[Viewpoint]False thinkingThe ripple effects from the scandals over bogus academic degrees seem to be spreading to every corner of society.
Almost every day, the fake academic records of one celebrity after another get exposed. It is shaking the foundation of our society, which is based on honesty and credibility.
Also, more and more people are growing tired of the tendency to treat people with prestigious academic degrees as omnipotent, and tired of the overwhelming lack of morals in our society.
However, there is no reason to torture ourselves too much. Fortunately for Korea or not, falsifying academic records is practically a worldwide phenomenon.
Marilee Jones, the former admissions dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resigned on April 28 this year after 28 years at the school. She was caught misrepresenting her academic degrees.
Since 1997, her job had been to verify the academic resumes and high school records, of applicants to the school. The post requires a high standard of honesty and morality.
Jones listed on her resume that she had degrees from Albany Medical College, Union College in Schenectady, New York, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, but she didn’t have degrees from any of these schools.
MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay said it was, sad and unfortunate, but it reminds us of the state of our society.
That’s not all. In 2004, the United States even held a Congressional hearing on the issue of bogus academic backgrounds.
The Government Accountability Office ― which helps Congress meet its constitutional responsibilities and improve its performance while working to ensure accountability from the federal government ― presented a report to Congress at the time saying that there were 463 federal government officials who received fake degrees from “diploma mills” or unauthorized educational institutions.
Most of them belonged to the Department of Defense, and 28 of them were high-ranking military officers. Some had even managed to use a U.S. government fund to buy their bogus degrees.
In the same year, the public prosecutor’s office of the state of Pennsylvania indicted two officials of an online university that granted an MBA to a cat. It cost only $398 for a cat to receive a degree, with a good grade point average of 3.5.
Europe is also no exception. The newspaper USA Today reported in September 2003 that some fake European universities had awarded bogus degrees to 15,000 applicants, who now earn a combined annual income of $50 million. With the development of Internet technology, it’s getting easier than ever to buy a bogus degree. Those businesses are flourishing.
It is not right to think that Korea is the only country where the falsification of academic degrees is rampant.
The current situation could be considered an exaggerated feature, resulting from the rush of exposed bogus degrees from luminaries in our society.
Korea’s highly developed Internet network service and the zeal of Internet users makes it possible to verify the academic backgrounds of lots of people in such a short period of time.
In that regard, we should consider transferring that zeal into upgrading Korea’s general credibility in the world.
In order to do so, we must first define the nature of bogus degree scandals.
Are the recent series of bogus degree scandals forgivable misdeeds or fraudulent acts that deserve punishment?
Most celebrities, when their falsified academic backgrounds are exposed, defend themselves by saying they had no intention to misrepresent themselves but that circumstances forced them to commit their mistakes.
People in cultural and entertainment circles, in particular, say through their tears that they gained no special benefits from their bogus academic backgrounds.
Is that really true?
In Korea, a person’s academic background is considered a useful index to judge his capability.
It not only shows the person’s academic aptitude, but also his or her perseverance and sincerity. If an entertainer is not only good at singing and performing, but is also a graduate of a highly reputed school, the public tends to have more favorable impression of the performer.
For that reason, bogus academic backgrounds hurt and inflict wounds on people who have led their lives faithfully without falsifying their humble educational records.
If the falsifiers do not lose much after being caught lying despite the fact that they enjoyed big benefits from the lie, the old vice of lying about a person’s academic background will never go away.
Phillip Clay of MIT put a nail on Marilee Jones’s bogus degree scandal by saying, “It was not a mistake or carelessness, but deception.”
Jones announced a statement of apology and resigned from the university.
What about us? Our exposed culprits made excuses and hid under the surface until public opinion subsides.
Dongguk and Dankook universities, which failed to verify the fake degrees of Shin Jeong-ah and Kim Ock-rang, respectively, when they hired them as faculty members, said they would reexamine the academic and professional backgrounds of all faculty members.
However, other universities have remained silent.
If our society continues to keep relying on Internet users to verify the academic backgrounds of people, social celebrities are the only ones who will become prey to them.
As is done in the United States, one alternative is for the Board of Audit and Inspection and the National Assembly to take the responsibility of verification.
The ultimate cure to the sweet temptation to falsify educational experience is to dissolve our education-focused way of thinking.
If we find an alternative other than a person’s academic background with which to evaluate the person’s ability, we can do without such thinking.
However, it is not possible to produce that alternative without facing today’s reality as it is.
Anyhow, the journey to a meritocracy after getting rid of society’s conventional wisdom, which judges people based on their academic backgrounds, is a painful one.
*The writer is the senior editor of the sports and culture desk of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung