Note: this essay originally appeared in the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard on August 28, 2007
Recent stories and George Schroeder's excellent column on the diploma-mill degree purchased by Dave Serrano, a former candidate for baseball coach at the University of Oregon, raise several issues. Are diploma-mill degrees legal for use? Do coaches need degrees at all? Do athletic directors?
Oregon law separates degrees into three categories. Standard degrees such as those issued by the UO, Lane Community College, Eugene Bible College and other accredited schools can be used with no restrictions, although employers may require certain kinds of specialized accreditation or preparation. Degrees that go through the state's approval process also are legally valid for most uses.
Unaccredited degrees from U.S. colleges and foreign degrees from colleges not comparable to accredited U.S. colleges can be used in Oregon with a disclaimer of accreditation, provided that the college actually exists as a legally operating degree-granter in its home jurisdiction.
The last category is what are usually called degree- or diploma-mill degrees, those simply purchased, sometimes requiring "life experience," often not. Using such a degree in Oregon and many other states is illegal; in Oregon, it is a Class B misdemeanor as well as a civil violation. It is the floor below which no degree used in Oregon for any purpose, public or private, is allowed to fall. The Legislature established this nationally recognized standard in 1997.
Any employer who allows an employee to use a diploma-mill degree had best have a good attorney and deep pockets for the potential liability claims when that employee screws up. Unfortunately, it is that third category into which Serrano's degree falls. Therefore, had the UO hired him, he would have had to erase the degree from his rèsumèwhen he took the job.
But should coaches be required to hold degrees at all? Of course not, because athletic "departments" are not really parts of universities, at least not at top-level schools. The UO athletic department is an ancillary business that is allowed by our cultural norms to use the university's name and trademarks to operate a large-scale entertainment business. The more private money it gets (thereby freeing other actual and potential funds for academic uses) the better.
That is why someone such as Pat Kilkenny is a good choice to lead such an enterprise. He's an experienced businessman with the ability to attract and manage money. The fact that Kilkenny has no degree is a who-cares. The problem he faces is that he is unaccustomed to operating within the slow, talkative process of academe, in which his actions will be publicly trashed by low-income people he has no choice but to work with. He is accustomed to doing things in private with people in his own economic stratum.
But I'd take one degreeless Kilkenny - even with an absurd, poorly considered cheerleading team - over 10 Serranos with degrees from a mailbox in Delaware. The problem with Serrano and those like him who acquire and use bogus degrees is not that they are bad coaches; it is that they are proven to have poor judgment.
An employer, including the UO, always can require that a degree meet whatever requirements the employer deems appropriate. Many employers require that degrees be from accredited schools; some require certain kinds of accreditation. Employers interested in finding out more about how to distinguish real from fake degrees should use the
A degree is not a toy or a decoration. It is a public credential that people rely on in many aspects of their lives. Degrees don't tell us all we need to know about a person, but we need to respect their value, not trash it.