if Prade or the company were represented by a lawyer or other spokesman, they said no.