Friday, June 25, 2004

Chronicle for Higher Education report on dubious doctorates

From the issue dated June 25, 2004

Psst. Wanna Buy a Ph.D.?

Some professors have dubious doctorates, other professors sell them, and colleges often look the other way


It was a revelation rich in irony: A member of a college accreditation board holds a Ph.D. from a "university" that sells doctorates to anyone with $1,500. This year The Chronicle reported that Michael Davis, a member of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, received his doctorate from Saint Regis University, which claims recognition from the government of war-torn Liberia and requires little, if any, academic work. He has since been booted from the board.

Most people in higher education probably dismissed the news as a laughable aberration. Regrettable and embarrassing, but nothing more.

It turns out there are plenty of others like Mr. Davis, at all levels of higher education: A wrestling coach in Wisconsin. A librarian in Texas. An assistant dean at a Baptist university. Not to mention dozens of professors who hold degrees from unaccredited colleges, some of which require nothing more than a credit-card number and a mailing address.

And those are just the ones who can be found in the nooks and crannies of the Internet. Their true numbers are anybody's guess, although considering that unaccredited institutions rake in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, it's safe to say the problem isn't small.

Perhaps even more worrisome than the professors who "earn" degrees from such institutions are the professors who run them. For example, two professors at accredited colleges in New York State each operate an offshore university that awards an array of degrees, including doctorates. Neither operation comes close to meeting the standards of its accredited counterparts in the United States.

Academe has become home to a flourishing underground market in degrees -- and judging by the reaction of some administrators, legitimate colleges often don't seem to care, or at least not enough to thoroughly check the backgrounds of their professors. "That the people who hold these degrees make excuses doesn't surprise me," says David Linkletter, a program specialist with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. "That institutions defend them does."

While experts on diploma mills -- broadly defined as unaccredited institutions that require students to do little or no work to earn degrees -- warn of the damage they do to the integrity of higher education, many satisfied customers say they get their money's worth. "Just the ability to put Ph.D. behind my name is what I was looking for," says Wayne J. del Corral, who teaches finance part time at Tulane University. "It'll make things a lot easier with respect to submitting papers to journals and so forth."

He also appreciates that his diploma from Lacrosse University looks so real. "The seal is very nice," he says.

Institutionalizing a Fraud

Valdosta State University's Web site lists an assistant professor of management as "Dr. Jack Malehorn."

What the Web site doesn't say, and what students and colleagues probably don't know, is that Mr. Malehorn's Ph.D. is from Shelbourne University.

Shelbourne does not exist. It never existed. It claimed to be based in Ireland, but actually was one of more than a dozen names used by an international diploma-mill company that sold degrees, beginning in the mid-1990s, for $500 to $2,500, according to an investigation last year by the Federal Trade Commission. The company, based in Romania, sent millions of unsolicited e-mail messages around the world, promising recipients that they could receive degrees without doing any academic work. Along with the diplomas, the company also provided fake transcripts and phony letters of recommendation.

When contacted by The Chronicle, Mr. Malehorn at first denies that his Ph.D. is from Shelbourne, even though his résumé says it is. "No, no, I'm sorry," he says. "I wish I could help you."

After further inquiries, Mr. Malehorn acknowledges that his doctorate is, in fact, from Shelbourne. He also contends that he did actual academic work to obtain it. "It was all through an Internet connection," he says. "My dissertation certainly seemed legitimate."

His boss doesn't think so. Kenneth L. Stanley, dean of the College of Business Administration, says he knew before hiring Mr. Malehorn that he had a fake Ph.D. "Hell, we knew it was worthless," says Mr. Stanley. "Give us a break!"

But he hired Mr. Malehorn anyway because, according to the dean, it's not uncommon for professors, or even top administrators, to have bogus credentials. "I've dealt with provosts with degrees from mail-order institutions here in the United States," Mr. Stanley says. (He declines to name any of those provosts or their institutions.)

