For a price, it is possible to acquire unearned academic degrees from non-existent universities that market diplomas over the internet. The most sophisticated of these diploma mill cartels, based in Spokane, Washington, used the turmoil in Western Africa to foster the illusion of recognition and accreditation by the Republic of Liberia. But these credentials were obtained through payments to government officials, and were no more legitimate than the supporting web of fake diplomatic missions, schools, accreditors, and credential evaluators created by the "Saint Regis University"
group. Their operation spanned at least eighteen states and twenty-two countries, and their stable of degree mills included over seventy non-existent schools selling degrees in medicine, nursing, nuclear and aeronautical engineering, addiction counseling, and special education, among other fields.
Falsely identifying herself as a Liberian official, the principal owner of St. Regis wrote to the University of Illinois in 2003 threatening legal action over information I had posted to a university web page. The resulting brawl led to a multi-agency federal criminal investigation: prosecutors indicted the owners and staff of St. Regis for mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and bribery of foreign officials in late 2005.
All eight defendants pled guilty; five began serving prison terms in late 2008.
This is a serious issue. The investigation revealed an alarming mix of consumer protection, public safety, and national security issues raised by the activities of the Saint Regis group. In addition, the delay in Liberia's recovery from two decades of civil war, due to the corrupting influences of the St. Regis organization, convolves with Liberia's infant mortality rate in a ghastly calculus of death. And we now see a next-generation diploma mill, having learned from St.
Regis' mistakes, attacking the higher education systems in the two African nations immediately to the west of Darfur.
We are beginning to make progress. New federal legislation intended to begin the long process of obliterating the diploma mill industry is a direct result of the St. Regis case. Several states have also drafted new laws, or otherwise tightened their oversight of degree providers. But it is an international problem of great complexity, and we are slow to respond.
I will tell you stories, all of which are true.