Tuesday, March 31, 1998

March 31, 1998. Philadelphia Inquirer. Mail-order university sued over name

The Philadelphia Inquirer, MARCH 31, 1998, SF EDITION, Pg. A01



The brochure for Washington University in Bryn Mawr looks scholarly enough. It tells of M.A.s and Ph.D.s, of students from all over the world. A photo shows the Strafford Building's elegant red-brick, white-columned facade. But don't look for a campus, lecture halls or cheerleaders. Or any ivy.

The Strafford Building is merely the Wayne office building where the head of Washington University receives mail and messages. At this university, you can earn your M.A. and Ph.D. in two years or less. From professors with doctorates earned at Harvard and other top colleges. And "all degree programs are primarily based on what the student has already learned," the brochure says.

The cost of a Ph.D.? A mere $6,000.

"We are entrepreneurs, we are not educators," says Yil Karademir, the Lower Merion businessman who, with his wife, runs the university and readily acknowledges it is not accredited. "I'm in it for money. I'm not in it for education."

Karademir and his wife founded Washington University three years ago. It's incorporated in Hawaii and the British Virgin Islands - and, no, it's not connected to the better-known Washington University, the one in St. Louis. That school is suing Karademir's, claiming trademark infringement.

In a suit filed in December, lawyers for the Missouri college, which was founded in 1853 and counts Nobel laureates and Rhodes scholars among its faculty and alumni, accused the Bryn Mawr-based college of being "nothing more than a diploma mill" and of confusing the public by using the name Washington University. The Bryn Mawr school denies these allegations. Last week, it offered to settle the suit by changing its name to Washington International University. The Missouri school is considering the offer.

"We are not doing anything wrong," Karademir wrote to a reporter who inquired about the school. "We are providing a very good education for around $3,000. . . . We have a strong academic staff. Our degrees are legal."
The Bryn Mawr-based Washington University bills itself as a for-profit, distance-learning school providing "traditional education, the nontraditional way." The school is not chartered with the State of Pennsylvania. The state Education Department is informally reviewing several recent complaints about it, said department spokeswoman Michele Haskins. She declined to elaborate.

The older Washington University sued in federal court after several alumni and students reported seeing ads for the other school's "accelerated degree programs" in the Economist and other magazines, said Frederic Volkmann, vice chancellor of the Missouri school.

Lori Fox, the school's lawyer, pointed to one recent episode: A businessman in Myanmar, who human-rights activists say has close ties to Myanmar's brutal military dictatorship, received an honorary doctorate from the Bryn Mawr-based school. That raised howls of protest from human-rights groups - who mistakenly directed their phone calls and mail to the Missouri school.
It's not hard to start a distance-learning school in Hawaii, Ezell and others say. But even Pennsylvania law lets schools based elsewhere solicit and teach students here, says Warren Evans, a specialist in accreditation and distance learning for the state. What's not allowed, Evans says, is for a school without a Pennsylvania charter to have a campus or office here "in which teaching is done or where education is going on."

On a residential street in Bryn Mawr, there's a two-story, forest-green house with a blue-and-gold sign out front: "WU Student Communications Center." It's the registrar's office of Washington University. Inside, a staff of four handles calls from students, who Karademir says number more than 700 and come from 73 nations. No teaching is done at the site, but students send completed homework there, he says.

At most universities, Ph.D. programs require a master's degree (which means a year or two of course work) plus a dissertation, which often takes years to research and write. A master's degree in business administration usually takes two years and can cost up to $40,000 in tuition.

Accredited online schools are somewhat cheaper. The University of Phoenix says its online students take two years to complete an 18-course MBA program that costs nearly $23,000. Tests are proctored, and no credit is given for work experience. At Karademir's school, "accelerated degree programs" require no exams and offer lots of credit for work experience. You can earn a Ph.D., for instance, in a year - if you've worked in a related field for 10 years and write an acceptable thesis. Other programs include a "guided self-study degree," for which exams can be "taken in the privacy of your home," for tuition ranging up to $7,400.

In three years, Karademir says, only three or four applicants have been turned away, and 100 degrees have been conferred.

"A lot of people fail" and get to retake their courses for free, he said. "These people have to earn degrees. We don't give degrees. . . . A degree mill gives degrees."

The school's corporate address is in Hawaii. A woman who answered the phone there said that location was "the nonacademic student center" and forwarded mail and messages "to the mainland."

The school's brochure includes the photo of the Strafford Building in Wayne. A visit there is a learning experience. Washington University is on the list of tenants. But there's no university inside. Employees of Executive Commons, which runs the office building, say they just accept mail for Karademir's Bryn Mawr office and patch calls through to it.

Ezell, the former FBI agent, contends these are telltale signs of a diploma mill. Karademir adamantly denies this. "We do not need the Wayne address to make ourselves look bigger than we are," Karademir wrote in his letter to the reporter.
Rosenthal, the engineering dean, called the school "a new experiment in education." He is an associate professor of chemistry at Drexel University and said his main role at the Bryn Mawr school was as a curriculum consultant.

Karademir pointed out that both the Web site and the course catalog said his school was unaccredited.