M.A. Required, Ph.D. Preferred: An Odyssey Inside the Bogus Diploma Mill Circuit

Peter Moran, M.B., B.S., B.Sc.(Med), F.R.A.C.S., F.R.C.S.(Eng)
February 21, 2005

From my usual perch, café-side on Harvard Square. My immediate neighbors were discussing cultural literacy. He was wearing herringbone tweeds with suede elbow patches. A regular country squire, right at home on the sidewalks of Cambridge. She was taking notes.

After a two-year hiatus I was back in the Athens of America to retrieve a bulging file box stashed in the closet of a sometimes graduate student. Assorted contents included a counterfeit Harvard doctorate made out to yours truly and several fill-in-the-blanks diplomas from such institutions as the University of Massachusetts-Boston, Central New England College, Babson College, the American University in Beirut, and the Universidad de la Habana. There were also degrees from a few fictitious alma maters, as well as a set of transcripts from the late Southwestern University, and a collection of sundry Justice Department memos, affidavits, indictments, and court orders.

Since my first foray inside the bogus credentials circuit, several new colleges had been founded and several more old ones had held their last commencement. I had promised the folks at the Kappan a fresh look into this heart of academic darkness.

I began my new research at the Out-of-Town news agent, where I picked up some of the best source literature in the field—a selection of pop science and new-age self-help magazines, as well as Soldier of Fortune and an assortment of such checkout-counter publications as National Enquirer. (I wondered how the editors would explain some of these items on the expense sheet.)

Results from “DipScam,” the ongoing FBI sting operation. were evident in the scarcity of classifieds promising one-day diplomas, no questions asked. But in the Canadian tabloid, Globe, I found a new twist, a separate listing for degree mills and “diploma replacement services” under the heading’ ‘Certificates.” Under this rubric alone I found seven listings for customized college degrees—”parchment w/gold seals”—and guaranteed authentic-looking transcripts. What with cutbacks in aid to higher education, I concluded that many a university press must have found it necessary to supplement revenues through the sale of genuine, state-issued drivers’ licenses or alcohol 10 cards. So much for truth in advertising.

Another five ads running in the standard “Instruction/Education” column offered inexpensive, nonresident doctorates for life experience, as well as “15,278 available” first-run term papers—for “research” only.

I could see that I had a full day’s work ahead of me, and all this from only some quick browsing. In an earlier life I had been surprised to find these kinds of advertisements running not only alongside the astrographs, earn-money-at-home-stuffing-envelopes schemes, and consult-a-psychic ads in the weekly tabloids, but also alongside the investment opportunities in periodicals that catered to an upscale market. So I had also begun to thumb through the likes of Connoisseur, Country Life, and The New Yorker, when a heavyset kid jingling change inside the pouch of his apron reminded me,’ “This isn’t a library.”

“Now, how did I know he was going to say that?”

Settled in with a double espresso, I began reading a business survey on Thailand and an article called “America’s Menu of Schools” in The Economist. In the back pages I found a full menu of ads, including this one: “Match your position with a legal degree and transcripts. As you know experience is still the best teacher. But Degrees open doors.”

But it was this enticing little item in The Atlantic that set my saliva glands to running:

Britain’s largest non-residential independent university offers degree programmes including higher doctorates in a wide range subjects. For a prospectus send $8.00 to Somerset University, Ilminster, Somerset TA19 0BQ England. Telephone (0460) 57255.

This one had all the trappings of a classic degree mill. With the straightedge of my cigar clipper, I removed the education column from the classifieds and stuffed it inside my breast pocket. Then I clipped the cap off a Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur and struck a match off my thumbnail. It was everything the piece in Connoisseur had promised, a full-bodied smoke as close to a pre-Castro habano as you could find.

“Must you smoke that?”

How did I know to expect that? The statement had come from the woman. I noticed then she was decked out in safari chic, the latest in Gravy League apparel. The professor was pretending to look away, somewhere off toward the Left Bank of the Charles. It was Fletcher Knebel who first observed that smoking is the leading cause of statistics.

“Sorry,” I said, rising from my seat. “The parole board says they help keep my nerves on an even keel.”

I gathered up my notes and pulled the classifieds out of each paper before strolling over to the cab stand. I had a plane to catch and little more time to waste.

It was the Wizard of Oz, I think, who first observed that the only difference between a college dean and a scarecrow is a diploma. In recent years, thousands of Americans—and many more thousands of foreign nationals—have answered ads offering “free, revealing details” about “fast, inexpensive” college and university degrees “of your choice by return mail.” Most customers know what they’re paying for, and the government has found few satisfied clients willing to step forward to help with prosecutions. Meanwhile, the distinction between a legitimate evening school and a fly-by-night operation grows blurrier and blurrier.

