An Evaluator’s Chat with the High School Journalists Who Unmasked a Fake Ph.D.

The large, decorative script reads “Corllins University has conferred on Amy Lynne Robertson the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English (Magna Cum Laude) and all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.” Dr. Robertson has, on paper, an ideal background for a senior school official: a BFA, masters, doctorate, two decades as CEO of an education consulting company, and her teacher’s certification. So it comes as no surprise that she was hired as the new principal of Pittsburg High School, Kansas. In preparing a feature story on their new principal, though, writers for the school’s newspaper, the Booster Redux, found a few things that surprised them. Namely, that two of the four educational entities on Robertson’s resume do not exist. Their findings made international headlines.

Their story, published March 31, was immediately picked up by the Kansas City Star, after which it went viral on Twitter, was reported in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and was capped off by an appearance on Good Morning America. It’s a classic Scooby-Doo story, where the “meddling kids” unmask the villain, who was hiding in plain sight the whole time.

It’s a classic Scooby-Doo story, where the “meddling kids” unmask the villain, who was hiding in plain sight the whole time.

More than just interesting national news, though, this story bears a warning on the need for thorough credential evaluation in education and professional settings. Credential evaluation has been ECE’s primary business for over 36 years. So naturally this story sparked the interest of everyone here. After the dust settled and limelight died down to a certain extent, we were excited to speak with the paper’s staff and their adviser, Emily Smith, to discuss their findings from a credential evaluation perspective. The original, full article is available on the Pittsburg high school website.


Degree mills and transcript shills

For the students, Robertson’s background was immediately suspect. One of the initial red flags, according to Smith, came from the institutions listed on Robertson’s LinkedIn profile- in that there weren’t any.

“I found it curious that she was not proud of where her degree was from,” she said. “Most people are very proud; they want to wear the T-shirts and have a license plate and all that.”

The next clue was a discrepancy between Robertson’s resume (which listed her alma mater as Collins University) and her actual diploma from Corllins University. Maddie Baden, one of the paper’s editors, was the first to speak with the new principal, and one of the first to suspect something may be rotten in Denmark

 “We hadn’t heard anything about Corllins University so we looked it up,” she told me. “There was no visible address or phone number to contact the university.”  

Degree mills (fake or unrecognized institution issuing bogus credentials) are not a new problem, but they are part of the increasingly complicated business of fake credentials; a world in which people are not always who they say they are and even resources which seem trustworthy may have less-than-legitimate origins. For example, a fake version of the International Association of University’s annual handbook was being sold on Amazon as recently as a few weeks ago.

Jim Meyers, a Senior Evaluator at ECE (and someone who’s been studying educational credentials for over 30 years) also spoke with the students.

“There are different kinds of academic fraud, including misrepresenting the legitimacy or recognition of the academic institution, manufacturing documentation, and altering authentic documentation,” he said. "Diploma mills represent a type of fraud, because the official recognition of the institution is often unknown or distorted.”

In some cases, students attending so-called diploma mills don’t realize anything is wrong until they try to transfer their credits or pursue further education. The same actually happened to Robertson - we’ll get to that in a minute.

The students dug deeper.

Robertson claimed to have taken some of her Corllins coursework at a California campus, since the school’s classes are predominantly online. Calls made by the students to the City of Stockton and San Joaquin county proved Corllins held neither a building permit or business license in the state of California.

In addition to coming from a “diploma mill”, the Corllins credentials that accompanied Robertson’s job application were photocopies of the originals, according to the paper’s staff. ECE’s documentation requirements vary by country but always include the safest, most trustworthy documents available to an individual. Un-verifiable photocopies of transcripts sent unofficially by an applicant don’t cut it. ECE’s evaluations are based on “original and/or authenticated documentation.”

We obtained copies of Robertson’s Corllins diploma and transcript. After examining the documents, Meyers gave what ECE’s first read would have been. He pointed out that the location where the degree was awarded is conspicuously absent.

Institutional recognition is always key to where it is located

“Institutional recognition is always key to where it is located,” he said. “It must be recognized in the country that offers instruction and/or awards the degree.” Although not all diplomas show location, he explained, most do. “Those few things would be enough to prompt an observer to dig more.”

