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Some Floridians with top jobs hold degrees from questionable academic institutions.
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007
A fire chief. A state representative. A top administrator at a local hospital.
All are Floridians who claim, or once claimed, academic degrees from institutions that are widely considered suspect, or even diploma mills.
Among them is Walter Pannone, the chief nursing officer at Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill. He has a Ph.D. in health administration from Kennedy Western University, one of hundreds of schools higher education and distance learning experts say are questionable.
"I feel as though my Ph.D. is as good as anyone else's," Pannone said.
Pannone's name surfaced with dozens of others when the St. Petersburg Times searched Florida newspapers for the names of just six of those institutions.
The review was prompted by last month's disclosure that Walt McNeil, whom Gov. Charlie Crist tapped to head the Department of Juvenile Justice, has a master's degree in criminology from St. John's University - an obscure correspondence school that was founded by a hypnotherapist, offered classes in parapsychology and has no connection to the better-known St. John's University in New York.
Nobody's sure how many people have such degrees, but experts on the subject, including a retired FBI agent in Tampa who once led a diploma-mill task force, estimate there are hundreds of thousands.
Like McNeil, some of them have jobs with huge responsibilities. The Times search found a director of pharmacy services at a Panhandle hospital who has a Ph.D. in health administration; an American Airlines pilot in Broward County who says he's getting a Ph.D. in safety engineering; a former 911 manager in Pasco with a bachelor's degree in business administration. All degrees from questionable schools.
On the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Web site, division chief Charles Moreland claims a master's degree in fire science from Almeda University. The Florida Department of Education ordered the online school to cease operating in the state in 2003.
"There are Fortune 500 businesses that have members of their companies go through Almeda, so I'm sure they have some credibility," said Moreland, who also has a master's in public administration from Nova Southeastern University, which is credibly accredited.
Like Kennedy Western, Almeda is not accredited by any entity recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The school is on Oregon's list of unaccredited degree suppliers. It's on Maine's list of nonaccredited colleges and universities.
In Texas, it is illegal to use a degree from Almeda or similar institutions to get a job or promote a business.
Technically, it's illegal to even claim such a degree in Florida. But the 1989 law that made such a claim a misdemeanor has been declared unconstitutional in part of the state and is rarely enforced elsewhere.
Experts on questionably accredited colleges and universities say many people turn to them to cut corners, pump up their reputations and/or obtain jobs or pay increases that hinge on higher degrees. But it's possible that some are lured by slick Web sites and authentic-sounding claims about accreditation.
Almeda says it's accredited by three organizations: the Council for Distance Education Accreditation, the Association for Online Academic Excellence and Interfaith Education Ministries. None of them is recognized by U.S. DOE or CHEA.
Almeda offers a warning on its Web site: "Accreditation or acceptance by any of the above organizations ensures that degrees issued by Almeda carry the weight they need to be accepted by small, medium and large companies across the United States and around the world. However, accreditation by these organizations does not guarantee your degree will be accepted by everyone."
It's possible, too, that people with such degrees did credible academic work.
Pannone, the Oak Hill Hospital administrator, said he worked on his Kennedy Western dissertation full time for six months. The school changed its name to Warren National University this year. "It's a legitimate degree that I've earned," Pannone said. "I think people are concerned about degree mills where you can buy a degree. That's not what Kennedy Western is."
A U.S. Senate committee put a spotlight on Kennedy Western in 2004.
A Coast Guard officer working for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee testified that Kennedy Western waived nearly half of the credit requirements for a master's degree in environmental engineering based on her work experience, which included no formal engineering training, and without asking for proof or documentation for any of her claims. She said completed most of the remaining course requirements with 16 hours of study.
Pannone refused to e-mail a copy of his dissertation to the Times, or allow the Times to pay for a printed copy. "I don't know what you'd do with it," he said. "Come up here, and I'd be glad to review it with you."
Others who have obtained such degrees say they are victims.
State Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Green Cove Springs, once noted a master's degree from Kensington University on her House Web site. But she removed the reference in 2004 after a news reporter asked about it.
In an e-mail last week, she said she spent more than $20,000 and countless hours of research "only to find out that the institution lied about being accredited." Officials in Hawaii and California shut down Kensington in 2003.
"I really do not wish to revisit this issue," Carroll wrote. "I will only talk about it if their sic is a lawsuit that I can be a party to to recoup some of my money."
Dennis Kellenberger, general manager for the environmental group Tampa Bay Watch, once claimed a master's in management from Almeda. But he said he didn't keep the reference on his resume long.
The degree was based on work experience and coursework at other institutions, and did not include any classes from Almeda, said Kellenberger, who started the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and ran it for 25 years. "It looked like something that was of some worthiness, but after I got to looking at it more," he dropped it, he said.
Kellenberger asked whether there was a list of questionable institutions that prospective students could use to check whether a degree is "something of value."
States such as Oregon and Texas have such lists. Florida does not.
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org.