On my way from that Cambridge cafe to Logan Airport, it was just my luck to meet up with a piece of living folklore on the landscape of American academia: the down-and-out Ph.D. driving a cab to make ends meet. He seemed intent on giving me a tour of the North End, where traffic was incredibly snarled by a film crew shooting a scene from “Spenser: For Hire.” I made Logan with just minutes to spare.

Once back in Denver, I started laying a paper trail. I began by writing to companies that offered forged transcripts, diplomas. and certificates, explaining the unfortunate circumstances attending the loss of my Massachusetts teaching certificate. my Columbia University transcripts, and my master’s degree from Teachers College—all casualties of a boating accident.

Next, I sifted through some of my old notes to nail down what kind of degree I might pursue for this update on the diploma mills. I thought, What university degree. in the wrong hands, could lead to the most mischief? Engineering and medicine had always been popular. My files brought back the story of the Canadian pharmacist who purchased an M.D. degree from an offshore broker and confessed that, had he not been caught. “I think I would have made a good doctor.” Then, too, there was the quack cancer specialist who was running a Laetrile scam in southern California before he was caught. He now operates out of Tijuana.

Worst of all is the case of the inmate with a 12-year reservation at the federal pen in Otisville, New York, who can boast of a career he began by posing as a medical student in 1968. By 1976, with two forged overseas medical degrees. he had risen to the rank of Chief Medical Officer in the U.S. Army, where he was responsible for the training of cadet physicians. Two years later, he became a Medical Fellow with the National Institutes of Health and was assigned to the Baltimore Gerontological Center of the National Institute on Aging. Later, at Walson Army Hospital, Fort Dix, New Jersey, he acted as staff anesthesiologist in more than 70 operations until 25 August 1983, when he botched a routine minor surgery, leaving a 47-year-old patient in his care “in a persistent vegetative state,” according to an Army neurologist.

The Justice Department has estimated that as many as 10,000 fakes and an unknown quantity of cheats—are practicing medicine throughout North America. No one really knows what damage they may be up to. To add insult to injury, once caught. these characters generally find God first, then an agent, who digs up a ghostwriter and a publisher for them. One Caribbean expediter, who sang for the House Select Committee on Aging, is setting up shop as a consultant to help spot foreign medical credentials of questionable origin.

But what about the classroom teacher or the cop on the beat who needs a degree in order to qualify for a raise, which may be well-deserved? Or what possible harm could come from a pastor who hangs a mail-order master’s degree on the priory wall?

The priest who showed up on the tarmac in Detroit last August to comfort grieving relatives of those who died in the crash of a Northwest jetliner bought his collar from a mail-order ministry in Chula Vista, California. “Father John Irish” was described by one woman as “a very charming man who was persuasive and very, very nice.” He also offered legal counsel, recommending a Fort Lauderdale attorney in the event that families might want to sue the airline. A paraprofessional ambulance chaser, Father John routinely roamed the intensive care wards of two Denver hospitals, and he has a habit of materializing at the scene of major disasters across the country. He put in an appearance on the runway at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport following the crash of a Boise-bound Continental flight. Again he evaded capture.

So I decided to see just how much mileage I could get with a little religion. I wrote Father John’s alma mater, the Ministry of Salvation. I also wrote to a more widely known Bible school, the Universal Life Church, Inc., of Modesto, California.

According to its December 1985 report, Fraudulent Credentials, the House Select Committee on Aging found that diploma mills fall into one of five categories, including:

  • official-looking mills that use seals, crests, and other visual devices that ape those of legitimate institutions; frequently, they also include information about state approval or accreditation in order to lend credibility to the operation.
  • sound-alikes or schools with names very similar to those of well-known, often
  • prestigious institutions, Among the imitations of Ivy League schools that I came across in an earlier investigation were Cornell University and Dartmouth College.
  • good-as-new outfits that will replace diplomas “lost or damaged” by negligence, fire, or boating accidents. Confidentiality is always guaranteed.

An ad you may have seen for a concern called “Alumni Arts” falls into this last category. In 1984 I responded to that ad in a professional journal for mercenaries and hired killers—the gist of which was college diploma, one day, no questions. It offered “beautiful exacting reproductions including seals & colors.” Nearly a year later, when the FBI raided the farmhouse headquarters of Alumni Arts, agents found 33,000 printed and 32,000 blank diplomas in the names of 330 real colleges and universities. In addition, a personal computer had stored the names of 2,300 graduates.

I decided to hit as many of these categories as possible. In addition to Somerset University, the Ministry of Salvation, and the Universal Life Church, I requested application papers from Bradford University of Pasadena, California; Life Science Institute of Austin, Texas; and Northern Utah University of Salt Lake City.

