UI prof crusades against bogus schools

UI prof crusades against bogus schools

University of Illinois physics Professor George Gollin is having a homosexual affair, his marriage is disintegrating and his teen-age daughter is enrolled in University Laboratory High School, "a remedial institution."

Or so the anonymous posters on an Internet bulletin board about "distance education," largely online schools, claimed recently.

Actually, Gollin's only problem is that he decided to challenge a class of those schools known as diploma or degree mills, which hand out diplomas – even medical degrees – for a lot of money and little or no work. Credit cards accepted.

"He is the subject of incredible harassment because he's a threat to them," said John Bear, a Florida-based distance learning expert and co-author of a book about diploma mills who also publishes guides to legitimate online and by-mail educational programs.

Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who co-wrote the book "Degree Mills: The Billion Dollar Industry that has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas" with Bear, has seen this kind of thing before.

Attempts to neutralize investigators by smearing them are a common tactic of organized crime, said Ezell, who used terms like "brilliant, thorough, resourceful and analytical to the nth degree" in describing Gollin.

While Gollin is none too happy about the recent spate of attacks on his family, he isn't likely to stop talking about the issue, on which he's become an internationally recognized expert.

He didn't stop in 2003 when the UI, with threats of legal action by one of the faux schools hanging in the air, told Gollin to remove an anti-diploma mill Web site he'd created from university computers.

Eventually, after articles about the action appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, Gollin and UI officials reached an amicable solution. He still maintains a Web site here linking to news about the issue. But his more controversial material has moved to computers run by the state of Oregon, which is one of the nation's stronger policers of diploma mills.

Alan Contreras, administrator of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization, is supposed to be Gollin's lover, but the two, while they work together virtually, have never met in person.

As a government enforcement officer, Contreras said he expects some abuse.

"That probably is not in the normal contract of a physics professor," he said.

Gollin, whose degrees are from Harvard and Princeton plus a post-doctoral stint at the University of Chicago, certainly has an appreciation for what constitutes a legitimate education. But he didn't start out to be a crusader against bogus schools.

He's an experimental elementary particle physicist by trade who studies particles that make up the fabric of the universe and splits his time between the UI, where he has been since 1989, and Fermilab outside Chicago. He delights in teaching physics as well, a particularly popular course aimed at life science and other non-physics students.

He might never have given diploma mills a thought if it hadn't been for pop-up ads for one that started showing up on computer screens in his lab and classroom.

He decided to call the phone number on the screen and complain. What he got was a sales pitch and an offer of a bachelor's, master's and doctorate – for a big discount if he provided his credit card number right now.

Intrigued, Gollin started searching for similar operations. Although his experience with planes is pretty much limited to being an airline passenger, he found a school willing to give him a degree in aeronautical engineering based on his previous experience. But he needed to submit a thesis. He turned in his doctoral dissertation on muon particles – you know, leptons that decay to form an electron or positron.

He passed.

He qualified for a high school diploma and an associate's degree at another site by randomly answering a multiple-choice test on which he scored 26 and 21 percent. A pigeon pecking the answer sheet could do as well, he said.

He was far less amused when he found a therapist with a fake degree counseling families of murdered children.

Gollin likes to say that knowledge brings with it responsibility in his case to speak out, and he admits as well to enjoying the process uncovering diploma mills and their purveyors.

"He's just a fantastic Internet sleuth," Bear said.

In his office at the UI, next to the letter of thanks from the Swedish Education Ministry, is a complex diagram Gollin made. Filled with lines and boxes, it looks like a research poster from a physics conference.

Instead, it shows murky relationships between some diploma mills, fake accrediting agencies, official-sounding foreign government offices that don't exist and other elements of the scam.

The number of diploma mills has grown with the Internet, said Ezell, who ran one of the first FBI stings against them 25 years ago. They take advantage of the lack of a national system for accrediting schools and weak regulations in some states (Alabama and Wyoming are notorious) that let almost anyone who can afford a state license issue degrees. Or they move their largely computer-based operations off shore, to Eastern Europe or the Bahamas among other places, where it's near impossible to take legal action against them.

You could have seen Ezell and Bear on "60 Minutes" last week, talking about Hamilton University, a diploma mill that's since renamed itself and moved out of the country. Its alumni included a top manager in the federal Homeland Security Department, relieved of her job, and the chief executive officer of Cessna Aircraft.

For a price, you can be anything from a sex therapist to an engineer. Simulated transcript often included, class ring sometimes available for an additional fee.

The issue can be a matter of life or death. An 8-year-old girl in North Carolina, a diabetic, died after a "doctor" with bogus medical degrees took her off insulin.

"You've got all sorts of bad things happening," Gollin said. "This is serious stuff. It's not just people buying, say, MBAs where if they run a business they can maybe do it."

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