[Viewpoint]Take real action to uncover fake degreesKorea, like many successful modern societies, has had its share of growing pains. Park Chung Hee’s industrialization drive, combined with democratization during the late 1980s, helped propel Korea into the ranks of the OECD during the late 1990s. The financial crisis shortly after that was both a challenge and an opportunity to further integrate its economy into the free trade mechanism as well as to expand cultural exchanges with the outside world. Korea has largely been able to accomplish these goals.
Moreover, many of its colleges now boast state-of-the-art facilities, good research programs and prestigious academicians from around the world.
However, some notable gaps or deficiencies remain, among them the proliferation of fake degrees and the quick, uncritical acceptance of them at some of Seoul’s leading universities.
Although the clear majority of college instructors and researchers have an adequate educational background, it seems that fake degrees and phony transcripts are somewhat more prevalent in Seoul than was previously believed.
Obviously, more than a few culprits are involved. A different scandal surrounding Hwang Woo-suk a few years back is somewhat more understandable: research data is hard to interpret and mistakes in scientific studies are more difficult to pinpoint.
However, the episode involving Shin Jeong-ah at Dongguk University, as well as some “professors” at other college campuses, is a no-brainer. There’s nothing complicated involved here; it’s mainly an almost laughable administrative and clerical matter. A simple letter to the universities in question verifying degrees and GPAs is so easy to do.
Administrators, high-level employees and department chairpersons are largely at fault for these employment fiascoes. After almost two years as a professor, personal charm and slick presentations not withstanding, nobody bothered to check this woman’s fitness for the job, or those few brave souls who did were hushed up. She had no doctorate, no master’s degree, not even a bachelor’s degree. Although art departments have been in the spotlight, some of the other academic departments and other universities in Seoul share in the blame.
Workplaces outside the academic world seem to be encountering similar problems.
As Korean universities continue to enter into sister relationships with universities in other countries, it becomes even more imperative for them to maintain and improve their credibility in the eyes of the world. So, what should be done?
A few sensible and inexpensive measures can be implemented with minimal difficulty. Every major Korean university in Seoul should have at least one full-time employee whose primary responsibility is to check the grades and degrees of incoming graduate students and new instructors or professors.
This change of policy will more than pay for itself in better instruction for students, higher quality of research and greater respect from institutions of higher learning outside of Korea, among other benefits.
During my own teaching experience, I’ve come across some foreign and Korean teachers who lacked the necessary temperament and training, including a few at the post-secondary level. All the remaining teachers who became friends or close colleagues were required to submit sealed transcripts and physically show original diplomas to their prospective or current employer. Clearly this can be applied to all teachers if the will, common sense and organization are there.
The actual process would be relatively straightforward. First, accredited universities can be separated from the phony ones. Second, when new employees are screened, original diplomas and sealed transcripts are presented; these are not so easy to fake. Third, letters to the colleges in question, within a few months should be able to remove any doubt about the authenticity of qualifications.
Additionally, the detection of falsified documents needs to also be coupled with whistle-blower protection for employees who are properly doing their jobs but face possible retaliation.
Finally, an independent office at each university with clear responsibility for this task, outside the undue influence of various academic departments, ought to be considered.
The Republic of Korea has progressed faster and farther than any other country within the past 45 years, except perhaps Taiwan. It is justifiably proud of those accomplishments. Few could have guessed that Korea’s economic and political liberalization over the past 20 years would bring it front and center on the world stage. Its reputation for innovative products, “Korean Wave” music and drama, as well as its maturing democratic institutions, are now envied by developing nations around the world.
Koreans need to make sure that progress in their educational system matches the strides they’ve made in other areas of life.
That’s one of the next challenges that must be overcome if Korea is to eventually have first-rate schools.
*The writer is a professor at GSIS, Hanyang University.
by Joseph Schouweiler