Next I wrote to Arthur Levine, president of Bradford College, a four-year liberal arts school just north of Boston. I thought he might appreciate knowing about his university’s extension campus in Pasadena. Having set all these wheels in motion, I decided to contact the one individual I knew who had more bogus diplomas than I.

In February 1985 the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the postal authorities pulled the rug out from under a string of post-office-box colleges that used an umbrella charter called Disciples of Truth, Inc., a nonprofit organization with offices scattered throughout the Bible Belt. Among its 2,147 graduates is Otto Allen Ezell, Jr., of Matthews, North Carolina.

Between February and April 1981 Ezell had answered several ads peddling shortcut university degrees. In no time at all he was on the mailing list of American Western University, the Vocational Guidance Company, and Adult Career and Education Services. He started to receive unsolicited literature from Southwestern University. From Vocational Guidance he learned of expensive and demanding programs offered by some of the nation’s leading universities. He also learned of inexpensive, pace-yourself programs from such schools as American Western.

When he learned from an operator with a telephone-answering service in Tulsa that the dean of American Western had taken a personal interest in his career, Ezell signed up for a program leading to a Master’s of Business Administration (M.B.A.). The university sent him application forms, a life-experience questionnaire, and a tuition schedule: $485 for the M.B.A. and a one-time-only $25 transcripts-processing fee. He purchased a cashier’s check for the full amount and diligently filled out his application and survey, neglecting to mention his life experiences as a special agent for the FBI.

A model student, Ezell eventually earned 17 advanced degrees, including two doctorates in medicine, from schools operated by Disciples of Truth. In May 1982 a mailing tube from American Western brought Ezell his first M.B.A., along with transcripts indicating that he had earned straight A’s in the rigorous courses he had never taken. Also enclosed was an invitation to join the prestigious American Western University Alumni Association and a brochure from Joel Jewelry. He later sent Joel $97.50 and received his class ring by return mail.

Next, for $830, came a Master’s of Business Management from Southwestern University, along with outstanding transcripts, an invitation to join the prestigious Southwestern University Alumni Association, and a brochure from Joel Jewelry. By September 1982 Ezell had been introduced to “Dr. Anthony J. Geruntino, Ph.D.,.. chairman of the Southwestern University Board of Trustees and director of the two Ohio-based guidance centers.

“We’re always looking for adjunct faculty members, members to serve on committees and the Board of Directors,” Geruntino said in a telephone conversation that Ezell had tapped. He persuaded Ezell to pay him a visit at his office in Columbus, instructing him to “come in the door marked United Printing Company.”

Ezell had no idea what he was getting into when he stepped through that door. It wasn’t until after affidavits were filed and search warrants executed that he realized the magnitude of Geruntino’s operation. He knew from earlier investigations of a common practice among diploma mills of swapping degrees and certificates and giving out information on clients and prospective pigeons for a commission or finder’s fee. Working with postal and treasury agents, Ezell discovered that Geruntino was the mastermind behind seven different colleges and universities, two alumni associations, two university finance agencies, four higher education accrediting agencies, seven career guidance companies, and a jewelry firm—all operating out of his base in Ohio under the religious tax shelter, Disciples of Truth, Inc.

“This is not a job,” Geruntino told him that day in Columbus. “This is a way of getting rich.”

Open admissions takes on a new meaning when you consider that any high school dropout with $51 could pick up a bachelor’s degree along with a high school diploma from a Disciples of Truth affiliate. For Southwestern graduates, though, the tab could run as high as $985. Alumni knew, however, that they might confuse prospective employers the real Southwestern University is in Georgetown, Texas—so a bogus Southwestern doctorate could fetch as much as $1,450.

The resilience of diploma mills is evident in Geruntino’s efforts to reorganize in Utah, months after his records had been impounded by the Justice Department. When city officials in St. George, Utah, realized that operating papers for Geruntino had been granted in error, they asked him to appear before the city council to show cause why they should not revoke his license. At a city council hearing on 7 February 1985, Geruntino described his school as “a different kind of university.” He asked to leave the council chambers while the city fathers deliberated on the case.

Inside chambers, officials considered the merits of his argument. Meanwhile, in the halls outside, Geruntino and his new director of admissions were taken into police custody. It was only then that Geruntino learned that earlier that day a federal grand jury in North Carolina had issued a 31-count indictment against him and his seven-member board of apostles.

Geruntino is now serving a five-year sentence.

Judge Robert Potter of the U.S. district court remarked during arraignments that, “the people who bought these things ought to be prosecuted along with everybody else.” Within a year, the FBI had uncovered 45 graduates of Southwestern who were working in what Ezell called sensitive positions in the federal government. Many were found in the Pentagon. One was a duty officer in the White House Situation Room when the FBI caught up with him. He said that he had enrolled at Southwestern because it could offer him academic credits for training programs he had taken at the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department.