What's important, he argues, is that Valdosta State does not recognize the degree, nor was it a factor in the decision to hire Mr. Malehorn. "If Jack had come here and we had hired him thinking, 'Oh, well, he's doctorally qualified,' and we're claiming that qualification, then we're idiots and he's wrong," says Mr. Stanley.

Contrary to the dean's insistence, however, it appears that Valdosta State does consider the degree valid. Why else would the professor be referred to as "Dr." in the bulletin that announced his hiring in 2002? Why else would he be listed as "Dr." in the university's telephone directory and on the management department's Web site? And why else would he be allowed to call himself "Dr. Jack Malehorn, Ph.D." when he contributes articles to the Journal of Business Forecasting?

When all that is brought to Mr. Stanley's attention, he is quiet for several seconds. "It's a little embarrassing," he admits. He recalls referring to Mr. Malehorn as "Dr." on several occasions, including in front of students. "I guess, you know, we're guilty of institutionalizing a fraud," says Mr. Stanley.

The dean pledges that references to Mr. Malehorn's Ph.D. will be deleted from official university material. Six weeks later, the management department's Web page still calls him "Dr."

For Love or Money?

On the Web site of Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., Benjamin B. Weisman, a professor of business, lists an honorary doctorate from the International University for Graduate Studies. The degree is there alongside his master's and Ph.D. from New York University.

Founded in 1979, International University is located in the Caribbean nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. The university has four administrators and no faculty members, according to its Web site. It awards 11 graduate degrees, including doctorates in psychology, nursing science, and education. Students must complete a five-day residency on the island before receiving their diplomas.

When first questioned about his honorary degree from International University, Mr. Weisman says he can't remember much about the institution, other than that he is pretty sure it is accredited. "I think it's in Saint Kitts," he says. What Mr. Weisman, 68, fails to mention is that he, in fact, owns International University. In a later conversation, after acknowledging that he started and runs the university, he offers a spirited defense of the institution, which he says has been unfairly maligned by some state regulators.

Mr. Weisman says he and a partner started International to help graduate students who have trouble transferring credits from one university to another. International will accept those credits and allow students to complete their degrees. "We act as an umbrella," he says.

No one is admitted to the Ph.D. program who has not completed at least 70 graduate credit hours, according to Mr. Weisman. Nor does the university offer credit for so-called life experience, he says. "There is no way I would prostitute the degree that I give under any circumstances," says Mr. Weisman. "We give no credit for life experience. Zero."

An admissions counselor at International, however, tells a different story. Life experience does count toward a degree, she says. When a caller explains that he has done no doctoral-level work, she assures him that that doesn't have to be a problem. "You'd be surprised what would constitute credit," she says, adding that the caller could receive his Ph.D. in a few months.

When asked about those statements, Mr. Weisman says his employee was new and made a mistake. However, Edward Jackowski, who received a Ph.D. in behavioral management from International University, says his credits were based entirely on life experience. Mr. Jackowski, owner of a fitness company in Manhattan, took no courses and wrote a dissertation on "what motivates people to exercise." He liked the program, he says, because "it didn't take up much time."

Michael Hannigan saw an advertisement for International University in a magazine. An associate professor of social work at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, he had never finished the Ph.D. program in family therapy at Florida State University and was looking for a way to get his degree.

The professor calls International "lightweight" and says he is "used to a bit more rigor in academic things." Still, he believes that his degree from the university is legitimate. "They have the same accreditation as Oxford has," says Mr. Hannigan.

Not quite. According to Dale Gough, director of International Education Services at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the University of Oxford is recognized by the government of Britain, as are several colleges in the Caribbean. International University is not among them. Mr. Weisman says his institution is accredited by the government of Saint Kitts and Nevis, a recognition that experts like Mr. Gough and Alan Contreras, director of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a state agency, consider meaningless. After all, the Caribbean nation once accredited a university that doled out degrees for watching I Love Lucy and other sitcoms.

