The government has released initial findings on its investigation into the use of diploma mill degrees by federal employees. One discovery: a program manager who claimed to hold a doctorate in occupational health and safety and helped coordinate responses to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the anthrax contamination at the Capitol.

How could a person with a bogus academic degree ascend so high into the safety and health profession without the credential being challenged?

Were supervisors, subordinates, and peers in the safety and health community asleep at the wheel, or unconcerned about this critical issue of integrity?

Not a new concern

Ever since the Wizard of Oz awarded the Scarecrow a doctorate in Thinkology, people have taken shortcuts to obtain diplomas. The safety and health profession should have been on high alert to this problem back in 1988, when research supported by the American Council of Education warned that the “large number of fraudulent safety degrees” threatens public health and safety.

The American Council of Education had reason to be concerned. In the mid-1980s I uncovered the following positions that held diploma mill degrees: state director of industrial safety; corporate safety directors/ managers for Fortune 500 companies; executive level board members of safety societies; risk managers for insurance companies; OSHA inspectors; director, state boiler and safety division; nuclear safety officer; fire chiefs; safety consultants; safety authors; and safety expert witnesses.

And be assured that the use of diploma mill degrees by safety and health pros has grown since then.

Until now, the majority of safety and health professionals, and the societies that represent them, have mostly remained silent on this threat to the integrity of the profession. A fair argument among these individuals and groups is that they did not have access to a list of diploma mills or institutions that issue substandard degrees.

A revealing resource

Well, let’s take this argument away. Oregon provides sources of academic degrees that are illegal to use in the state at http://www.osac. The federal government is working off of this list for its investigation into use of diploma mill degrees by federal employees. Oregon’s list is being copied by other states. In Michigan, for example, if your academic degree now comes from an institution on this list it counts for nothing toward the academic requirement for civil service positions.

A few years ago I wrote in this column about certified safety professionals in Michigan who held doctorate degrees from diploma mills/substandard institutions. A few readers felt that I should direct my concerns to the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. I did. The BCSP informed me that it is not unethical for a CSP to use these degrees.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is now holding hearings on what to do about abuses by diploma mills. Legislation is likely. As the government continues its crackdown on bogus degrees by federal employees it is certain to find more people in safety and health positions with shortcut diplomas. Private employers are catching wind of this concern and now are looking more closely at degrees held by their employees — which will lead to more safety and health pros being found with bogus credentials.

Join the search

Uncle Sam cares about this issue and something is going to be done. Clearly the government is not going to recognize or support any employee getting these types of degrees anymore, and if an employee used a degree from a diploma mill to obtain a government job or promotion, they’ll most likely be asked to step down from their current position.

You can join this hunt for people with bogus credentials by looking at the Oregon list and then inquire where other safety and health pros got their degrees. This is the easy part. Now what do you do with what you find? This is the dilemma we all face. And it’s the dilemma I fell into years ago.

You have some choices, and here’s a dozen to consider:

1) Do nothing. I contend, however, that safety and health pros have an ethical obligation to do something positive when they become aware of abuses of this nature.

2) Do something. At a minimum, form an opinion on the matter. Learn more about this issue. The Oregon Web site has some excellent information about diploma mills.

3) Are uses of diploma mill degrees acceptable by safety and health pros? Voice your opinion. Don’t hold back if you meet with a person using a diploma mill degree. From my experience these persons first act appalled that anyone would even question their credentials. Next, they warn you about possible legal issues of slander, defamation or libel over such a spurious allegation (big bark and little bite). And then they puppy up and make the sympathetic argument that they didn’t know the institution was a diploma mill. Almost everyone who uses a diploma mill degree follows this same strategy (I think they’re taught to follow this argument path).

4) If you think diploma mill degrees are okay, then get your own degree. The Oregon site lists plenty of diploma mills and substandard institutions to choose from. I suggest you skip the mid degrees and go directly for the doctorate.

5) If you think it’s unethical for safety and health pros to use a diploma mill degree, let your professional societies and elected officials know your views. Vote for board members and political offices that agree with your position.

6) Ask the leadership of your professional societies to clearly state their position on use of diploma mill degrees. What, if any, sanctions will your professional society impose if abuses are substantiated? Demand that ethics violations be enforced.

7) Request that all safety and health pros identify where they obtained their degrees, especially if the pro is providing training or communication to broad groups.

8) Request that peer reviewed journals require authors to identify where they obtained each of their academic credentials.

9) Request that safety and health pros holding a diploma mill degree debate the merits of these credentials in an open forum among their peers.

10) If you’re asked, “Can we trust the work that these people do?” — carefully consider your answer. A good response is that everyone’s work should be periodically audited.

11) Support federal and state legislation on this issue. At present, professional safety and health societies and organizations seem unable or unwilling to address the concern.

12) Support efforts to ensure that people have access to legitimate and affordable non-traditional academic degrees.

A defining choice

Diploma mill businesses are slick and well-financed. The industry will mount a defense and open new strategies to combat the government’s crackdown on what it does. Diploma mills will continue to prey on people who want shortcuts to credentials. And people working in the safety and health field will continue to be a target market.

If you realize that listing a diploma mill degree is like putting a time-bomb in your resumé, carefully consider the safety and health credentials you obtain. The choice of credentials defines what we think of our profession and ourselves. Don’t risk cheapening either by pursuing bogus shortcut options.