As the year passed, more frauds in high places were uncovered. The big fish got their share of national headlines; the school superintendent and the police chief got theirs in the hometown newspaper. I decided to track down a handful of small fry to ask the obvious question, “Why’d you do it?” I also wanted to see what dividends they were earning with their checkbook credentials. The entire graduating class had been introduced as evidence at Geruntino’s arraignment, so the identities of graduates were a matter of public record.

In one city in the Southwest, I found six Southwestern graduates and, as a bonus, a seventh individual with a bogus degree from the University of Texas, Austin, manufactured by Alumni Arts. All I could ever learn about this last person was that the address to which his diploma was mailed was that of a drug-abuse clinic. I don’t know whether he was a client or a counselor.

As for the six Southwestern alumni, I knew that. if I was to get any talk out of them at all, I would have to approach them as if they had been “victims” of a mail fraud. After the second interview, the responses fell into a predictable pattern. Most said that they were “shocked” to learn that their alma mater had been shut down. Most also said that they “suspected something” because Southwestern changed addresses far too often. All of them denied using their mail-order credentials to acquire employment or to land a promotion.

“Good grief, no,” a high-ranking civilian official at a U.S. Army base, the holder of a bogus engineering degree, told me. “Besides, this is strictly a skills-level type job.” He said he “felt a little uncomfortable” that the university would change its mailing address on a regular basis, but he continued with the program anyway.

“I had already turned in the money $380.”

Similarly, a respiratory therapist who ran a home health care delivery company had obtained a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, based, he claimed, on 15 years “in the hospital business.” He was a little uneasy when he called Southwestern’s Tucson campus one day and was told “the university has moved to Ohio.”

The most professional response came from a psychologist. who, shortly after receiving a master’s degree from Southwestern, received a promotion at the Texas Employment Commission. “That pisses me off. I worked hard to obtain that piece of paper and to think, all had to do was ask for it.”

The most memorable of these interviews, though, took place in the living room of an automobile parts dealer who had a Southwestern bachelor’s degree in business administration and another in education. Our interview was punctuated with such remarks as, “Can I fix you something to drink?”—and, when I told him about the federal convictions, “No kidding?”

“It was a joke, an expensive joke,” he assured me. “I always told my kids I was going to get my college degree before they did. What the hell? It was a fast way to do it. It was a lark.”

He wouldn’t tell me how expensive a joke it had been. When I asked to see the diplomas and transcripts, he rummaged through a bedroom dresser, mumbling, “Now what did I do with those diplomas? I must have thrown them out. Can I fix you something to drink?”

I said no thanks. But I didn’t have an answer for the respiratory therapist when he asked, “What’s going to happen to me?”

A thick brown haze again obscured my view of the mountains. From my office window, Denver looked like a toy city built entirely of Lego blocks. Characterless—and yet, according to some Chamber of Commerce literature, Mile High was home to the highest concentration of degree holders in America. You’d never know it from the conversations I overheard every day on the Mall. So little brainpower to show for all those diplomas.

It had not been a promising day from the start. According to the Denver Post, it was the first official “pollution alert” day of the season. I also read that a new Perry Mason movie was being shot across town. At least I didn’t have a plane to catch or traffic to worry about.

Things looked a lot brighter when I got home and opened my mail. In the six days since sending off my “free-will offering,” I had apparently earned five certificates from the Universal Life Church, Inc., as well as a wallet-size minister’s 10 and a “clergy” parking sticker. According to the diplomas, I had been granted the “honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree—for meritorious recognition upon completion of a course of instruction.” Later in the morning, presumably, I was ordained a minister and, in the early afternoon, promoted to bishop. By the close of the business day, I had been canonized. I was now a certified saint.

On each document, my name had been typed in, using what appeared to be standard IBM issue. Each diploma and certificate carried the printed signature of President Kirby J. Hensley, D.D. To the left is a flat, dull-gold-colored emblem with the word “SEAL” printed across it in capital letters. To the right is a list of the board of directors, though not all the names are the same on each certificate. But I must say that, in the many years I have been associated with higher education, I have never before seen a university with its telephone number printed on its diplomas.

The package included an extra, blank ordination certificate, just in case, and a booklet on how to beat the IRS—with a question-and-answer section in the event of an IRS audit. There was also a pitch from the Universal Life University School of Law: “the time you take to complete the program is up to you.” To enroll, one has only to send an initial donation of $45. “The total free-will offering is $540.00, if paid at the rate of $45 per two courses. If paid in advance, the minimum offering drops to $495.00, a savings of $45.” The pitch continues, “Earn your degree of Doctor at the Common Law and become a member of the prestigious Universal Bar Association —an association dedicated to the restoration of law and justice. ”

Elsewhere in the booklet. there were suggestions on how, as a member of the clergy, I might obtain commercial discounts at department stores, supermarkets, “amusement parks, and the list goes on. . . . Check around. You might be surprised at what you will find.”

