Institutionalized Fraud

 Posted by on 29 June 2004 at 9:19 am  Academia
Jun 292004

An astonishing article in The Chronicle of Higher Education details the ways in which fake degrees are being used in academia to advance careers:

While experts on diploma mills — broadly defined as unaccredited institutions that require students to do little or no work to earn degrees — warn of the damage they do to the integrity of higher education, many satisfied customers say they get their money’s worth. “Just the ability to put Ph.D. behind my name is what I was looking for,” says Wayne J. del Corral, who teaches finance part time at Tulane University. “It’ll make things a lot easier with respect to submitting papers to journals and so forth.”

He also appreciates that his diploma from Lacrosse University looks so real. “The seal is very nice,” he says.

And that’s not the worst of it:

Valdosta State University’s Web site lists an assistant professor of management as “Dr. Jack Malehorn.”

What the Web site doesn’t say, and what students and colleagues probably don’t know, is that Mr. Malehorn’s Ph.D. is from Shelbourne University.

Shelbourne does not exist. It never existed. It claimed to be based in Ireland, but actually was one of more than a dozen names used by an international diploma-mill company that sold degrees, beginning in the mid-1990s, for $500 to $2,500, according to an investigation last year by the Federal Trade Commission. The company, based in Romania, sent millions of unsolicited e-mail messages around the world, promising recipients that they could receive degrees without doing any academic work. Along with the diplomas, the company also provided fake transcripts and phony letters of recommendation.

When contacted by The Chronicle, Mr. Malehorn at first denies that his Ph.D. is from Shelbourne, even though his résumé says it is. “No, no, I’m sorry,” he says. “I wish I could help you.”

After further inquiries, Mr. Malehorn acknowledges that his doctorate is, in fact, from Shelbourne. He also contends that he did actual academic work to obtain it. “It was all through an Internet connection,” he says. “My dissertation certainly seemed legitimate.” His boss doesn’t think so. Kenneth L. Stanley, dean of the College of Business Administration, says he knew before hiring Mr. Malehorn that he had a fake Ph.D. “Hell, we knew it was worthless,” says Mr. Stanley. “Give us a break!”

But he hired Mr. Malehorn anyway because, according to the dean, it’s not uncommon for professors, or even top administrators, to have bogus credentials. “I’ve dealt with provosts with degrees from mail-order institutions here in the United States,” Mr. Stanley says. (He declines to name any of those provosts or their institutions.)

What’s important, he argues, is that Valdosta State does not recognize the degree, nor was it a factor in the decision to hire Mr. Malehorn. “If Jack had come here and we had hired him thinking, ‘Oh, well, he’s doctorally qualified,’ and we’re claiming that qualification, then we’re idiots and he’s wrong,” says Mr. Stanley.

Contrary to the dean’s insistence, however, it appears that Valdosta State does consider the degree valid. Why else would the professor be referred to as “Dr.” in the bulletin that announced his hiring in 2002? Why else would he be listed as “Dr.” in the university’s telephone directory and on the management department’s Web site? And why else would he be allowed to call himself “Dr. Jack Malehorn, Ph.D.” when he contributes articles to the Journal of Business Forecasting?

When all that is brought to Mr. Stanley’s attention, he is quiet for several seconds. “It’s a little embarrassing,” he admits. He recalls referring to Mr. Malehorn as “Dr.” on several occasions, including in front of students. “I guess, you know, we’re guilty of institutionalizing a fraud,” says Mr. Stanley.

The dean pledges that references to Mr. Malehorn’s Ph.D. will be deleted from official university material. Six weeks later, the management department’s Web page still calls him “Dr.”

Professors who fake credentials are bad enough, although perhaps to be expected on occasion. The fact that some administrators are willing to not just look the other way, but also promote the fraud is astonishing and disgusting. Perhaps the administrators don’t see much value in academic degrees — but that would be an even greater fraud since such degrees are the allegedly valuable product offered by their universities. Really, it’s horrible any way you slice it.

Update: An earlier version of this post was all screwy in its formatting, such it presented material from the article as if I wrote it. (Hey, at least it wasn’t an article on accidental plagiarism!) I regret any confusion that might have caused.

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