Maintaining muteness this week about the Southern Baptist Convention president’s honorary degrees from two diploma mills will become much more difficult for denominational officials, given the federal sentencing on Wednesday of the owners of a diploma mill. Mainstream media coverage and the blogosphere commentary about degree factories will likely spike.

On Sunday the New York Times carried a news story about Dixie and Steven K. Randock Sr., who will be sentenced for mail and wire fraud for their diploma mill operation of St. Regis University, a company that provided thousands of degrees for residents in 131 countries and generated over $7 million. Six other employees face sentencing.

According to a 2005 Seattle Times story, the St. Regis University was “little more than a network of Web sites, telephones and bank accounts.”

One of the Spokane-area business’ employees was indicted for child pornography in 2006, when diploma mill investigators found more than 10,000 sexually explicit pictures on his computers.

The Randocks’ diploma factor revenues grew from a few thousand dollars in 1999 to over $1.6 million in 2005 from their creation of fraudulent universities including James Monroe University and Robertstown University, according to the Times.

The Randocks’ scheme included bribing Liberian officials “to obtain accreditation for their phony institutions” and using a picture of castle that was the birthplace of Winston Churchill as an image for their campus.

Their scheme attracted customers from a variety of professions.

The Times reported that St. Regis University provided 14 New York City firefighters with diploma mill degrees which helped them gain raises.

Indianapolis’ WTHR-TV found that when Chrysler Corporation offered $4,600 in tuition assistance to employees facing layoffs that 76 enrolled at St. Regis.

Georgia’s Professional Standards Commission revoked in 2004 the teaching licenses of 11 educators in the city of Atlanta and Gwinnett, Cobb, Clayton and Ben Hill counties for obtaining degrees from St. Regis, which allowed them to gain pay raises.

An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 fake degrees are sold each year, the Times said, citing an official with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, the federally recognized agency related to accrediting.

Some of these degrees were held by federal employees. A 2004 Government Accountability Office report found that more than half of the 463 federal employees with diploma mill degrees worked in the Department of Defense.

A senior official with Homeland Security, who had served in the White House, resigned after it was discovered that she had a doctorate in computer information systems from a diploma mill that required a four-page paper and $3,600. Her degree was from Hamilton University of Evanston, Wyo.

Given the scope of the problem, the U.S. House of Representatives passed in February a bill that will crack down on diploma mill factories, creating a task force of government officials who will develop a “strategic diploma integrity protection plan,” giving the Federal Trade Commission the power to address diploma mills and encourage states to take similar initiatives.

One state has already cracked down on diploma mills. Oregon defines degree mills as entities that “are substandard or fraudulent ‘colleges’ that offer potential students degrees with little or no serious work. Some are simple frauds: a mailbox to which people send money in exchange for paper that purports to be a college degree. Others require some nominal work from the student but do not require college-level course work that is normally required for a degree.”

The state’s Office of Degree Authorization Web site has a color-coded map that shows states with “poor college approval laws or poor enforcement,” has an incomplete list of “unaccredited degree suppliers” and contains a link to the “Diploma Mill News Blog.”

An editorial first addressed the diploma mill problem of SBC president Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., after his election in June as the denomination’s president. A number of conference announcements identified Hunt as having an honorary doctorate from Covington Theological Seminary. However, this degree was not referenced on the personal Web site of “Dr. Johnny Hunt.”

A follow-up news story reported that Hunt’s Web site was updated after the editorial to include his honorary degrees from diploma mills, suggesting that some Southern Baptist leaders see little wrong with validating fraudulent businesses granting theological degrees.

Given the widespread use of diploma mills, the profitability of degree factories and the heightened interest of Congress, it is likely the media, churches, academic institutions and corporations will rightly focus more attention on the difference between credible and unaccredited degrees. Ignoring the problem will no longer be an option.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

Also see:

What Is Wrong with Diploma Mills?

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