Hill sets plans for confronting diploma mill problem

Laura Callahan says she was duped into believing her degrees from an unaccredited institution were legitimate.

Henrik G. de Gyor

A new wave of scrutiny into government employees' use of academic credentials from unaccredited institutions will begin within weeks.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee will hold hearings early next month on the issue of diploma mill degrees, which will focus at least partly on whether federal employees have used government money to pay for the credentials.

Meanwhile, the Education Department'at the urging of lawmakers'is finalizing plans to issue a task order by the end of next month to create a database of accredited colleges and universities. Secretary Rod Paige still must give the project final approval.

Congressional officials said the hearings would feature witnesses from the General Accounting Office, which is preparing a report on the use of questionable degrees by government employees, as well as Education and the Office of Personnel Management.

The House Government Reform Committee likely will follow up with its own hearings, spokesman David Marin said.

'We are in close contact with GAO as they move forward,' Marin said. 'We want to gather all information and decide if legislation is necessary.'

The Education project follows a January meeting with congressional staff members as well as representatives of OPM, GAO and the FBI. Department officials pledged to explore the option of creating a list of accredited schools.

Department and congressional officials refer to it as 'the positive list,' said John Barth, director of accreditation and state liaison in the Office of Postsecondary Education.

Government officials agreed that creating a 'negative list' of diploma mills would be too difficult because of the problem of tracking down constantly emerging and disappearing bogus schools, he said.

Education is working out the logistical issues of creating an online list of the accredited schools, Barth said. 'I haven't surveyed every [accreditation] agency, but I am assuming we will be dealing with different databases,' he said.

Education plans to field the list in two phases, Barth said. The first phase, which would be finished this year, will cover schools accredited by federally recognized national or regional agencies. The second phase would track down schools that may have lost their accreditation.

'Some accrediting agencies say their records are in electronic format and easily shared,' Barth said. 'In other cases, the records are in paper form and are stored in warehouses.'

Meanwhile, Laura Callahan last week ended her long silence on her use of diploma mill degrees. Last year, GCN and sister publication Washington Technology reported that the former senior IT official at the Homeland Security Department held three degrees from a diploma mill in Wyoming. On administrative leave with pay since June of last year, Callahan resigned in March.

Callahan told GCN the federal government has not crafted or enforced fair policies about questionable academic credentials held by employees.

'I do not believe there has been a balanced, fair and consistent handling of the issue,' she said. 'I plan to provide whatever information I can so no other employee goes through the horrendous experience I have been through.'

Callahan and her attorney, Ralph Lotkin, said she was the unwitting victim of Hamilton University, a diploma mill that fooled her into thinking it was an accredited educational institution.

But Marin dismissed Callahan's comments. 'I would say it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that you are misleading your colleagues, your superiors and the public when you purport to have credentials that you didn't work for,' he said.

No comment

Callahan declined to discuss the circumstances of her resignation. DHS officials repeatedly have refused to comment on her suspension, the revoking of her security clearance and her resignation.

Callahan noted that other federal employees who hold degrees from unaccredited institutions, including Transportation Department CIO Dan Matthews and principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness Charlie Abell, remain in their positions and continue to hold security clearances.

Matthews and Abell are political appointees; Callahan was a civil servant. Current OPM policy gives agencies broad latitude in dealing with employees who are found to hold questionable degrees.

Lotkin said government requirements for education are unclear or nonexistent. But OPM for years has provided guidance to agencies in the form of a handbook, Guidance for Agencies Concerning Bogus Degree Claims.

OPM officials have said that standards forbidding the inclusion of inflated credentials in personnel applications and other files are clear.

Since the summer, OPM has held two seminars to educate government officials about the diploma mill issue. A third is being planned for the near future.

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