Unwanted Export?

New online university promises to send great education from U.S. to developing nations, but critics fear it's a new diploma mill.
May 24, 2006

A new online university is set to open its virtual doors on June 1, promising to provide free tuition to 150 students from developing nations. A number of circumstances surrounding the program -- including an empty headquarters in Washington, accreditation from a self-proclaimed autonomous government operating in Italy, and a Web site based in the French Antarctic -- have several real-life diploma mill experts raising caution flags.

Founders of the new institution say it is using creative approaches to get by time-consuming bureaucracy so that it can start helping students. Detractors, however, say this university is an example of how distance education ventures based in the United States can slip under the radar of American regulators and attract foreign students who may assume that programs have been reviewed under American standards.

The institution, which founders deny is a diploma mill, is called DiUlus Institute and University. It is the brainchild of Fred DiUlus, a former associate professor of business at the College of the Southwest, a private, Christian institution in New Mexico. According to Terri Blandin, a spokeswoman for the college, most current administrators do not know DiUlus, and she couldn’t specify why he resigned in 2002. “There has been a large amount of turnover since then,” she says. DiUlus says he resigned to pursue new projects in higher education.

DiUlus, along with his wife and some former employees of that college -- collectively known as the " A Team" -- have been the driving forces behind the creation of the online university. The team plans to offer courses and degrees in a broad range of fields, including education, criminal justice, management information, ethics, business health science, and several other undergraduate and graduate programs, depending on student interests.

About 2,200 instructor candidates worldwide have applied for positions with the university over the past year, according to DiUlus. Sixty-five to date have been selected to be in a pool of professors that may be tapped to teach courses, depending on the areas that admitted students wish to study. Each faculty member must have earned a Ph.D. and taught for at least three years in a traditional full-time environment. They must also have taught online courses for at least one year. DiUlus would not provide names of faculty members in the pool because he said many of them are “moonlighting” and may not want their institutions to know about their extracurricular work.

“DiUlus University came about as a result of us starting Global Academy Online back in 2002,” says DiUlus. He calls the organization “the premier provider of online curriculum and instruction to colleges, universities and distance learning institutions worldwide.” The academy, he says, was created to provide expert advice involving online education issues, accreditation standards, implementation of competent and inexpensive delivery systems and state of the art course management. DiUlus has also written a guide, called “The Best Worst in Online Degree Programs,” which is available through the academy’s Web site. To date, the academy has not offered any online courses.

There has been interest in the academy’s consulting services from prospective clients in far reaches of the world, says DiUlus, including a recent “major inquiry” from India. He also says that the academy is working with an organization in Canada to provide distance education materials via another online university effort. DiUlus declined to name any collegiate partners by name, saying that his group prefers to be “transparent.” “Theoretically, we don’t exist,” he says.

“In the exploding field of online course delivery and transparent instruction, the Academy stands at the head of the class,” according to the organization’s Web site. “We are ready to put the world in your hands.”

DiUlus says that many prospective clients wanted to see more results and less rhetoric. “As a wholesaler of [online education advice and materials],” he says, “essentially that’s what we are, they would ask us, ‘Who’s doing this? You don’t have any examples of what you’re doing out there.’ ” Hence, he says, the idea of creating an online university that lives up to the academy’s ideals was born.

Since the beginning of the year, the academy has sent out press releases explaining more about the organization and the development of the new online university. DiUlus says that he’s been communicating with leaders from several foreign organizations to get the word out to students about the program.

"This year will probably be the first year that the academy will able to show the slightest bit of profit," says DiUlus. That's partly because, while the university -- which is operating as a nonprofit -- will provide free scholarships to all 150 students it selects for admission, the team has been working to secure donations from corporations and organizations worldwide to pay for those scholarships. DiUlus says that the price per undergraduate course is $650, while the price per graduate course is $850. That means if 150 graduate students were selected for admission and each needed 10 courses to graduate, DiUlus would need to raise over $1.2 million this year to cover tuition. There are no plans to admit any more than 150 students, says DiUlus, because his university is meant to be a small and focused effort.

Some students will be required to pay fees for "learning assessments," because "obviously we have to assess whether or not the degrees that they have and are using for their applications are valid," says DiUlus. That fee amounts to $50 per credit hour for undergraduates and $70 per credit hour for graduate students. If 150 graduate students were admitted -- even with the free tuition -- and each took 10 courses, at three credit hours apiece, the university would make an additional $315,000, or $2,100 per student. DiUlus says that if a student has a problem paying the fees, “we will find a way for that to be taken care of.”

While DiUlus spends much of his time operating Global Academy Online from his home base in New Mexico, its official address is in the heart of downtown Washington.

When one visits the office, however, there is no official Global Academy or DiUlus University presence, although the Washington address is featured on the university’s contact Web page. A secretary who works at the suite, which is also home to lawyers, accountants and several nonprofit groups, said recently that people from DiUlus come to the suite only if they schedule an appointment there, which she said happens rarely.

