Education dept. digs in heels over dodgy PhD

Vetting a top bureaucrat's online bible college PhD should be no concern of the Department of Education, according to deputy minister Val Royle.

Vetting a top bureaucrat’s online bible college PhD should be no concern of the Department of Education, according to deputy minister Val Royle.

Last month the president of the Yukon Teachers’ Association expressed concern that the assistant deputy minister for public schools, Albert Trask, holds a doctorate in biblical studies from an unregulated and unrecognized U.S.-based school.

Trask uses “Dr.” to refer to himself in professional correspondence, and his PhD was noted in an email to teachers as a means of introduction after he was hired last year.

He also sits on the boards tasked with vetting the credentials of teachers when it comes to determining their salaries.

Trask’s qualifications and experience in the field of education are not at issue. He holds a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of education and a master in educational administration from Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The degree in question is from Newburgh Theological Seminary & College of the Bible, based in Indiana. Trask also has a master of divinity from the Atlantic School of Theology, which is affiliated with St. Mary’s University in Halifax.

Trask represented himself as “Dr. Albert Trask” and as holding a PhD when he applied for the assistant deputy minister position, but never pretended that he held a doctorate in an education-related field, said Royle.

His religious education had nothing to do with his hiring or with his salary, she said.

After hearing concerns, though, Royle looked into the Newburgh Theological Seminary and found that it claims to be accredited by a group called Transworld Accrediting Commission International, she said. That was good enough for her.

“It’s an area that’s out of my expertise, right? So I look online and I see Newburgh Theological Seminary, I look at the doctoral program, I look at the requirements for it. It seems kind of usual for a PhD.”

However, Transworld is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, which calls such organizations “fake accrediting agencies.”

Newburgh’s website spells out that the requirement to complete a PhD level course is to read a book and write a summary of its contents. When asked if that sounds like PhD level work, Royle said she does not know what PhD level work should look like at a theological institution.

“I don’t know how that bar works for theological institutions. I have no idea. If you’re saying it’s the same, then maybe Albert needs to go back and talk to Newburgh.”

Newburgh’s website acknowledges that its degrees may not be recognized as legitimate.

“Our programs are not designed to meet any specific local, state, territorial, regional, or national licensing or credentialing laws.

“We feel the accreditation of God is on our school because we strive to please Him in academics and ministry training.”

Royle said she found this part of the website “bizarre.”

“That seems very contradictory, when they’re accredited. So I did go into Transworld and sure enough they’re on a list. And they’re all colleges of the bible. There’s no purely academic institutions in there at all.”

Here in Canada, there is no difference in how “purely academic” and theological institutions are vetted.

If you’re granting degrees, you need to follow the same standards, enforced by provincial and territorial laws.

For a PhD, that usually means two years of on-campus, full-time coursework plus at least another two years to complete comprehensive exams in a field of expertise and produce a dissertation built upon original research.

There are theological institutions in Canada that grant religious PhDs. They are typically affiliated with public universities, and their PhD programs are structured much like PhD programs in any other field.

There are also religious institutions in the U.S. that are permitted by the Department of Education to grant PhDs.

The Association of Theological Schools accredits 240 federally recognized U.S. and Canadian schools that offer graduate programs in theological and religious training. Those schools have similar standards of academic vigour than what we expect here at any university Canada.

But there is another class of religious education in the United States.

While regulations vary by state, rules protecting churches from state interference have made it difficult for governments to keep tabs on religious institutions that claim to grant degrees.

A 2007 Texas Supreme Court decision found that Tyndale Theological Seminary & Biblical Institute does no have to comply with state educational standards.

This means, in many states, any religious group can freely confer degrees and titles, confusing what it means to hold a PhD.

The situation has also resulted in a proliferation of so-called diploma mills, where credentials are offered for a price with little or no studying required.

Accrediting bodies that themselves have no authority have sprung up to give these institutions an air of credibility.

The U.S. Department of Education’s website warns that it may be illegal to use unrecognized degrees – such as those granted at Newburgh – in some states.

At Newburgh Theological Seminary, you are required to complete six courses and a thesis to achieve a PhD in biblical studies. For each course you must select a book from the reading list and submit a paper summarizing its contents.

You can knock off up to three of those courses by instead paying $175 to watch a video lecture and write a paper summarizing its contents instead.

You must also write a thesis of a minimum 60 pages, citing at least 20 sources.

The school suggests the program should be completed in no more than two years. It costs US$2,595.

Royle said she will not require Trask to stop using Dr. in front of his name.

She may ask him if it might be helpful to clarify, in his email signature, that his PhD is of a religious nature, she said.

But in general his religious training is of no concern to the department, said Royle.

“I see this division between, here’s his job and here’s his religious piece, and I really struggle digging into his religious qualifications, quite frankly, because as an employer I’m really concerned about crossing that line.”

Trask said in an email to the News that he has been advised by his lawyer not to comment on this story.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at jronson@yukon-news.com