Mr. Weisman says he didn't start International University to make money. But this year he expects it to graduate between 50 and 100 students, each of whom must pay $10,500 in tuition plus $1,500 for food, travel, and lodging. On the basis of those figures, International University should pull in between $500,000 and $1-million this year.

What do Mercy College officials think of Mr. Weisman's Caribbean operation? A college spokesman says the professor, who has tenure, can do whatever he likes as long as it does not interfere with his duties at Mercy. The spokesman notes, however, that the college would not accept transfer credits from International University, because "we do not recognize its accreditation."

Ph.D.'s for Less

Mr. Weisman's former boss at Mercy wouldn't be bothered in the least by his extracurricular activities. That's because Donald Grunewald, a onetime president of Mercy who is now a business professor at Iona College, runs his own unaccredited institution, called Adam Smith University.

Adam Smith's degrees are a bargain compared with International University's. Mr. Grunewald charges $2,500 for a bachelor's and $3,000 for a Ph.D. He declines to say how many students Adam Smith enrolls, only that the number is "very small." The university has no full-time professors, although some faculty members from other institutions sometimes read papers and help students, he says.

Mr. Contreras, the Oregon official, calls Adam Smith "a diploma mill with a long and unattractive history." Over the years it has been based in Hawaii, Louisiana, and South Dakota. Now its home is the ground floor of the girls' hostel at the Methodist Compound in Monrovia, Liberia. The American address is a mailbox in Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific.

All the while, Mr. Grunewald, now 70, has run the university from his home in Connecticut. He calls it a "labor of love" and bristles at the suggestion that it is disreputable. "My idea of a diploma mill is that you send in the money and they send you back a degree," he says. "That's not what we're doing at all. We like to feel that we have integrity. We have been accredited in Liberia."

What that particular accreditation means is unclear. A visit to the Liberian Embassy in Washington sheds little light on the matter. An embassy official, Abdullah Dunbar, doesn't know much about Adam Smith. When asked who can verify the Liberian accreditation, he searches among the papers on his desk and, after a few minutes, produces the name "Isaac B. Roland," who Mr. Dunbar says is in charge of the Ministry of Education, and a telephone number, which turns out to be disconnected. Mr. Dunbar says he has never spoken with Mr. Roland and doesn't know how to contact him.

Founded in 1991, Adam Smith was at one time accredited by the World Association of Universities and Colleges, a private group, unrecognized by the U.S. Department of Education, that has accredited colleges that the State of Oregon lists as diploma mills. Mr. Grunewald later helped found another unrecognized accreditor, the International Association of University and Schools. He says he now considers both of those to have been mistakes that may have sullied Adam Smith's reputation.

In the early 1990s, Adam Smith catered mostly to U.S. military personnel. Today it focuses on students who live in Africa and Asia. Courses generally involve reading a textbook and completing a simple exam, composed mostly of multiple-choice and true-false questions. A Chronicle reporter finished a year's course in English in about an hour. A semester of economics took 15 minutes.

An Iona spokesman says Mr. Grunewald is not violating any college policy by running Adam Smith. But the spokesman emphasizes that Iona does not want to associate itself with Mr. Grunewald's business: "Anything that would link us even in perception would be a problem," the spokesman says. "Clearly there is no tie to Iona, and we wouldn't tolerate it if there were."

Both Mr. Grunewald and Mr. Weisman take pains to separate their day jobs as professors from their moonlighting as operators of offshore universities. Mr. Grunewald does not mention his affiliation with Adam Smith when he writes letters to The Chronicle and other publications. When a caller to International University asks if Mr. Weisman is a professor at any other college, the admissions counselor says he isn't. "Oh, no," she says. "This is his baby."

Minimal Effort

Professors on the receiving end of unaccredited degrees cite many reasons for not attending one of the 3,500 legitimately accredited colleges in the United States.

