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

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