The North Dakota University System has a serious credibility problem.
In addition to breaking open records and open meeting laws no fewer than 18 times since 2010, their relationship with lawmakers has detriorated to the point where many of those lawmakers simply don’t believe what university officials have to say.
That’s why lawmakers feel the need to file massive fishing trip open records requests. Rep. Bob Martinson (R-Bismarck) told me last year that he had “no doubt” that emails requested by lawmakers pertaining to embattled former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani were “deleted on purpose.”
When lawmakers feel the universities are destroying records rather than turning them over in good faith, there are trust issues.
So here’s a question: Would naming as new chancellor a man who once touted a doctorate degree from an overseas diploma mill help the university system’s credibility?
I’m talking about state Senator Tim Flakoll, who is current a university system employee and was the university system’s point man in pursuing limits on lawmaker open records requests this year. Flakoll is currently in the running to be the next chancellor of the North Dakota University System.
In 1999 and 2001 Flakoll listed in his legislative biography a Phd. from Somerset University in England. I have screenshots from Flakoll’s entries in the legislative guides published those years.
But there was a change in Flakoll’ biography in 2003. He stopped listing the Somerset University degree:
A doctorate, I probably don’t need to tell you, is a big deal. It takes a lot of time and money to obtain that sort of a diploma, which is why people who do obtain them often use the “doctor” honorific with their names. It’s not just some certificate handed out lightly. It’s not something a person would receive on a whim.
For most people, earning a doctorate is a major milestone. A crowning achievement after years and years of work.
So why would Flakoll stop listing such an achievement in his biography? It turns out Somerset University, which is no longer in operation as of 1998, was a diploma mill. In fact, it seems they were flat-out selling degrees.
By way of illustrating what was taking place consider this:
“While I was working on my testimony for today, I received a return call on a spam that I had responded. I was offered my M.D. degree this Tuesday for $1,995 from Somerset University,”an FBI agent told a Congressional committee investigating diploma mills describing his efforts to investigate this sort of fraud. “Several hours later, he called me at the end of his shift and his price had gone down to $995. Now he was calling me from New York, although they have an address in London, England.”
That’s…not good, and it makes it very hard to believe that Flakoll felt he earned a doctorate from Somerset. After all, Flakoll is no babe in the woods when it comes to diplomas. He works in higher education professionally, and is deeply involved in higher education policy as a state lawmaker who chairs the Senate Education Committee. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Flakoll obtained this degree in a manner that was honest and straightforward.
It would be interesting to hear Flakoll describe it.
But the fact that Flakoll got a doctorate from Somerset isn’t news here in 2015. It has been reported before, but it bears reporting again as Flakoll has made the short list to replace Larry Skogen as Chancellor of the North Dakota University System.
The Fargo Forum had this revelation back in 2012 when the state Senator was previously in the running for the chancellor job, and they first reported the issue way back in 2004:
In 1999 and 2001, Flakoll listed a doctorate from Somerset University, England, on a biography he furnished to the North Dakota Legislative Council website, according to Forum archives. But that doctorate disappeared from his bio during the 2003 legislative session. Somerset University was fined by the local government for advertising dubious degrees and quit operating in 1998, Forum archives show. Flakoll told The Forum in 2004 he dropped the Ph.D. from his resume because he learned the university no longer operates. On Wednesday, Flakoll said he is “thrilled” to be a semifinalist, but declined to comment further until after the committee works through its process.
To say that Flakoll’s explanation for his mysterious, disappearing doctorate degree is dubious is to stretch the the scope of that adjective.
That someone of Flakoll’s professional experience in higher education, not to mention his prominent role in education policy in the Legislature, could have listed a doctorate from a not-at-all credible institution like Somerset University is nothing short of disturbing.
That Flakoll would be taken seriously as a candidate for chancellor in a university system that has had diploma mill problems of its own is unbelievable.
But it may be an illustration of just how desperately some in the university system want a “yes man” as chancellor. Flakoll has long been the university system’s water bearer in the legislature. They’re considering his application to be chancellor despite his previous use of phoney baloney doctorate degree, and despite the fact that he missed the deadline for applying.
The North Dakota University System desperately needs to regain the trust of the public and shed the perception of insular cronyism that pervades it.
Picking Flakoll as chancellor is a good way to accomplish the opposite.