Topic: Professions & Institutions

No Tolerance for Fake Credentials
(5/30/2004)

Elsewhere on The Ethics Scoreboard are condemnations of "zero tolerance" policies in schools, which often result in children being punished for innocent, harmless, or even virtuous behavior because it violates the letter of a well-intentioned rule. But there are some kinds of behavior that warrant zero tolerance; indeed there are instances where zero tolerance is essential if we do not want unethical conduct to become the norm. One such instance is the use of phony degrees on resumes.

The practice is a burgeoning epidemic, fueled by internet-marketed diploma mills, realistic sounding unaccredited "universities" that certify meaningless degrees for a price. It is burgeoning because it works, and it works for two reasons, the first understandable, the second indefensible. The first: many employers trust people to tell the truth. The second: even when the phony degrees are discovered, some employers do nothing.

How bad is the problem?

  • A recently released U.S. General Accounting Office study identified 28 senior federal executives who claimed bogus degrees from diploma mills. In eight agencies examined, GAO inspectors found 463 federal employees with fake college degrees. Some of the illicit degrees were paid for with tax dollars. The GAO's report noted that despite the seemingly large number of resume frauds it identified, "this number is believed to be an understatement." Three of the twenty-eight senior officials worked in the National Nuclear Security Administration, with top-secret security clearances and "emergency operations responsibilities." The government's response: so far, only one of the frauds identified by the GAO has been forced to resign.

  • Wilma Durham, the principal of the District of Columbia's Walker-Jones Elementary School, was discovered to have a fake PhD that was purchased from Columbia State University, a diploma mill that later was closed down by the government for fraud. Durham had directed others to call her "Doctor." Despite petitions from parents and outraged columns in local newspapers, the District's only response was to lower Durham's salary slightly. Its Human Resources office wrote Durham that "an internal audit determined that you are incorrectly coded in the system . . . and therefore you are being erroneously paid at a higher salary." The letter went on to say that because "this error is not of your doing, we will not be seeking a refund of the overpayment." The letter said Durham would be moved from the doctoral level salary of $115,226 to a master's-plus 45 hours of course work level of $113,751. "We apologize for the inconvenience this situation may cause you," the letter concludes. Education officials across the country believe that Durham is one of thousands of credential frauds in the education field.

  • Shortly before the Fox "reality series" "The Swan" had its final episode (this is the disturbing show in which normal looking women with low self-esteem are given plastic surgery overhauls so they can compete as silicone-pumped, gym toned Barbie clones in a televised beauty pageant…but that's another ethics story), the show's therapist Dr. Lynn. Ianni was revealed (though not by Fox!) to be another fake degree holder. Her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from California Coast University, trumpeted by the Fox website, is worth exactly as much as Wilma Durham's degree from Columbia State. California Coast, it seems, is a diploma mill. Fox did nothing, and Ianni was duly hyped on "The Swan's" season swan song as "Doctor."

All this, by virtually everyone's estimate, is the tiny tip of a huge iceberg of deception. And the iceberg is certainly growing, fueled by non-responses all over the country mirroring that of the government, D.C. and Fox. The argument, it seems, is that the fake-degree holders are conceivably "victims" of the fraudulent schools, and thus shouldn't be penalized when their credentials prove imaginary.

What? What??

Let's get this straight, shall we? Someone obtains a professional position or a promotion claiming an academic credential that normally requires years of hard study and work, a job sought by other qualified individuals with real credentials who have represented themselves honestly and forthrightly. That credential turns out to have been purchased from an unaccredited school that asks for little or no academic work to supplement the check. The fake-credential holder is then permitted to keep the presumably important job despite the absence of the crucial credential out of sympathy? The job holder does not hold legitimate credentials for the job. The job holder has taken a position from better qualified candidates. The job holder has either lied, or not taken necessary steps to ensure the integrity of his or her own education…or is so incredibly lazy and gullible that he ought not to be trusted in a high level job. The fraudulent degree-holder is not the victim that matters here. Those who need to be served by someone unqualified for the job at hand--they are victims. Those who deserved the job and were cheated out of it by fraudulent means--they are victims. All those whose real degrees are cheapened every time a bogus one is placed on a resume--they are victims. If the purchasers of the fake degrees were truly duped (and it is hard to believe that this is the case very often), let them seek damages in the courts.

What has happened, perhaps, is that decades of sloppy talk by educators and politicians about the importance of a "diploma" and a "degree" in career success really have succeeded in causing too many people to forget that it is the education behind the degree that matters. Whatever the reason for the glut of fake credentials, the verdict is inescapable. They are lies, and they cause great injustice and harm. None of the rationalizations used to justify them…that they don't matter as long as the applicant can do a good job, that they make up for the injustice of not having the cash or opportunity to get a real degree, and of course, that "everybody does it"...stands up to logical or ethical analysis. Everybody doesn't do it, but everybody will if a "no tolerance" response doesn't become standard in every industry, institution and profession, even in the ethical No Man's Land of television. If you claimed a fake degree, you lose your job. Always.

There are some things that should never be tolerated.

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