New York in History and Anecdote
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Diploma Mill Redux

I have a long-time love affair with the underworld of diploma mills which, in a society overawed by credentials, is an unending source of amusement and entertaining copy.

So I was unsurprised to learn that, as recently as February 2007, the New York City Department of Investigation reported that fourteen city firefighters had used bogus diplomas, purchased from St. Regis University (an on-line institution, supposedly located in Liberia) to seek promotion to officer positions such as deputy chief, battalion chief, and captain. This stemmed from a relatively new Departmental policy requiring college credits as well as practical firefighting experience to gain promotion.

Four of the fourteen were actually promoted on the strength of these counterfeit credentials, including Daniel O’Gara, who was advanced to Battalion Chief after obtaining a St. Regis baccalaureate for $550.

At the end of the scandal, the fourteen paid fines totaling some $136,000.  According to the New York Post, those who had been promoted kept their jobs because they had all, since their promotions, obtained enough legitimate credits to qualify for their new jobs.

June 14, 2009   No Comments

Education by Degrees

Bears’ Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, Ten Speed Press, PO Box 7123, Berkeley, CA 94707, $29.95, www.tenspeed.com

I first heard of John Bear in 1990, when a man from Michigan named Bob Adams told me about the Ethiopian ear-pickers. In 1966, Southern Methodist University gave Bob Hope an honorary doctorate after the entertainer gave it a substantial donation. Up at Michigan State University, John Bear was earning his doctorate the hard way. Bear resented this. He knew that President Fillmore refused all honorary doctorates, even from Oxford. Bear then founded the Millard Fillmore Institute to honor the 13th president’s memory. The Institute awarded doctorates with ornately engraved diplomas on genuine imitation parchment that read, “By virtue of powers which we have invented…” granting “the honorary and meretricious” doctorate “magna cum grano salis”—with a big grain of salt.

Six years later, while studying in London, he tried the same thing on a larger scale. He and some friends created the London Institute for Applied Research and ran advertisements in American publications: “Phony honorary doctorates for sale, $25.” Several hundred were sold, presumably keeping the promoters in whiskey and cigars. As Bear wrote, half the world’s academic establishment thought L.I.A.R. was a great gag. The other half felt it threatened life as we knew it. After wearing out the joke, Bear traded the remaining diplomas to a Dutchman for 100 pounds of metal crosses and Ethiopian ear-pickers. (The Dutchman is still selling them—for $100 a piece.)

With this kind of experience, Bear first published Bear’s Guide, his profoundly serious and wildly funny guide to alternative higher education, more than a quarter-century ago. The latest edition, the 14th, crossed my desk last week. This is probably the best available practical guide to obtaining legitimate college degrees without full-time attendance in a conventional college setting, whether through correspondence, independent study, college credit through examination or life-experience learning, or the Internet. As Bear notes, in 1970, if one wanted to earn a degree without sitting in a classroom for three or four years and wanted to remain in North America, one had two choices: the Universities of London and of South Africa. Today, one has more than 1000 options.

I loved my completely traditional undergraduate experience, down to the last mug of beer. But that was a quarter-century ago, when one could pay a year’s tuition with the money one earned over the summer as a dishwasher. That isn’t the case anymore.

Also, American college education is more about obtaining a credential than inheriting the intellectual legacy of the West. I regret this; so, I sense, does Bear. This is part of a phenomenon that might be called “credentialism.” One might define it as a false objectivity in personnel decisions by substituting credentials—particularly academic diplomas—for the analysis of character, intelligence, and ability or even the intelligent exercise of judgment in hiring, firing, and promoting.

Bear argues that an academic degree is more useful to one’s career than practical knowledge. Whether this is good for society is immaterial. He illustrates this point with an anecdote about a telephone call from the man in charge of sawing off tree limbs for a Midwestern city. The city government had decreed that all agency heads must have baccalaureates. The head sawyer didn’t have one. If he didn’t earn a degree within two years, he would lose the job he had competently performed for two decades. The reality of his competence was immaterial to someone else’s need for false objectivity.

We in New York are not immune from this. The city government now requires applicants for the police examinations to have sixty college credits. Yet no one who has attended college would argue that accumulating credits raises barriers to brutality or provides a sure test of intelligence, industry, courage, and character.

To Bear, traditional education awards degrees for time served and credit earned, pursuant to a medieval formula combining generalized and specialized education in a classroom on a campus. The kind of nontraditional education emphasized by his book awards degrees on the basis of “competencies” and “performance skills,” using “methodologies” that cultivate self-direction and independence through planned independent study, generally off campus.

