Don’t be dim about dodgy diplomas

It's commonly assumed that Yukon College's aspirations to become a university will only be achieved in the fairly distant future.

It’s commonly assumed that Yukon College’s aspirations to become a university will only be achieved in the fairly distant future. But what if the college could become a university in, say, just a few short months?

It could happen, if the college’s leaders adopt a model touted by senior officials within Yukon’s Department of Education. In this arrangement, the new University of the Yukon would offer a spread of online post-graduate degrees in subjects ranging from addictions counselling to bible studies. Ads for these programs would run on late-night TV.

Potential students would be promised they could complete these courses online, from home, in their spare time, and on the cheap. Basically, students could churn out some book reports, email them off, and voila, they get a degree – after paying a few thousand dollars, of course.

 

RELATED: Here’s what completing a real PhD involves

 

All that fuddy duddy stuff about academic supervision and national standards? Well, we’d let those bits slide.

Critics will call this scheme a degree mill, and it’s true these certificates would widely be considered worthless. But you could at least expect these degrees to be recognized by the Yukon government, if some idiotic statements made by senior staff are to be believed.

We’re talking, of course, about the mind boggling and entirely preventable controversy that has blown up over the past week concerning the credentials of Yukon’s assistant deputy minister of public schools, Albert Trask. The problem stems from Trask’s insistence on signing all official correspondence with the honorific “Dr.” when he does not actually hold a PhD in any meaningful sense.

Trask received his so-called PhD in biblical studies from an unaccredited U.S. college – Newburgh Theological Seminary & College of the Bible – that possesses many tell-tale traits of a degree mill. As Adam Gaudry – who just finished four-and-a-half years of hard work to obtain a real PhD – explains in a commentary in today’s newspaper, it’s abundantly clear that the quantity and quality of work expected to obtain a Newburgh PhD is in no way comparable to what you would expected from a credible institution.

Quite simply, Trask should not be calling himself a doctor. To so do cheapens the work done by people who have actually gone through the slog required to obtain that credential.

It’s especially inappropriate for someone in Trask’s job. He’s in charge of running Yukon’s public school system – and he helps evaluate the credentials of the territory’s teachers. His insistence that he’s done nothing wrong raises troubling questions about his judgment.

Sadly, the department’s response also raises real questions about the judgment of Trask’s boss, Valerie Royle, who until now had appeared to be one of Yukon’s more reasonable and respected senior public servants. It’s often admirable to see supervisors defend their staff, but in this case Royle has unquestioningly repeated the same demonstrably false foolishness as Trask. This damages her own credibility, and, in turn her department’s. That makes this brouhaha bigger than a mere “personnel issue,” which is how our political leaders are downplaying things.

Trask should know better. After all, he holds four real degrees, issued by credible institutions: bachelor degrees in history and education and a masters in education all issued by Memorial University, along with a masters in divinity granted by the accredited Atlantic School of Theology. So he should be aware of the amount of work involved in a legitimate degree, compared to what Newburgh expects of its students.

The coursework for Trask’s PhD involves taking six classes, with each course comprising of reading a single book, then summarizing its contents in a 10-page paper. Sound like too much? Pay $175 you’ll receive a video of a lecture. You are then only expected to write a four-to-six page summary of the talk, and that course is complete. You can knock off half the coursework in this way.

As Gaudry notes, the total number of books expected to be read for Trask’s coursework is less than what you’d expect from a single graduate seminar at a credible institution. And real PhD students are expected to do far more sophisticated writing than simply regurgitating a book’s contents.

The dissertation requirements are similarly paltry. Trask would have been expected to write a paper of at least 60 pages, while real dissertations are usually several hundred of pages in length. There’s also no indication on Newburgh’s website that students are expected to do original research or that they’d receive the sort of supervision and scrutiny you’d expect for a real doctorate.

These standards are laughable compared to what is expected from a school accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, of which Newburgh is not a member. Instead, Newburgh claims to be accredited by Transworld Accrediting Commission International.

The problem is that Transworld isn’t a real accreditation body. The U.S. Department of Education calls such groups “fake accrediting agencies,” because neither the department nor the Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognize such groups.

But don’t worry: the school remains accredited by, well, God. “We feel the accreditation of God is on our school because we strive to please Him in academics and ministry training,” states the college’s website.

Despite all this, both Trask and his boss, deputy minister Valerie Royle, continue to insist that Trask’s degree is legitimate, and that he has every right to describe himself as a doctor. If that’s the case, we have some news. Observant readers may have noticed that this editor, too, has obtained a PhD – in bible studies, as it happens. It took all but a few moments to churn out a phoney-baloney diploma from an Internet site. But, as Trask himself wrote in a letter in his defence, “As I hold a doctorate degree, I am entitled to refer to myself and to be referred to by others as Dr., as is anyone else who holds a PhD.” So there.

But seriously. The Department of Education faces its share of thorny, intractable problems, like trying to improve Yukon’s lacklustre graduation rate. This, thankfully, is not one of them.

Royle needs to whack Trask upside his head and tell him to quit bragging about his dodgy diploma. Both should also acknowledge they were wrong to suggest that Newburgh college is a credible institution, when it clearly isn’t. And then, they can get back to bigger, more important issues, like ensuring the school system runs smoothly.

Contact Dr. John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com

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