In an op-ed which accompanied their article, the PHS students concluded “we feel it is necessary to request official documentation from Robertson’s schools.”

Although there are ways to transmit official academic documents securely, there is no current standard for doing so. Institutions, organizations and companies set their own best practices, with varying levels of scrutiny for international applicants. In this case, as with many new hires, accepting Robertson had the background she said she did was a matter of trust.

“From my standpoint as an educator, we always have to deal with an official transcript,” said Smith. “You have to pay your 5, 10, 30 dollars or whatever to get your transcript sent electronically or through certified mail.”

There are efforts to set ground rules. Initiatives such as the Groningen Declaration seek to establish a common, agreed upon standard for sharing official academic records across borders. But adherence to these kinds of standards is still a decision, not a law.

Accreditation by any other name may not smell as sweet

According to her resume, Robertson spent 20-plus years in Dubai, holding a leadership position at Atticus Education, an educational consulting organization.  Atticus has ties to several large groups of companies, which is commonplace in many countries. Schools are often set up as an investment or for philanthropic purposes. It’s not uncommon to walk into an Indian institution, for example, and be met by a portrait of the school’s main benefactor.

In the US, accreditation involves an independent organization which is responsible for setting standards and issuing the stamp of approval allowing a school to operate. Similar but different, in many countries a government office or other private organization may set the standards for education.

For example, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) is a government entity in the UAE, which conducts research and school inspections and is, per their website, “responsible for the growth and quality of private education in Dubai.” They also attest the diplomas of students at schools under their authority.

“Whenever I looked [Robertson] up, the first thing that I saw was a bunch of articles that she had violated KHDA regulations at her school in Dubai,” said Baden.

According to a 2012 article in The Gulf News (the Middle East’s largest English-circulation newspaper), Robertson as an educator was not authorized by the KHDA. At the time, she was Principal of Dubai American Scientific School (DASS). When KHDA inspectors showed up to her school, they found attendance in some classes as low as 30%. Students just didn’t show up.  Teachers were hired illegally and “health and safety issues” as well as incidents of violence were also discovered. The KHDA encouraged parents to remove their students immediately, awarding no transfer credit for work completed at DASS.

Gulf News also discovered that Robertson had not been properly installed as Principal because of ongoing immigration issues. Even so, Robertson remained in Dubai and, at the time of her application to Pittsburg High School, she was CEO of an educational consulting firm called Atticus Education.

 “One of the things that we had tried to do was look into her digital footprint,” said Smith. “On her LinkedIn account, she had information about her company that we couldn’t find anywhere else.”

KHDA’s website search identifies Atticus Education as a training institute, offering “educational consultancies” and “educational management services.” Their “permit valid until” date is blank. Other than contact information, there is nothing else to suggest Atticus is a legitimate institution or organization.

According to Meyers, often it’s not only an institution which may need confirmation of its legitimacy, but the organization supposedly charged with monitoring it.

Often it’s not only an institution which may need confirmation of its legitimacy, but the organization supposedly charged with monitoring it

“Part of what we need to do is establish what are the appropriate authorities,” he said. “Sometimes, in certain countries, it can be misleading for their overlapping or confusing governmental or regional associations that might have a hand in recognition.”

The process for ECE, said Meyers, is complicated because the US system of accreditation is not a “straightforward concept” and is one not always embraced by foreign institutions, in terms of adherence to standards.

“It can be difficult for trained evaluators to track down the legal standing or legitimacy of an institution, because oftentimes the questionable schools have obfuscated the process.”

The Pittsburg students also ran into several inconsistencies, regarding the accreditation of Corllins. Another editor of the Booster Redux, Gina Mathew, got in contact with their local institution, Pittsburg State, at which Robertson (who did not hold certification as a school administrator) was planning to take additional courses.  These would qualify her as a building leader. To complete the program, Pitt State would need to accept transfer credit from Corllins (the aforementioned diploma mill).

“We managed to get in touch with the Registrar’s Office, who could not find Corllins university within their database,” said Mathew. “They went on record and said they would not accept the credit for Corllins university.”