Granted, nontraditional routes are now radically less expensive. One can obtain a bachelor’s degree from New York’s Excelsior College (formerly Regents College) or New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College without stepping into a classroom. For example, Excelsior awards degrees to persons who have accumulated sufficient credits through various means, including noncollege learning experience such as corporate training programs, military training and professional licenses; equivalency examintions such as the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE); its own nationally recognized examination program; and even educational portfolios evaluated through its partnerships with other institutions, such as Ohio University.

However, in a world that cheapens the humanities to a mere credential and refuses to evaluate intelligence, experience, and common sense, it’s a short step to advancing one’s career through exaggeration and even downright deceit. Remember that a diploma is merely a document evidencing the holder’s completion of a particular course of study.

Even the once-sacred transcript, the official record of the work one has done to earn a degree, is no longer written in stone. Creative use has been made of color copiers and laser printers to alter records; college computer systems have been hacked into–in some instances for fun and in others in order to alter records for profit.

Actually, it would seem that finagling has always been part of the American doctoral tradition. Bear reports that the first American doctorate came about in the following way.

In the beginning, only someone with a doctorate could bestow one on another person. At the end of the 17th century, however, Harvard’s faculty had no instructors with doctorates. Its president, Increase Mather, belonged to a religious sect that was anathema to the Church of England and hence legally ineligible to receive a doctoral degree from any English university. Harvard’s faculty, which then consisted of two people, solved this problem by unanimously agreeing to award Mather an honorary doctorate. Mather, in turn, conferred doctorates upon his instructors. And they began doctoring their students.

Yale awarded America’s first professional doctorate when Daniel Turner, a British physician, gave Yale some fifty medical textbooks. Yale awarded him an M.D. in absentia. (Turner never set foot in America). Some, according to Bear, suggested that the M.D. must stand for multum donavit (“he gave a lot”).

As one might expect, Bear also discusses  the anomaly of the honorary degree. In a country whose government is forbidden from granting titles of nobility, higher education fills the gap with honorary doctorates, which are simply titles bestowed for various reasons upon various individuals. Bear suggests an analogy to an army granting the honorary rank of general to a civilian who may then use it in everyday life.

Of course there are doctorates and there are doctorates. My alma mater grants honorary doctorates to a few distinguished men and women every year. Among them, invariably, is the chief executive of some corporation whose foundation has made a substantial contribution to the college’s endowment. The Rev. Kirby Hensley’s renowned Universal Life Church, which awards an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree to anyone who ponies up $30 (it used to be only $5), merely takes this to its logical extreme.

My favorite chapters in Bear’s book discuss phony degrees and diploma mills, some of which operate wildly beyond the law. In 1978, one diploma mill proprietor was arrested as Mike Wallace was interviewing him for 60 Minutes. Usually unaccredited, usually operating in one of the handful of states that barely regulate private higher education (currently Hawaii seems the happy hunting ground of the degree mill), such institutions flourish because people want to avoid the work involved in getting a real degree. After 60 Minutes aired its program, the network received thousands of telephone calls and letters from people who wanted the addresses and telephone numbers of the diploma mills exposed by the program.

And who can blame them? In some states, a doctorate from a one-room Bible school is sufficient to set up practice as a marriage counselor and psychotherapist. At least one major figure in the New York City Parking Violations Bureau scandals had been a marriage counselor on the strength of his advanced degrees from the College of St. Thomas in Montreal, Canada. This was a theological seminary sponsored by an Old Catholic church whose archbishop, a retired plumber (I met him once: his weakness for lace on his episcopal finery left me cold), operated the college from His Excellency’s apartment. Quebec did not regulate religious seminaries, and this allowed the archbishop to claim—accurately—that the degrees were lawful and valid. They were also worthless.

As Bear notes, in Hawaii and Louisiana the one-man church founded yesterday may sponsor a university today that will grant a doctorate in nuclear physics tomorrow. One Louisiana diploma mill successfully argued that as God created everything, all subjects were the study of God and therefore a religious degree. This may be theologically sound, but if I learned my physician held his M.D. from this school, I would get a referral.

As long as people value others more for whatever pieces of paper they can produce than for their qualities of mind and character, the diploma mill will flourish. But the intelligent careerist will use common sense and the guides of John Bear.

New York Press, September 24, 2002

February 13, 2009   Comments Off on Education by Degrees