My first encounter with the College of Life Science came in 1985 when the Coordinating Board of the Texas College and University System asked me to enroll. The Travis County attorney’s office had already challenged the owner, T.C. Fry, for granting academic degrees and using the word college on his letterhead without holding a state certificate. Without authorization from the Coordinating Board, the college would be acting unlawfully, were it doing business with Texas residents.

Fry had said that his company had stopped calling itself a college in 1983. So I wrote for application papers, using an address in EI Paso.

I received a letter and an enrollment package from T.C. Fry, promising “opportunities galore” in “the booming health field.” The letter began, “Dear Friend of Personal Excellence,” and it said that big bucks could be made curing diabetes, herpes, cancer, headaches, schizophrenia, insomnia, and constipation. What took other health professionals four to 10 years of full-time training, I could learn in a matter “of a few weeks.” The catalog was only $3; the Ph.D. ran $1,340.

Included in the enrollment package was “A Frank Statement,” in which Fry asserted, “Truth needs no certification.” He went on to say that certificates and diplomas offered by Life Science “are mere window dressing” designed “to inspire customer confidence” and help his graduates secure “professional employment.”

I had written to an address in Austin, but the return address on his catalog read Mankato, Minnesota. Oddly enough, the telephone number in Mankato was an Austin exchange.

Students were required to maintain a C average, according to Fry’s literature. A “Certificate of Proficiency in Nutritional Science” and a certificate of membership in the American Society of Nutritional and Dietary Consultants would come with completion of 36 courses. Completion of 115 lessons would earn the “Doctor of Philosophy in Health Science” and membership in the American Association of Professional Hygienists.

Impressive as that may sound, the American Association of Nutritional and Dietary Consultants can claim one 6-year-old child, two dogs, and a cat among its members, according to a new book on diploma mill activity from the American Council on Education. In Diploma Mills: Degrees of Fraud, scheduled by Macmillan for release this spring, authors David Stewart and Henry Spille identify business, counseling and therapy, medicine and health, nutrition, education, and religion—in that order—as the “hot spots” for credential mills today.

Many nutrition schools, they write, are actually fronts for “holistic” drug peddlers. Sure enough. No sooner was my name in the Life Science files than the piranha showed up at my door. Miracles offered by mail included aloe vera cure-alls, pills to stop baldness, and even a method to turn back the aging process. The discoverer of this drug of eternal youth said that he would not reveal the formula until 50 years after his death. That logic strains credibility. for, according to his own literature, he should never have to reveal his secret at all. But mail fraud operators aren’t banking on logic.

According to the Life Science catalog, the Ph.D. is not actually awarded by the College of Life Science. Instead, it is awarded by the City University of Los Angeles—that’s CULA, not to be confused with UCLA—”upon application and a transcript of your grades.”

In Los Angeles, I contacted CULA Chancellor Henry Anderson, who said that he had long ago asked Fry to retract that statement. CULA, Anderson said, would accept credits earned at Life Science only as transfer credits toward a degree program at CULA. Tuition credits would also apply. Thus, an individual paying Life Science $1,340 would have that amount credited toward a $3,600 program at CULA.

Life Science can claim at least one notable graduate, best-selling author Harvey (Fit for Life) Diamond. In April 1986 Diamond and his wife Marilyn defended their alma mater on ABC’s “Nightline.” From the sound of things, neither the Diamonds nor host Ted Koppel knew that the “college” had been put out of business at 9 that same morning.

The agreement between Fry and the Travis County attorney’s office stipulated that Life Science—also known as the American College of Health Science would no longer use the term college or university and would cease offering academic degrees. Using my wife’s maiden name, I wrote to say I had heard about their “innovative program” during a lecture last year in Boulder, and I requested application papers.

The “Life Science Institute—A Nonprofit, Educational Organization” replied with the salutation, “Dear Friend of Human Excellence,” and told of opportunities galore “in the booming health field.” There was no mention of a Ph.D., however, or of any affiliation with CULA. The same certificates and association memberships as before were included. The total cost of the program was $1,375—$1,250 if paid in full, in advance. “The total cost of the materials alone for this course would be $1,499.45 if purchased separately,” the literature told me.