“The D.C. address is the headquarters for the academy,” says DiUlus. He adds that the degrees from the online university will not be granted from Washington or from New Mexico. Rather, they will be granted from Seborga, a small self-proclaimed principality in Italy, from which the university received accreditation on March 17. “There’s no ands, ifs or buts about that,” he says. “There will be no degree-granting for schooling from the United States. Not until the state licensing and applications are moving through the mill.” He doesn’t anticipate getting licensure or accreditation in the U.S. for another two to three years.

The Seborgan accreditation grants the DiUlus Institute and University the ability to offer doctoral, masters, bachelor's, high school and other degrees for five years, before the license must be renewed. According to an unsigned e-mail received from the Seborga “General Office” on Tuesday, “the Sovereign Order of the Antico Principato di Seborga's Association Castrum Sepulcri for Distance Education, Culture and Faith and its Board of Accreditation was created to improve the development of educational delivery systems and to promote ethical standards in education, culture and faith.”

“The board carries out its mission through standard-setting, assessment, evaluation and consultation processes,” according to the e-mail. “Following a long tradition, the board identifies and accept membership for institutions that have attained and continue to maintain standards deemed necessary to operate at an acceptable level of quality.”

Denis Pierre-Francois, a former tourism director with the principality, according to Internet records, has registered several Web sites listing the Seborga accreditation, one of which is called " The Principality of the Flowers," which lists 26 Seborga-accredited institutions. (That Web site also says that accreditation costs $62.20 per month.)

The question of Seborga’s autonomy has long been debated by citizens of the town, but the Italian government does not recognize its independence. Therefore, its ability to grant accreditation as a sovereign nation has been questioned by several American accreditation experts. 

Alan Contreras, an administrator with the Office of Degree Authorization in the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, contends that the Seborga accreditation is worthless. "Any person using a degree earned from this entity, as long as it uses a Seborga accreditation, is earning and using a meaningless degree," he says. The DiUlus Institute and University is on Oregon's list of "degree suppliers ... that are not in the U.S. and do not meet the statutory requirements in ORS 348.609 for foreign degree use in public or licensed employment in Oregon.” A number of other institutions on this list claim association with Seborga.

George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has worked with a number of state and federal agencies to uncover diploma mill operations, notes that many of the institutions that have been accredited by Seborga were started by founders of Saint Regis University, which has been called a diploma mill by several government officials. Officials with the institution claimed accreditation from Liberia, but operated mainly from Washington state.

On October 4, 2004, officials with the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C., declared "null and void whatever documents St. Regis University may claim to possess emanating from the [National] Commission [of Higher Education]." Since allegations of impropriety against the institution first surfaced, several founders of the institution have been indicted and two have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the investigations of the operation. The institution was in no way related to Regis University, a nonprofit college based in Colorado that operates respected distance programs.

DiUlus himself notes that Seborga does not have a peer reviewed application process, as do U.S. regional accrediting agencies. “That is unfortunate, but it is also somewhat traditional in the way international accreditation and licensing is undertaken through non-aliened and developing nations,” he says.

Despite questions surrounding Seborga, DiUlus claims that the accreditation is meaningful. He says that he learned about the possibility of gaining Seborga accreditation by a fluke, since a relative of his had been born near the town. Some of the institutions that have allegedly been accredited by Seborga have been justly criticized, according to DiUlus, but he says those transgressions shouldn’t bear on his new online venture.

“As we moved through the process of accreditation and licensure and so forth, we quickly realized that, if we were to step into the United States and do it in the United States, we were opening up a Pandora’s Box, mainly because there are so many idiotic detractors out there,” says DiUlus.

One detractor -- whom DiUlus says he admires -- is John Bear, a distance education expert who has aided in governmental diploma mill investigations. Bear is wary of several aspects of the DiUlus Institute and University. He believes that the developers have purposely used a Washington, D.C., address on their Web site, in order to try to garner credibility from international students who will not know that the university has no real presence there. “It’s common for schools that I regard as fake to want the most prestigious address available,” says Bear.

Bear also asks why a legitimate operation based in the U.S. would need to use a Web address with an edu.tf extension. “These people are registered in Antarctica,” says Bear. “It’s uninhabited except for a few researchers at any given time.”

“That kind of threw me when Seborga issued that [Web address],” says DiUlus. “I thought, ‘What in the world?’ ” He says he’s not concerned that people would be suspicious of the address, and he notes that the university also owns the DeUlis.org Web domain. “You cannot get a .edu unless you are approved by the Department of Education,” he adds. 

Richard Garrett, a researcher with the Eduventures higher education consulting group, says that the online university resembles many institutions that have been deemed to be diploma mills. He says that the university’s Web site offers several red flags, including “overdone” references to the value of a DiUlus education and use of stock photos of random faculty and students.

Is DiUlus worried that so many experts think he's creating a diploma mill?

He says that he’s not concerned because he doesn’t believe that the institution is a diploma mill. “Our feeling is that we don’t really care,” he says, adding that faculty member credentials will be printed on all transcripts. “The student can turn around and say, ‘Look, John Smith, who is a noted authority in anthropology, was my instructor.' ”


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