APS News

Physicist Tilts at Diploma Mills

In early July, a woman named Dixie Randock was sentenced to three years in prison for her role in operating a notorious diploma mill. The sentencing was the culmination of a six-year crusade begun by particle physicist George Gollin, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Randock’s operation sold fake degrees online, many of which were issued under the name St. Regis University.

Gollin’s quest began innocently enough, with his irritation at the massive amounts of SPAM from various diploma mills that began clogging the computers in his lab and instructional classrooms in 2002. He called the number, “mostly because I wanted to yell at someone, because it was really intensely annoying.” The person who returned his call offered to sell him a bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degree for the bargain price of $4400, with an additional $900 price reduction if he paid for them there and then.

Gollin admits that at first, he found the concept amusing, a classic example of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”). But then he began looking into the various operations more closely, and was alarmed to find that the degrees being bought and sold included those certifying clinical expertise, such as forensic psychology, oncology, plastic surgery, even orthopaedic surgery. Furthermore, some foreign individuals were using the diploma mills to acquire fake credentials for H-1B visa applications, making it an issue of national security. Far from merely being an entertaining diversion, the fake degrees were potentially harmful.

“Having knowledge sometimes carries with it an ethical obligation, and that’s how I felt about this,” says Gollin about his decision to begin tracking and collecting material about diploma mills onto a central website hosted by his university. He is very careful to emphasize that this is not a “hobby”: it is a professional activity that fulfills UI’s requirement for faculty public service.

There is good reason for this caution: he has paid a price for his dedication to the cause, exposing himself to attacks by the very same diploma mill operators he was working to shut down. Threatening correspondence was sent to UI, which initially asked Gollin to take down the material, before reversing its decision a year later. The same group also attacked Gollin personally, spreading vicious rumors about his own academic credentials and personal morality, even attempting to smear his wife and daughter with the same tarred brush.

Fed up and angry–“I’ve never had people come after me like that before,” he says–Gollin went on the warpath, writing an 80-page analysis and sending it to the Federal Trade Commission, hoping it would become the basis of a civil suit for fraud, and ultimately shut down St. Regis University and another diploma mill called American Coastline University. That didn’t happen, but the attorney general in Washington state began a criminal investigation when Gollin informed her that St. Regis operated out of Randock’s real estate office in Spokane. Randock and seven others–including her husband and daughter–were indicted in 2005. Sentencing should be complete for all the defendants by the end of September.

One other good thing emerged from Gollin’s dedicated pursuit of diploma mills: the “Higher Education Opportunity Act” bill currently being developed by the House and Senate contains 15 pages of legislation related to controlling the spread of diploma mills. For instance, it seeks stricter rules on which schools can be considered accredited by requiring their accreditors to be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

There is also language tightening the accreditation requirements on schools whose degrees can be used by government employees for employment and promotion. The bill also calls for the establishment of a federal task force to make recommendations on how to more seriously address the problem of diploma mills. Gollin admits there is no way to predict how much of this will survive in the final version of the bill. But it’s a start.

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