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The stripper and the bogus online degree

By Lisa Neal / May 2007

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I don't understand why people buy degrees from so-called diploma mills-don't they know the degrees are bogus? And, given that they purchased it, aren't they aware of the potential consequences? In many recent cases, the fines resulting from actually using the "degree" to get a job far exceeded the purchase price.

I can admit that I surreptitiously read about alien abductions in the grocery check-out, but I never imagined that a story on e-learning could approach such scandalous heights. Recently, I spotted an article in The Boston Globe. A former stripper, known professionally as Princess Cheyenne, was found guilty of 19 of 25 counts "of fraud and larceny for posing as a licensed psychologist for seven years and treating clients." Lucy Wightman's past as a stripper was not the issue here-although it ultimately impacted her educational career-nor was Wightman's former engagement to the singer-turned-Muslim-convert Yusuf Islam (neé Cat Stevens), though it was certainly a more interesting read at the check-out than Tom Cruise's marriage. The issue here was the purchase of a bogus online doctorate and the use of it as a legitimate degree.

Wightman earned a master's in counseling psychology from Lesley University. After five years of coursework, she left a doctoral program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology without earning her Ph.D. (Not so odd, I know many people who are ABD-All But Dissertation, a nice way of saying that they went to graduate school but left empty-handed.) The reason for her departure: A dean "confronted her about her storied career as a stripper in Boston's Combat Zone in the 1970s and '80s". But as she later told the jury, Wightman felt that she had earned her doctorate and paid about $1,300 for what she thought was a bona fide degree from Dominica-based Concordia College & University.

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, "state law requires that psychologists possess a doctoral degree in psychology from a doctoral program recognized by the state and that they be licensed with the state Division of Professional Licensure." Lucy Wightman reportedly set up a practice claiming she had a doctorate, and never applied for or received a license to practice as a psychologist.

Oddly enough, her master's degree apparently would have allowed Wightman to practice as a psychotherapist. Why didn't she choose to do that instead, or, since Concordia is not recognized in Massachusetts, get a degree from a different school? The questions accumulate-as they do in so many other high-profile cases involving bogus degrees. Ralph Timperi, head of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's infectious disease lab and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, found himself in hot water after purchasing a Ph.D. from "Trinity Southern University" of Buenos Aires, Argentina, for $499. And John McGuire, the police chief of Fostoria, Ohio, recently suffered his own credentials-related scandal after acquiring a Concordia degree.

Concordia's website says that it "removes the obstacles that cause adults to abandon hopes of acquiring their degree." An inscription at the entrance to hell, as described by Dante in The Divine Comedy, may provide a better motto for the school: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.


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    Lisa Neal
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