Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016

by Richard Hardin
AR Correspondent
Mobile, Ala.
July 19, 2011
Reporting: Alabama

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MOBILE, Ala. -- If graduates of some Alabama community colleges seem to lack something in the skills department, it may be that their education was organized by people who themselves have diploma-mill degrees from unaccredited colleges - and perhaps don't know how to teach.

The Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education has long allowed suspected violations of policy to go uncorrected, despite reports to Dr. Frieda Hill, Chancellor, and Alvena Williams, Director, Division of Internal Audit, The American Reporter has learned.

State board policy 221.01 allows publications to show only "an earned degree granted such person by a duly accredited institution." The policy became effective March 27, 2008, while Bradley Byrne, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate, served as Chancellor for Alabama's two-year college system. Publications distributed by Bishop State Community College, Faulkner State Community College, Jefferson Davis Community College, and Trenholm State Technical College include employees who hold degrees awarded by unaccredited institutions, according to the Alabama Cooperative for Public Education (ACOPE), a citizens' watchdog group.

As one example, Trenholm State's Director of Educational Talent Search, Bruce E. Gearhart, is associated with a PhD degree from Columbia Pacific University. In a statement made before a U.S. House Subcommittee reported in 2004 by The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Robert J. Kramer, Managing Director of Special Investigations, identified Columbia Pacific University as "an unaccredited school."

The report noted that "In December 1999, the Marin County Superior Court ordered Columbia Pacific University to cease operations within California. The court determined that Columbia Pacific failed to meet various requirements for issuing PhD degrees, awarded excessive credit based on life experience, and failed to employ duly qualified staff."

Columbia Pacific University acknowledges on its Web site that it "was not regionally accredited" and it "does not offer degree programs at this time."

Like Columbia Pacific University, San Francisco University (SFU) also appears to be unaccredited. Yet Bishop State's catalog shows its president, James Lowe, Jr., with a PhD degree from that entity. In addition to SFU, the Bishop State web site identifies Mr. Lowe's alma mater as San Francisco Technical University. Legitimate accreditation, however, has eluded both entities.

"We have never accredited schools by the name of either San Francisco University or San Francisco Technical University, nor do we have a record that they have ever applied for accreditation with us," said Siobhan Williams of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Kay Gilcher, Director of Accreditation for the U.S. Department of Education, searched their database and "did not find San Francisco (Technical) University" among its accredited institutions.

Echoing both, Michael A. Ojeda with the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education stated, "San Francisco University or San Francisco Technical University does not have an approval to operate nor do they have an application pending." But Mr. Lowe is not the lone administrator at Bishop State who appears to hold a degree from an unaccredited entity.

Latitia McCane, Dean of Instructional Services, is associated with "Doctorate, Lacrosse University" in Bishop State's 2009-2011 catalog. Prior to coming to Bishop State, Ms. McCane served as Associate Dean of Instruction at Jefferson Davis Community College, where she was associated with "PhD, Lacrosse University" in Jefferson Davis' catalogues from 2005 to 2009. Also credited with a PhD from Lacrosse University is a former Bishop State employee and current counselor at Faulkner State, Vanessa Murphy.

Lacrosse University originally operated in Louisiana until it was shut down by the Louisiana Board of Regents in 2002. Thereafter, a strip mall in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, became the new home for Lacrosse University until it was shut down again, this time by the Mississippi Commission on College Accreditation.

"In short, Lacrosse University is - or was - a diploma mill. Indeed, it was one of the more notorious diploma mills named in a 2004 GAO investigation," said Sally Jo Sorensen of Bluestem">http://www.bluestemprairie.com/">Bluestem Prairie, a respected Minnesota-based progressive Web site.

Perhaps more disturbing than Alabama's two-year colleges publishing their employees' unaccredited, diploma mill degrees in apparent violation of state policy is the fact that appointed and elected officials have been informed - with no noticeable corrections following.

Ironically, former chancellor Byrne tapped Mr. Lowe "to lead the 'Project Phoenix' effort to restore the viability and credibility of Bishop State Community College," and later recommended him as president from a field of 50 applicants from across the nation (some of whom must have held a legitimate doctoral-level degree), according to information on Bishop State's web page.

Ms. McCane, too, was a member of the Project Phoenix team. Mr. Lowe, in hiring Ms. McCane as the Dean of Instructional Service, followed Mr. Byrne's paradoxical example of not only hiring individuals with unaccredited degrees but also placing them in prominent positions. Dr. Hill appears to condone the practice by allowing these degrees of dubious distinction to be published in official publications, without correction.

For some, these practices raise questions about issues of possible violations of policy. But for others, these hiring decisions raise questions about integrity. One can understandably question the integrity of those who hold these dubious degrees and promote themselves as holders of legitimate degrees.

Equally questionable is the integrity of officials who hire or promote those who hold these dubious degrees. Raised, too, is the question of just how to safeguard academic integrity, public interest and confidence in public education while avoiding the possible academic fraud committed or condoned by those employees and elected or appointed officials involved in such blatant pretense? The answer will have to be as large as the problem.

"The U.S. continues to hold the dubious title of most popular location for diploma mill providers; 1,008 are known to have operated or currently operate from the country, an increase of 198 (20%)," according to Cohen and Winch of Verifile Accredibase. Combating a problem of this magnitude has rightfully captured the attention of officials in various jurisdictions, leading to legislative and regulatory actions designed to eliminate providers of bogus degrees.

In addition to Mississippi and Idaho, actions to crack down on diploma mills have been taken in Missouri, where Gov. Jay Nixon signed into state law a provision making it illegal to use "false academic documents to apply for a job, college admission or in connection with any business, employment or public office," according to the Missouri Department of Education.

The consequences of diploma mills and unaccredited institutions and the degrees they confer threaten the integrity of education, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. And those consequences are likely to become more obvious, unless officials enforce policy and law designed to protect academic integrity and the quality of education in Alabama.

Richard Hardin writes for the Alabama Cooperative for Public Education (ACOPE), based in Mobile, Ala.

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