Mr. del Corral, the Tulane instructor, had completed much of his doctoral work at Louisiana State University but wanted to avoid the hassle of facing a dissertation committee. So he called Lacrosse University, which was based in Louisiana until 2002, when state authorities declined to renew its license. (It is now based in Mississippi.) Lacrosse charges $2,200 for a Ph.D. An admissions counselor told a caller that he could receive a bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees, all in less than a year.

When informed that Mr. del Corral's doctorate is from Lacrosse, his supervisor, Paul A. Spindt, a professor of banking and finance, says he plans to discuss the issue with higher-ups at Tulane. "As a matter of policy, I wouldn't be very happy with people with degrees that are not fully accredited," he says.

Mr. del Corral never met the person at Lacrosse who reviewed his dissertation. He never talked to the person on the telephone. He never sent him an e-mail message. And he never took a single course. When asked if he thinks Lacrosse is a diploma mill, Mr. del Corral says it probably is. On the other hand, he explains, "it gave me what I needed."

Martin S. Roden got what he needed, too, when he attended the now-defunct Kensington University. "Primarily, I was just tired of having to correct students who would call me 'doctor,'" says Mr. Roden, associate dean of engineering at California State University at Los Angeles. He had joined the faculty there in 1968 and had already become a tenured full professor before he got his Kensington degree, in 1982.

Kensington moved from California to Hawaii after a statewide crackdown on unaccredited institutions in the early 1990s. Last year authorities in Hawaii forced Kensington to close and fined its owners $300,000. Mr. Roden calls Kensington "a second-rate, unrecognized place that basically is doing portfolio analysis."

Florida Community College at Jacksonville's Web site lists David Kier's master's degree from Cambridge State University, a spinoff of Columbia State University, which was shut down in 1998 by the FBI. Mr. Kier, an instructor at the community college, says he liked Cambridge State because it was possible to get a degree quickly, without "busting your hump" doing course work. "It was minimal effort," he says.

A spokeswoman says Florida Community College does not recognize his degree, but has no policy on how professors list their academic credentials on the college's Web site.

René A. Drouin, a student-loan official in New Hampshire, came under scrutiny last month when it was revealed that he earned his bachelor's from Kensington and his law degree from LaSalle University (a name that is easily confused with the venerable La Salle University in Philadelphia). The Louisiana institution made $36-million in seven years by offering degrees through the mail. Its owner was later sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud and tax-evasion charges.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Drouin, who is a member of an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Education, says he had no way to know that the universities he attended were not legitimate. Besides, his spokeswoman says, his degrees didn't help him get hired or promoted. He would have achieved just as much with only a high-school diploma, she says.

The argument that academic credentials don't matter is heard often from administrators and professors who defend unaccredited degrees.

In February it was revealed that Alan Williams, an associate professor of computer science at Southwestern Adventist University, in Keene, Tex., has a Ph.D. from Glencullen University, which is part of the same diploma-mill ring as Shelbourne. A spokeswoman for Southwestern Adventist says a doctorate is not required for the professor's position. Southwestern Adventist initially took no action against Mr. Williams, other than requiring that he stop saying he holds a Ph.D. Subsequently, he was asked to resign, the university's president says.

Other institutions seem not to care if faculty members claim unaccredited degrees. Tom Isbill, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma, has two degrees, including a Ph.D., from Pacific Southern University, which is on Oregon's diploma-mill list. He says Central Oklahoma doesn't officially recognize the degrees. But the university still allows him to be called "Dr." on the journalism department's Web page.

While some colleges appear indifferent to the academic backgrounds of their professors, even Mr. Grunewald thinks the fuzzy line between diploma mills and real higher education has become a serious problem. "How do you separate the people who want to do this legitimately from the crooks?" wonders the owner of unaccredited Adam Smith University. "Because there are crooks out there."