The application form asked candidates to list “skills possessed” and whether they had ever worked “as a salesperson.” Once again using my wife’s name, I replied directly to T.C. Fry, requesting additional information:

Is there a diploma I will get at the end? Is there a picture of what it will look like that you can send me? Can I transfer my life Science credits to another college if I need to? Will you take credit for what I already know? I am also worried because someone told me you were on the Ted Koppel show. maybe last year, and had to change the name of the school. Also, the application form says I need a sponsor. Does that mean I have to get a note from a doctor that I can take the course? I know you must be very busy and must get many, many letters every day. . . .

The grandfatherly response, signed by T.C. Fry, gave me a whole new insight into consumer protection:

At the moment, we have no picture of the diploma. however I assure you that it has a quality appearance as do the rest of the course materials.

With regard to the transfer of credits, we are in the process of obtaining accreditation with an association for nontraditional studies. which would probably allow credit transfer to at least those other participating institutions. Last of all, a sponser [sic] is simply one who introduced you to the course. If there was none in your case, just indicate so, and how you actually learned about the course. Hope to hear from you soon, and good luck!

The next mail brought even better game. An envelope marked “Pal Mar Enterprises”—with a handwritten post office box number replacing a typed one in the return address brought me the most brazen pitch I’d seen:

Thank you for your interest in our program. Our Diplomas are Without question the finest available. Comparable quality sell for $160 to $325. They are 9  1/2 x 13 inches and are printed on the finest Diploma Parchment, and enhanced with a Gold embossed seal and colored ribbons. These diplomas are for your personal use and should be used at your own discretion.

At the bottom of the same page, I was given the following advice in capital letters: “NOTE: NO MEDICAL OR DENTISTRY DIPLOMAS.” Near the very end of the combination letter and application form, I was admonished (in capitals and boldface type) to send “NO PERSONAL CHECKS.” Instead, I was to “Make All Money Orders and Certified Checks Payable To: J.M. Martin, P.O. Box 6606, Altadena, CA 91001-6606.”

Diplomas were offered in the names of Franklin Prep School and Franklin University, both of Philadelphia, and Bradford University of Pasadena, California. Prices ranged from $75 for a prep-school diploma to $110 for a doctorate. Transcripts were $25 each, and another $10 got “your name in gold.”

That same day, my prospectus arrived from Somerset University. My first instincts had been right. Somerset had the slickest catalog I had ever seen. A handsome, glossy black cover bore a red crest with a white bend-sinister above the university motto, “libertas academica.” Page after page, all 60 of them were filled with the same information: all work “commences with the assessment of the candidate’s background learning and experience.” Nearly every degree was “classified as a special honours degree.” Awards came upon the completion of “a special course of study” or “the conduct of independent research. ”

The inside front cover read, “This prospectus supersedes all previous editions and represents the present intentions of the University.” On the page facing the back cover was information about university governance and the role of the faculty senate. Dispersed throughout the prospectus were photographs of various university officers, as well as “some former graduates of the University,” all clutching their diplomas. David Rogers, director of studies, appears very academic as he prepares to sign a pile of important-looking papers. Registrar Denise Gunnell is the picture of efficiency as she looks over what appears to be the same pile.

I wanted to give Somerset the benefit of every doubt. But I think the following exchange of correspondence will clear up any questions as to “the present intentions of the University.”

October 14, 1987
Dr David Rogers,
Director of Studies,
Somerset University,
IIminster, Somerset TA19 0BQ

Dear Dr Rogers,

Thank you for your prompt reply to my request for the university prospectus. It was certainly worth the $8—I feel like I got a good jump on my education all ready! I have written to several non-residence universities and your’s is the best catelog I’ve seen yet. I am especially impressed with your list of officers and academic advisors. There is a good chance that I will be in England next spring, and I would sure like to meet that registrar. Meanwhile, before I invest $100 Lbs. for registration, I want to make sure that my application will be accepted by the faculty. Attached is a brief resume and I would appreciate your review. Also, I am wondering what your diplomas look like. Is there a picture of one you can send me? I would like to apply for the highest degree that you think I can earn.

I know you must be very busy and have to answer several letters every day. Thank you in advance.


Edward St. Patrick McQuaid

PS: Please send any information on financial aid, scholarships, etc.

At any other school I am certain that my letter and the “Currilum Vitae” I attached would have been passed around the admissions office to brighten up an otherwise uneventful Monday morning. (The errors in the correspondence between me and the university are reproduced faithfully.) I claimed to have a high school diploma from Franklin Prep and an associate’s degree from Franklin University, with “transcripts available.”

