Degree inspires little faith

Florida's juvenile justice chief draws praise. But his degree doesn't.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and RON MATUS, Times Staff Writers
Published October 27, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - When Florida's top juvenile justice official, Walt McNeil, pursued a master's degree, he said he wanted to combine his two passions of religious faith and criminology.

But even though he lived in a state capital with two major universities, he chose an obscure correspondence school in rural Louisiana, a decision that has brought criticism from academic experts.

McNeil, Gov. Charlie Crist's well-respected choice to restore trust in the juvenile justice system, received a master's degree in criminal justice from St. John's University. It's not connected with the better known school in New York City and is not accredited by any agencies recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

During McNeil's term of study in 2001, St. John's, which claims to be widely known for its antiterrorism curriculum, ran its operations from a converted house near the town of Springfield, La. (pop. 400). Until 2001, the school was listed in Louisiana corporate records as the St. John's University of Practical Theology. The school relocated to a house in Nashville in 2005.

McNeil's degree links one of the Florida's top law enforcement officials to a long-festering national problem: the proliferation of degrees from institutions that are widely considered to be questionable. Experts estimate there are thousands of such institutions - and hundreds of thousands of people who have used them to cut corners, pad resumes and, in the view of critics, perpetrate academic fraud.

McNeil said he did not intend to mislead, and that he chose St. John's because of its faith-based courses.

"I wanted to attend a faith-based university, which St. John's is, because I do have a desire to pursue a Ph.D. in theology at some point," McNeil said Friday. "I don't believe I fooled anybody. I never tried to fool anybody."

In a previous interview, McNeil was asked whether St. John's might have deceived him. "I can be fooled like anyone else, I guess, but I saw this as a Christian school," he said.

It does not appear that McNeil, 51, used his master's degree for personal gain or that it played any role in Crist's decision to appoint him in January. A master's degree was not required for the position, which pays $120,462 a year.

It also does not appear that McNeil did anything illegal. A 1989 Florida law made it a first-degree misdemeanor to claim a degree from an institution such as St. John's, but a federal judge in South Florida ruled it unconstitutional in 1995.

Still, some leading experts on the subject question McNeil's motivation and judgment.

McNeil is "putting himself on the same standard as other people with legitimate master's (degrees). It's not morally acceptable," said Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who has written books on the issue and now investigates corporate fraud as a Wachovia vice president in Tampa. "He's a cop. He's a law enforcement officer. He's supposed to lead by example."

Like all state agency heads, McNeil underwent a comprehensive background check by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, including "education verification." George LeMieux, Crist's chief of staff, said McNeil is a good man and a great public servant.

"We think Walt McNeil is doing a great job at DJJ," LeMieux said.

A Democrat, McNeil had been police chief in Tallahassee for nearly a decade when Crist tapped him to steady an agency that had been rocked by the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson at one of its boot camps in Panama City.

McNeil brought a solid record as police chief. "Very disciplined, very honest, very straightforward," said his predecessor, retired Tallahassee police Chief Mel Tucker.

But his appointment also opened the door to a murky, alternate universe in higher education.

In an initial interview last week, McNeil said he could not remember any courses he took at St. John's or the names of any professors or how much tuition he paid. He also was not sure whether he wrote a master's thesis. "I think I did," he said.

Friday, McNeil said he was not required to write a master's thesis. He said it took him from 18 months to two years to complete the work and that his duties included teaching online courses to undergraduates.

His transcript shows McNeil took three classes, for which he was awarded 10 credits, and received nine credits for teaching undergraduates. He received 19 more credits for past work, which he says included six credits for professional experience and 13 credits for previous graduate study at the University of Virginia.

McNeil holds an associate degree in law enforcement from Jones Junior College in Mississippi and a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi. He also took courses in 1996 toward a master's degree in business administration at Nova Southeastern University.

A police chief who McNeil said encouraged him to attend St. John's, John Packett of Grand Forks, N.D., has a doctorate in criminal justice from the school but said he does not list it on his resume.

"It's just not an appropriate academic credential," said Packett, a former St. John's instructor. He said that while St. John's students did legitimate coursework, he viewed it as continuing education or in-service training.

St. John's "was not a diploma mill, but at the same time it wasn't accredited," Packett said.

Packett recalled that McNeil was a "top-notch" student in his community relations course, where assignments included reading assigned text and answering discussion questions.

An Internet search for St. John's yields little up-to-date information. But an old St. John's Web site from 1999 shows an array of degree offerings - from mainstream subjects like criminal justice and psychology to alternative areas such as parapsychology and hypnotherapy. The site says St. John's "was the first fully accredited University in the United States to offer Associate, Bachelor, Master and Doctoral Degrees totally through external studies."

Beneath links to programs and student information, another link says, "Important Announcement: How You Can Be Free From The Smoking Habit Now!!"

Pamela Winkler, the retired president of St. John's and widow of its founder, said the school has "private accreditation." A 1998-1999 St. John's catalog says the university was accredited by the Beebe, Ark., Accrediting Commission International.

"It's basically a guy in some church," said Alan Contreras, who heads Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization, which closely tracks schools with questionable accreditation. "Anything accredited by ACI in Beebe, Ark., is either fake or substandard, as far as I know."

Accreditation is a stamp of approval and credibility, a signal that the institution has consistently met an outside group's standards.

Winkler said it was school policy to only respond in writing to questions from the media. The Times dictated a list of questions to her last week.

As of Friday, Winkler had yet to respond to most of them and did not return two followup calls. But hours after the conversation, she faxed a press release to the Times congratulating McNeil on his appointment as secretary.

The agency's Web site, www.djj.state.fl.us, lists McNeil's degree from St. John's as part of his official biography. It's also listed on the Web site of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where McNeil is the fifth vice president.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at (850) 224-7263. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873.