Section: Special Report
Volume 50, Issue 42, Page A9

Monday, June 21, 2004

Chronicle for Higher Education: Accrediting your own university

Maxine Asher Has a Degree for You

Of course her university is accredited. She did it herself.


Los Angeles
In a posh apartment building in the Westwood neighborhood here, a fax machine hums behind the front desk, spitting out pages on distinctive green paper.

No one would guess that it's the hub of American World University, an unaccredited institution with more than 7,000 students around the globe.

Maxine Asher, who lives up on the fourth floor with one of her four secretaries, is its fearless leader. The faxes are essential because Ms. Asher doesn't know how to use a computer. She can't even answer her own e-mail. Instead, secretaries around the country handle various parts of her business, faxing her reports and copies of messages. She issues orders from her apartment, telling her employees what to write.

If American World were all that Ms. Asher ran, she would be an interesting bit player in her industry. But in 1993 she founded the World Association of Universities and Colleges, an accrediting service unrecognized by the U.S. Department of Education, that gives its imprimatur to a host of alternative institutions. Almost every day Columbus University and Lacrosse University, both of which are considered diploma mills by some government regulators, advertise in the back pages of USA Today. In bold type, they tout their accreditation from the association. That makes Ms. Asher a central figure in the shadowy world of unaccredited higher education.

Now in her 70s, she says she is so hampered by fibromyalgia, a painful syndrome, that she struggles to walk down stairs or put on a sweater. But she remains a supremely confident person, and a spitfire when it comes to defending herself against those who would malign her and her university.

She will "swear up and down" that American World, despite having been pushed out of three states, is no diploma mill. The real problem, she contends, is with a system of accreditation and state laws that create prejudice against innovation.

Let American World stand or fall based on what kind of service it provides, not on some government regulation, she says: "If you go to buy a pair of shoes, isn't it up to you to decide where to go and if the quality is good? It's the American way. Why do we keep legislating what people can do in the field of education?"

Strong Vibrations

Maxine Asher bubbles with stories. She recounts her visit to the palace of a Saudi prince who had received a degree from American World. She casually mentions the Christmas gift she once got from Yasir Arafat (it was a model of Bethlehem). But eventually the tales come around to the topic that fascinates her the most: the mythical continent of Atlantis.

"I don't mean to sound like some kind of nut," she says, going on to claim that both "the Jews and the Catholics" are afraid to have the truth revealed because it would conflict with the Bible. "The world is not quite ready to face Atlantis," she says.

The route to her career as a world explorer began in Chicago, where Ms. Asher was born. Her family moved to Southern California, where she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of California at Los Angeles. She became a public-school teacher, got married, and had three daughters. She later returned to college, earning a master's degree in ancient history from California State University at Northridge.

That's when the Atlantis bug bit her. In 1973, at age 42, she led a research expedition to search for the legendary civilization off the coast of Spain.

As she told a New York Times reporter at the time: "I simply know we will find it because I am psychic. Oh, God, how strong the vibrations are these days, and I know that the highly civilized people of Atlantis also were very psychic."

That expedition didn't work out as planned. "We got involved in a Communist-Fascist squeeze play for control of Spain," she says.

She dodged murder attempts and a kidnapping, she says: "Somebody wanted to end this whole thing." A screenplay of the story -- she is looking for financing to make a thinly fictionalized account of her Atlantis research -- is chock-full of these adventures, she says. It's such tales that prompted the "female Indiana Jones" label she frequently cites. In the end, Ms. Asher says, she escaped her captors in Spain by jumping from a speeding car.

'Individualized' Instruction

Ms. Asher now looks more like the grandmother she is. Her short blonde hair is thinning and nearly white. She wears bright-red lipstick and nail polish. She moves slowly, looking for something to hold on to even when she steps off a curb.