According to my resume, my bachelor’s degree was earned at Bradford University in Pasadena, California—”transcripts and diploma available.” Under the heading of employment history, I decided that a three-month stint with the Atlantic City Police Department, followed by five months wildcatting in Louisiana, would make for good color. Next to painless dentistry, I had found the bail-bond trade to be the principal industry along the Texas-Mexico border, and I thought that it would sound more reasonable than “repossession agent” on my resume. So I listed six years as a bail bondsman, followed by a career as a “freelance security agent—eferences available, will relocate.” But I received a prompt reply to my letter of inquiry, and the following correspondence ensued:

5 November 1987

Dear Mr Mcquaid

Thank you for your letter of 14 October and the accompanying curriculum vitae which has been noted carefully.

On behalf of the University, I am pleased to confirm that you are eligible for entry at postgraduate level and therefore you may care to consider applying for entry to one of the Master’s programmes offered.

We shall be pleased to receive your completed application form with supporting papers and registration fee, should you decide to make a formal application for entry.

Yours sincerely,
Diane G Faulconbridge BA
Assistant Registrar

* * *

November 25, 1987
BA Faulconbridge,
Assistant Registrar
Somerset University
IIminster, Somerset

Dear Miss Faulconbridge,

Thank you for your letter replying to my resume and application review. I am sorry for the delay in getting back to you. It has been one of those weeks. Just today the police put a boot on my car and my landlord changed the locks on my apartment because of some problems with my deposit. Maybe you have had days like this and can understand why I have been so preoccupied.

However, I think we can do business very soon if you can clear up one or two matters for me. First, about tuition discounts. I will be able to pay the entire tuition and registration fee with a cashier’s check, in full, before the start of classes. I am wondering about two things: First, will I get a discount on a doctorate programme if I pay for the masters? I will probably like to continue along for as high a degree as I can get. Second, I have showed the prospectus to several other people who would also be interested in a degree. I am wondering if I can earn a discount for the number of new students I can recruit to the university? If you think so, you should send some more prospectus books so I can pass them out.

I am also wondering what the diplomas look like. I asked Dr. Rogers about this in my earlier letter. What I would really like to know is this. My mother is in very poor health and I would like to be able to show her my diploma as soon as possible. I would like to know if I pay my full tuition (with discounts) in full, in sterling, if I can get the diploma first and take the courses after. I realize this is unusual but I hope you understand the circumstances.

Thank you for your consideration.

Edward St. Patrick McQuaid

* * *

4 February 1988

Dear Mr Mcquaid

I am pleased to confirm that should you enrol for a Master’s degree and then go on to undertake a doctorate programme at a later date, a bursary award towards the second programme would be considered. Indeed I am pleased to inform you that the Bursar has authorised a discount of £295.00 for a Master’s programme if you register before the end of February 1988.

With regards to receiving a diploma before completing a course, this would not be possible.

We look forward to receiving your completed application form and registration fee by return.

Yours sincerely

Diane G Faulconbridge, BA
Assistant Registrar

* * *

12 February 1988

BA Faulconbridge
Assistant Registrar
Somerset University
Ditton St., Somerset

Dear Ms Faulconbridge,

We have an expression over here: My patients is wearing thin! Translated, it means “How many times have I written to you (and sent you $8 US) to ask to see what a copy of your diploma looks like?” And every time I get the same reply: Thank you for your letter, send us money and fill out the application form, Yours sincerely. Please tell me this, how do I know this isn’t a rip-off if I don’t see what the diploma looks like?

I have explained the reason to you why I at least need to see a sample diploma from Somerset. I’ve already told my father that I have been accepted and would soon have a Somerset diploma. What do I tell him if he has another stroke and I haven’t even taken my first class? Here’s what I am prepared to do as soon as you or Denise Gunnell write back to say its OK I will go ahead and sign up for a higher doctorate programme and pay the full amount $2,695-pounds – and I will take all of the classes and do all of the work that is assigned, IF you will send me a Master’s diploma as soon as my check has cleared your bank. I think that is a fair compromise.

I also wrote you with a proposal about discounts based on how many new students I can recruit. Now I’ve loaned out my only copy of the prospectus to a friend in Boston. I was assuming you would pay me for my time and effort, but you haven’t even mentioned it in your letters. Can you at least send me the new 1988 prospectus, or is that going to cost me another $8 US, if the price hasn’t gone up?

I hope you are not upset by my questions or my attitude. Its just that I’m having my doubts. Do you think if I wrote to his Grace the Duke I would get better satisfaction? I don’t want to go over your head about any of this.


Edward St. Patrick Mcquaid

I can only conclude that “patients” had worn thin at Somerset as well. After several weeks with no reply, I came across a dispatch item in the Chronicle of Higher Education, dateline London, “Britain to Crack Down on Institutions Offering Bogus Degrees.”

Among 150 suspect colleges targeted for action were the International College of Natural Health Sciences and “Somerset University in IIminster, which has been investigated by the government’s Office of Fair Trading for alleged violations of consumer-protection laws,” according to the report.

