The top two officials at Bishop State Community College could be enjoying praise for helping to rescue a college on the brink. Instead they are the subject of an embarrassing inquiry into their doctoral degrees, which were earned from unaccredited colleges that experts call diploma mills.
James Lowe Jr., Bishop State’s president, and Latitia McCane, dean of instructional services and the second highest-ranking administrator at the college, are not violating Alabama’s laws with their questionable credentials. But they probably would be in 12 other states that have broad laws  that restrict or prohibit the use of unaccredited degrees, said Alan Contreras, who retired recently as administrator of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization.
Lowe and McCane’s degrees also do not threaten Bishop State’s accreditation, reports  the Mobile Press-Register, which broke the news about where they earned their doctorates. A 2008 state policy prohibits community college employees from using credentials from unaccredited institutions. But Lowe and McCane earned those degrees prior to the rule’s adoption, which means it does not apply to them, according to the state’s Department of Postsecondary Education.
Neither official responded to a request for an interview.
The system’s former chancellor, Bradley Byrne, said Lowe’s educational background wasn't key to his selection in 2007, when the veteran administrator was brought in to help keep Bishop State open after a litany of problems , including employee arrests for financial aid schemes, the theft of athletics funds and academic grading irregularities. Bishop State’s president and other administrators were ousted and the college, which was probably the most troubled in a scandal-plagued system , had just been placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
“The school was near death,” Byrne said. “We had to change out the leadership of the school, and do it quickly.”
Byrne brought Lowe and McCane to Bishop State as part of an interim leadership group of five administrators from around the system. The five were dubbed Project Phoenix Team.
In 2008 a search committee tapped Lowe as the permanent president, picking him over 50 applicants. The college listed his degree from San Francisco Technical University, an unaccredited institution with a dormant website, in a press release  about his appointment. Alabama policy does not require doctorates for either position the two administrators now hold.
Byrne, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate who works for a law firm, said the search committee did not look into the validity of Lowe’s doctorate or whether San Francisco Technical was legit. He heard about the diploma mill several months after Lowe had been named permanent president, when a tipster brought it to his attention.
“It just didn’t matter,” Byrne said about the initial question of Lowe’s doctorate. “I remember all of the things we were going through at the time, and quite frankly it just didn’t rank in the top 50.”
No Risk to (Real) Accreditation
The Southern Association of Colleges and Universities, which removed the four-campus Bishop State from probationary status in 2008, ruled last month that the college’s accreditation is not in jeopardy as a result of the degree controversy. The accreditor, which has been aggressive about promoting transparency and combating diploma mills, did not respond to requests for comment.
(UPDATE: In an August letter  from a SACS official, Lowe was informed that the association "was unable to verify the existence of San Francisco Technical College and whether this entity is a 'duly accredited institution' and Lacrosse University is reported to be a diploma mill." Belle S. Wheelan, the association's president, confirmed that Lowe and McCane had subsequently been deemed qualified for their positions according to state and association policies. She said SACS told the college to remove all published references to the two doctorates, and required that Lowe and McCane no longer use "Dr." in their titles.)
Experts said Bishop State’s accreditation would have suffered only if Lowe and McCane’s job descriptions required doctorates. As a result, the diploma mill flap at Bishop State appears to have been resolved, at least from a legal standpoint. Presumably Lowe and McCane will drop the “Dr.” honorific that they have used in the past.
But they may keep their jobs. A parent of a student stirred up the inquiry and tipped off the Press-Register, according to Brendan Kirby, the reporter who wrote the story. But given Bishop State’s deep problems, and the widespread positive reviews Lowe has earned for trying to improve the college, it’s uncertain that either administrator will suffer much more than public embarrassment.
Contreras says the two officials would face Class B misdemeanor charges if they worked for a college in Oregon, and that their credibility as leaders is seriously damaged. Holding a degree from a diploma mill sets a bad example for students, Contreras said, adding, “How do you explain that as an educator?”
Many presidential search committees at community colleges list a doctoral degree as “preferable,” said Angela D. Provart, president of the Pauly Group, a search firm that specializes in senior administrative positions at community colleges. As a result, she said aspiring college presidents with doctoral degrees typically have an edge on their competition, despite the fact that a community college president can do just fine without a doctorate.
"The particular degree is much less important than the skills and attributes to effectively lead," said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen College Excellence Program, who works often with leaders of community colleges. Of course, Wyner said it is clearly important to make sure that college leaders have appropriate credentials from accredited institutions.
Most experts agreed that search committees should run background checks on finalists for college presidencies. Raymond Cotton, a lawyer with Mintz Levin who specializes in the contracts of college presidents, said the search committee that hired Lowe should have verified the institutions listed on his résumé.
“If you’re involved in academic recruiting of course you check the institution,” he said.
Before coming to Bishop State, Lowe had previously served as an interim president at Northwest-Shoals Community College, and held various other roles in Alabama's community college system and the state's Department of Postsecondary Education. His doctorate from San Francisco Technical University is in education administration. Lowe also holds a master’s degree in physical education and administration from American University and a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Bethune-Cookman University.
McCane was previously associate dean of instruction at Jefferson Davis Community College. She holds a doctorate from Lacrosse University, an online institution, called a diploma mill by many, that moved from Louisiana to Mississippi and was eventually shut down by officials in that state.
Lowe and McCane both told the Press-Register that they conducted legitimate academic work for their doctorates. Lowe said he paid more than $7,000 in program costs, but he told the newspaper that he could not remember where he put his copy of the dissertation.
For every job candidate her firm reviews, Provart said they confirm the standing of the issuing college and that the candidate’s highest degree claimed was actually earned. The Pauly Group uses the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization, for those checks, paying a small fee.
Provart said she has occasionally spotted diploma mills in applications, as well as candidates who made up their entire academic records. The firm includes those findings in their reports to search committees. Neither San Francisco Technical University nor Lacrosse University came up as accredited institutions when Provart ran a check.
It’s impossible to say if Lowe or McCane would have gotten their jobs at Bishop State without their doctoral degrees. But Provart and others said no red flags would have arisen just because they hold degrees from questionable colleges -- the problem was listing them in their credentials.
For his part, Byrne said Lowe was the right leader for the job, and still is. “The school’s being run appropriately, and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “I’ve rarely met a person who has more integrity than Jim Lowe.”