Even so, she is up at 5 a.m. to telephone her American World University representatives overseas. One recent morning she called Britain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Then she responded to e-mail messages until 10 a.m., directing her clutch of four assistants as they answered the 50 to 100 messages a day she gets from prospective students. Much of that work is done from her apartment, but on many afternoons she gets into her white Plymouth Breeze -- the license plate reads ATLANTS -- and drives to her office in the San Fernando Valley, where she puts in another few hours, checking in with answering services and reviewing faxes.

She founded American World to provide distance education that combines American ideas about higher education with Europe's more tutorial model, she says. Ms. Asher holds a doctorate in education from Walden University and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Granada, in Spain, both of which are accredited by government-approved agencies. In the early days she advertised in the International Herald Tribune, struggling to enroll students.

Then she hit on the idea of hiring representatives in various countries for American World, paying them 50 percent of the tuition they brought in. In return, they handle local advertising and other costs. "Fifty percent of something is better than nothing," she says.

According to Ms. Asher, American World now enrolls more than 7,000 students, including about 2,000 in China. In some countries, students attend classes rather than complete the entire program through distance education, she says. Tuition varies with the country, but students in the United States pay $1,800 per degree.

When they apply, students submit transcripts and résumés, and Ms. Asher gives them credits toward their degrees for their life experience. All students complete some type of thesis or dissertation, she says, and papers are graded by "consultant faculty members." Students work in their native languages, and instruction is entirely "individualized," she adds. "If the guy is in Indonesia, I'm not going to ask him to do a paper on Abraham Lincoln."

Her university has had plenty of detractors. Her application for a license in Louisiana was rejected, and state law changes in Iowa and South Dakota prompted her to move the university repeatedly. The company is now based in Mississippi. In Hawaii the state sued her for not stating clearly that American World was not accredited by a recognized accreditor. She lost a $125,000 judgment.

The Hawaii case was simply a silly vendetta, she says, since she never has had a student from Hawaii. Indeed, fewer than 10 percent of her students are from the United States. About 1,000 are in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a couple of hundred are in Germany, and another hundred in South Korea, she says. She just signed up a new foreign representative to handle students in Sudan and Syria.

It was the apparent expectations of all those foreign students that scared away Alanna Shaikh. She was finishing a master's degree in public health and living in Iowa City in 2000 when the employment agency she was working with assigned her to American World as an office temp.

At the time the business was housed in an office building there, sharing space with an H&R Block office and a manicurist. When Ms. Shaikh arrived, she found three desks and a conference room that seemed to be rarely used. She lasted just one day, making photocopies and doing some filing. At first, she says, the operation seemed "pretty sketchy."

Ms. Asher offered to hire her, Ms. Shaikh says, with a job grading papers and running the office: "She told me I just needed to read them and put some marks in the margins. She thought I could do the science papers as well."

Ms. Shaikh says she briefly considered the job offer because the money would have been better than other options presented. But she had noticed the many foreign students who had paid to enroll, including those from India and Pakistan, where her own family came from. At one point, flipping through files, she saw one student who shared her father's name. "That was what got me in the end," she says.

Ms. Asher emphatically denies that American World is anything but a reputable educational institution. As for Ms. Shaikh, she says, "I never heard of this woman."

Lawsuits and articles about unhappy employees may well have stymied some of her work, she acknowledges. On the Internet, stories of problems in Iowa can reach China instantaneously. Yet she plans to soldier on. "You can't stand up to people and say, 'I'm not a crook,'" she says. "All you do is go on and do your best work."

Make Your Own

After starting American World, Ms. Asher faced questions about its standards. "I realized that everybody wanted accreditation, and we couldn't get it from the regionals," she says. "They just weren't doing it."

Ms. Asher found a solution. She created her own accreditor.

She and other organizers sent out letters to 500 universities in 1993, inviting them to a meeting in Zurich to discuss the new accrediting agency. Thirteen showed up and paid $2,000 each, she says, to become members of the World Association of Universities and Colleges.

