Degrees of value

Thomas R. Temin

For several weeks, GCN and its sister publication, Washington Technology, have been reporting on the revelation that some high-level career and appointed IT officials have obtained advanced degrees from institutions with dubious academic credentials.

As we've also reported, these discoveries have prompted members of Congress to ask the Office of Personnel Management and the Homeland Security Department, in effect, 'What the heck is going on?'

Some observers'including our readers, whose opinions we've printed'have responded, 'What difference does it make if the person can get the job done?'

Others, especially those answering for the agencies where holders of bogus degrees work, have claimed that the degrees weren't the basis for any professional advancement in the first place.

To a certain extent, the first point is valid: Only competence should be factored into work judgment about a person's abilities. A musical prodigy could conceivably master Bach without formal training, just as someone could master the intricacies of program or IT management without having degrees in government administration or computer science.

But to claim an advanced degree where the academic work wasn't done is out of bounds, especially for people in positions of public trust. In some cases, trust is itself an important factor in these federal employees' ability to perform their duties.

I'm skeptical of agencies that say academic credentials aren't considered when people are hired or promoted. In government, as in business, you can readily find examples of people promoted on the basis of old school ties or the dazzle of degrees.

At the least, management is required to check the veracity of the degrees about which it is consciously or unconsciously making judgments.

OPM, the administration and agency executives'in fact, anyone charged with hiring and promoting workers'must take responsibility for ensuring the validity of credentials claimed by employees who exercise public trust.

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