Taking Corllins out of the equation, questions also arose concerning Robertson’s bachelor’s degree from the University of Tulsa. For Mathew, Robertson’s history presented a cart-before-the-horse conundrum, which speaks to the necessity of having a full, chronological academic record.

“Part of the concern was that if she didn’t have a degree from UT that could be validated, because they didn’t offer a BFA, then how could she go to Pitt State?”

In other words, she didn’t have the pre-requisite degree for her masters or doctorate. This made a precise transfer credit evaluation into Pitt State difficult and, as it turned out, impossible. After several calls, the staff got a definitive answer from the Pitt State Registrar on her office’s evaluation of Robertson’s credentials.

“She told them my name is such and such and I am the registrar and absolutely they would not take credit,” said Smith.

Lessons learned and heads turned

Patrick Sullivan, a reporter for the Redux, did much of the legwork for the article and discovered that sometimes the “gray area” judgement calls necessitated by credential evaluation are closely guarded.

“Throughout the process, I feel like we all experienced a little bit of resistance from people we were trying to get information from.”

Sullivan experienced the hesitation that comes along with making judgement calls based on imperfect information. That reluctance can be softened through the kind of continuous training offered by the professional organizations we trust and by companies such as ECE. Credential evaluation is an ever-changing science and, without constant research, it’s virtually impossible to stay on top of the yearly and, sometimes, monthly changes in education around the world.

For Smith, her students learned the importance of digging deeper when something does not appear as it should and, even if it is imperfect and uncomfortable, gathering as much evidence as possible through research.

“I think they’ve learned that it’s very important not to just take somebody at face value; that it’s always important to look into things,” said Smith. The article thrust what are usually institutionally-contained policies into the spotlight, which was especially difficult given the closeness of the community. “People were resistant to say anything to the kids that they knew would go on the record because they knew it would come back to them.”

For ECE, these kinds of judgement calls are an everyday practice and one which requires extensive research. For professional credential evaluators such as Meyers and his colleagues, it’s often a small inconsistency which can shed light on a big problem.

“I think it probably started out similarly for you,” he said, addressing the students. “There was not any initial reason to suspect something about this individual, but certain things started cropping up and that’s parallel to the work that we do with our evaluation.”

It’s often a small inconsistency which can shed light on a big problem

Giving the documents a second look back in the office, Meyers pointed out that nothing on any of Robertson’s documents immediately jumps out as fake. “It's more the supporting documentation that seems to distract and confuse: US Department of State authentication with UAE and Bahrain stamps - it makes one question either where the school is or why there are different foreign stamps.”

Evaluators at ECE give frequent conference presentations and online trainings on how easy it is to fake an official stamp (or other security feature) which can be, essentially, meaningless. Since 1980, ECE has identified more than 5,000 falsified academic credentials.  The credentials are saved in ECE's library in Milwaukee.

“I am impressed that the students followed through on their concerns after their initial take on the individual's qualifications did not pass the smell-test,” said Meyers, who applauded the students and Smith for their investigation. “Researchers and evaluators can also easily be misdirected; kudos for their determined pursuit.”

Smith pointed out that throughout their process, her students did uncover other instances of credential fraud. As far as “lessons learned” she feels the problem is more common than most people assume it to be.

Speaking with a reporter at another local paper, who had written an expose on politicians with fake degrees, Smith asked him what his follow up story was going to be. According to Smith, he said “well when we wrote the last article, the guy resigned within 24 hours and that was the follow up story.”

Robertson has since resigned.


For Hiring Managers and Evaluators - Questions to consider when reviewing credentials:


  • Is the foreign institution legitimate? Do they offer this degree?
  • Under whose authority does this institution operate? Are they accredited or licensed?
  • Does the full chronology of all credentials put together make sense?
  • Are the documents official or photocopies? Did they arrive in a sealed envelope?
  • Does their resume match their credentials, as well as their digital footprint? (LinkedIn, Google, etc.)
  • Have you checked references and confirmed the degrees conferred with the institutions?

Check our Resource section for more information on forgery and diploma mills.


 Jack Nelson is Director of Market Development at ECE and can be contacted at jnelson@ece.org

 

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