To join the group, an institution must have a legal license to operate in some state or country, she says. It then pays $1,000 to become a member but must file a separate application and pay an additional $4,000 to become accredited by the association. Each institution produces a "self-study," which includes its history, a list of faculty members, and information about the curriculum.

That report is reviewed by presidents of other member institutions. "If we think the self-study is worthwhile, we generally accredit them," Ms. Asher says. Site visits are made occasionally but are not required. The association now has more than 50 members, 27 of which it has accredited, she says.

Although some member institutions, like Columbus University and Madison University, have been labeled diploma mills by the state of Oregon, Ms. Asher defends her members, saying they generally provide more individual attention than traditional universities do. The real difference, she argues, is that they don't cost as much.

"If I were a businessman and I only needed a Ph.D. to show somebody and put on my wall," she says, "I'm not going to want to pay Harvard $20,000 for their M.B.A. program." (In fact, tuition at the Harvard Business School tops $60,000.)

She is not arguing that some unaccredited institutions are not scams. An institution of higher education should have more than just a mailbox, Ms. Asher says. It should have at least an office where it keeps student and accounting records. Students should stay away from operations offering degrees for $100, or based only on life experience. And they should avoid institutions that don't insist on a thesis for graduate degrees.

But isn't it a conflict that Ms. Asher runs the agency that claims to accredit her own operation? "I think that's a problem," she acknowledges. "I can see why people would be concerned. But again, I don't mean this in an egotistical way. I believe that I'm a very good educator, based on my background and what I've done, and I believe I can capably run both organizations."

She says that she doesn't draw a salary from the association, but that it does pay for some of her expenses. Money is a problem for the group, she says. Some members have quit over the dues, which run $3,500 a year for an accredited institution. The association, which employs a secretary, has several thousand dollars in expenses every month, Ms. Asher says.

Her newest revenue idea is asking students who have already graduated from member institutions to buy a seal for their diplomas "guaranteeing accreditation" of the issuing institution. She says the association will keep a permanent record of the degree and guarantee that students can document their diplomas through the group. The seal costs $50.

Through the association Ms. Asher has met numerous other operators of unaccredited institutions. She jokes that she knows where all the bodies are buried. Name an operator and she's got an opinion: Harry Boyer, a former community-college president who founded Lacrosse University, was a "great educator." She's not as fond of his widow, Colleen, who now runs Lacrosse. The two women had a disagreement over money recently, and Ms. Asher kicked Lacrosse out of the association.

She describes Donald Grunewald, president of Adam Smith University, as a friend, even though he now says being part of the association was a mistake. Ms. Asher, who holds an honorary degree from Mr. Grunewald's university, questions its new accreditation from Liberia. "That's ridiculous," she says. "I don't even know where that is."

'Trust Me'

It is her experience in the degree business that she can offer others.

Late one morning in May, the owner of one of the association's member institutions calls from London. He is having trouble with British authorities. Ms. Asher says she knows what to do:

"Listen to me. Tariq, Tariq. Listen to me now for a minute. I think you need to get licensed this year anyway in Mississippi, and then you should be able to use the name 'university.' That's not a problem. ... If you get an office in Mississippi and you're only operating a branch office in London, then that should be all right."

There's another pause as Ms. Asher listens before interrupting with more advice: "I got another idea. You start a different corporation under a different name, like I have -- International Educators. It doesn't have the word 'university' in it. You register it in London without the word 'university,' but you can still operate. Trust me. I did it myself."

Her colleague apparently remains uncertain. "Listen to me," she says again. "I'm 16 years in the business, and I've had all sorts of things like this happen. I'm telling you I know what to do."

After 10 minutes of back-and-forth, Ms. Asher becomes impatient. She is, after all, a busy woman, with her own university to run, an accrediting agency to manage, and maybe a lost continent to discover. She reminds her protégé that time is money.

"I'm not going any further," she says at last. "I would be glad to do anything in the world for you if you fax me a bank receipt tomorrow."

Section: Special Report
Volume 50, Issue 42, Page A12