“They’re not allowed to fleece their own,” FBI agent Ezell told me. And, up until now, “it’s been open season on Americans and other foreigners.”

My first meeting with Bradford College president Arthur Levine was several years ago in the buffet line at a function sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, held at its headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey. Levine told me that the trick to being invited back to these sorts of affairs was to take small portions. He was on sabbatical from Bradford College when I caught up with him again at Harvard’s Gutman Library.

“This whole business is a sham for consumers who are misled into thinking that they are earning a qualified college or university degree,” he said in a brief telephone interview. “I am assuming that a steady stream of graduates is pouring out of Bradford University of Pasadena. For an institution such as Bradford College, the effect is to diminish the worth and importance of our own degree. For a state to allow diploma mills to exist and multiply only adds to the rationale for questioning the quality of higher education in general. Clearly, this activity hurts all of higher education.”

After an earlier run-in with diploma mills, Levine had suggested in a commentary for the Chronicle of Higher Education that “a national registry” of suspect colleges ought to be compiled and updated periodically. A major Washington-based professional association had planned to issue just such a roster this year, but it backed off on the advice of its attorneys.

“This angers me very much,” said Levine, adding that he has instructed legal counsel for Bradford College to investigate the possibility of taking legal action against Bradford University.

Just when I thought the dust had settled, a personal letter from the president of Northern Utah University materialized. “This will acknowledge, with appreciation, your letter of October 23, which somehow did not reach us until November 6,” wrote Warren H. Green, Ph.D.

I figured out that problem pretty quickly. The return address on Dr. Green’s letter read “5 Triad Center, Salt Lake City,” but the envelope carried a St. Louis postmark. I telephoned the Triad Center and a receptionist told me that the office building was home to the Utah board of regents for higher education but not to Northern Utah University. “Never heard of it,” she said.

Dr. Green’s letter is an extraordinary piece of correspondence, especially since its author is a university president. I counted no fewer than 10 places in which he had backed up and erased spelling and typographical errors. In one instance, he simply crossed out an extra “0” from the sentence, “You would not loose time from work or have to go to the expense of campus study.” His letter also offers these two gems (reproduced exactly) in response to my request for information on financial aid:

Since the governments cut-back in funding, we can offer no financial aid or scholarships.

In the Government cut-back, they removed all assistance to non-traditional schools and only allow it to your larger University for on-campus studies.

The catalogs of diploma mills generally exhibit a similar editorial pattern. As a rule, program offerings are described in extravagant terms. The text, laced with pompous academic jargon, is often rife with spelling and grammatical errors. Principal officers usually hold an arm’s length of impressive degrees, often awarded by the mill itself.

In the catalog there are lots of pictures of northern Utah—but no pictures of Northern Utah University. “Since Northern’s external division specializes in external study, there is no large physical plant (cafeterias, dormitories, libraries, athletic facilities, etc.) but rather, adequate administrative facilities are maintained with access to offices, conference rooms and living accommodations on a leased basis when needed. Library facilities in the area are superb.”

The cover sports a photo of two young people “enjoying a summer day at the Triad Center.” Inside are photos of the Utah state capitol and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It was late in the afternoon. I was shaved, showered, and aspirined. The face of Warren H. Green smiling up from an open page in his catalog reminded me that I had a deadline to meet.

I have to admit admiring these characters. In a perverse way, they are doing a public service, drawing attention to issues of comparable worth. In a credential-hungry world, too many people are roaming the streets with hard-earned, overpriced diplomas of questionable value. Too many more earned theirs warming a seat for four years and staying ahead of tuition payments. It had long been my dream to rent a post office box over on Mount Auburn Street and open the likes oi Harvard Square University, just to see what the mail would bring. But that’s another story.

Directory assistance confirmed a Warren H. Green resident in St. Louis. There was no answer, so I tried the number listed on the Northern Utah University letterhead.

“Yeah, Northern.” answered a casual, male voice.

“Is this the university or the answering service?” I asked, leaning back in my oak swivel chair. I struck a light off the corner of my desk.

“This is the university’s answering service,” he replied, still casual, but with a little more certainty.

“I’m trying to get through to Warren H. Green, Ph.D.,” I said, watching a thin stream of blue smoke curl toward the ceiling. “Can I reach him there?”

“You can, but not today. Can I give him a message and have him call you?”

I leaned over and flipped on the overhead fan.

“Now, how did I know you were going to say that?”

The author of this article, E. Patrick McQuaid, was a senior science for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. He subsequently moved to Boston and then to Ireland. This article was originally published in the May 1988 issue of Kappan Special Report.

This page was posted on February 21, 2005.