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Fake academics and our easily impressed society

The occurrence of faking a degree is not new to Malaysia and 'conmen' out there know that the status associated with paper degrees or with certain professions still impresses Malaysians more than proven knowledge and skills.

Our status conscious and polite society, from the very educated to the man on the street has fallen prey to such 'conmen' (even as we harbour doubts).

In July 2012, an investigative article in a Malaysian newspaper highlighted the issuing of fake degrees by a company in Malaysia which is currently under investigation.

In August 2012, newspapers revealed the arrest of a lecturer who was teaching at a university for two years with merely SPM qualifications! Hardly a month has passed and the same university has yet another case on its hands. Why?

Approximately a year and a half ago, a supposed academic with a PhD applied to one of the departments at a local university for a teaching post. The resume of the applicant (Dr X) was very impressive and it succeeded in overwhelming the faculty into agreeing to take him on.

The decision to hire Dr X proceeded from departmental level to school board level, where the resume impressed the board, and Dr X was hired.

The hiring of teaching staff is often initiated at departmental level by academic staff. However it remains a sad fact that despite past follies, some universities still lack standard operating procedures related to departmental level hiring.

The academic community in this case still utilises an old-style system of ‘trust' regarding the authenticity of the applicant's degrees and what the applicant states in his/her resume.

Once the applicant is approved, the department leaves it to the universitybureaucracy to handle the rest of the hiring process.

Many academic staff seriously lacks know-how/experience in hiring procedures.

For example, they tend to overlook the need to scrutinise the sequential logic of publications and achievements, they underestimate the importance of referrals on performance and character from previous employees, and they don't really know how to verify the authenticity of a degree certificate etc.

After being hired for the teaching post, Dr X was very accommodating, willing to teach any course and to work in collaboration with everyone. Dr X proceeded to juggle teaching with research projects.

Dr X went on to apply for large research grants producing impressive proposals tailored to the vision of the university for interdisciplinary and transdiciplinary research projects.

Dr X managed to convince and bring together dream research teams made up of scientists, linguists, architects, geographers, performers, etc with his proposals which were filled with conceptual acrobatics, malapropism and financial high jinks.

Obviously members of the grant vetting committees were also highly impressed.

The Pandora's Box was opened when Dr X's milestones from the research projects began to be showcased. The highly publicised milestones fell terribly short of the impressive proposals, to almost ‘boy scout' levels.

Dr X also took on several post- graduate students, ‘supervising' and ‘mentoring' them to leap into research projects framed by contemporary jargon which they hardly understood.

Research assistants paid handsomely from the grant monies and post-graduate students found themselves involved in a whirl of seminars and conferences little understood and seriously lacking in content.

Students from one of Dr X's courses even got together and wrote a formal letter to the chairperson of the department complaining that they had learnt hardly anything throughout the semester.

At this juncture, word was getting around and questions were being asked as to whether Dr X had a legitimate degree.

Whilst some colleagues pondered the rumours, Dr. X was busy writing for additional research grants involving several other colleagues as collaborators!

Suspicious colleagues pressed for an investigation and wrote to the foreign university from where Dr X supposedly received a doctoral degree.

Within 24 hours, the foreign university replied that Dr X had registered with the university but never completed his degree. The administration in the local university also made an enquiry and confirmed the faked degree.

The implications of this ‘fake academic' case are tremendous and must be attended to professionally:

1. Students who were taught by a ‘fake academic' are about to graduate.

2. Post graduate students being supervised by the ‘fake academic' are left in a lurch.

3. Grant monies have been spent on ‘academically questionable' research projects.

4. Colleagues who collaborated academically with a ‘fake academic' find themselves in a dilemma.

5. New grant monies have come in but the collaborators are at a loss on how to proceed since the ‘fake academic' concocted the project.

6. International collaborators who were involved in the ‘fake academic's' research projects need to be informed.

A request to discuss the implications at departmental level was turned down citing that the university administration would rather that the affair be handled by the legal department.

Officially no academic staff has been informed about the case.

All those involved will just have to wait, feed on unfounded rumours, and then become alienated from yet another case of a fake degree as the bureaucracy takes charge.

The least we can hope for this time from our institutions of higher learning are a set of standard operating procedures, greater care, transparency and administrative professionalism to protect students and our academic integrity.

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