The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 21, 2013

Knapp Ph.D. from "diploma mill"

U.S. Department of Education shuns ex-super’s alma mater

By Marcia Moore and Rick Dandes

The Daily Item

MIDDLEBURG — Former Midd-West Superintendent Wesley Knapp attained his doctorate degree in education administration from Kennedy-Western University — an institution of questionable reputation that has never been accredited.

Nancy Kroh was president of the Midd-West school board in December 2008 when Knapp was hired and doesn’t see his educational background as an issue.

“There was never any misrepresentation (by Knapp) as far as his credentials,” she said. “We needed someone with experience and he had it.”

School superintendents in Pennsylvania aren’t required to have a doctorate, and Kroh and fellow board member Ronald Hoffman said Knapp’s academic credentials weren’t as important as his work history.

“It doesn’t matter any more now that he’s gone,” Hoffman said.

But another board director, Ronald Wilson, expressed disappointment in Knapp’s decision to tout his degree from an unaccredited institution.

“I can’t say anything good about that,” Wilson said.

He and other board members learned in recent months about the origin of Knapp’s doctorate degree, at about the same time unspecified charges were levied against Knapp that led to his voluntary retirement in October. Neither the board nor Knapp will disclose the nature of the charges.

Knapp was chagrined to hear someone was trying to discredit him.

“My academic credentials are not to be questioned by anybody,” he said Friday. “Very few people understand accreditation.”

The Council on Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education do not recognize Kennedy-Western University, his alma mater.

At the time Knapp received his Ph.D in 2001, he said, the choices of accredited cyber schools were “limited.”

According to the resume Knapp provided Midd-West and obtained by The Daily Item under Pennsylvania’s Right-To-Know law, he received a bachelor of science degree in technical and science education from SUNY Oswego in Oswego, N.Y., and a master’s degree in physics from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

His doctorate in education administration was obtained from Kennedy-Western University in 2001 while he was serving as a superintendent of schools in Sand Point, Alaska. Knapp later took a job as a superintendent in Vermont, where he was employed for five years until June 2008.

Kennedy-Western opened in California in 1984 and was among the biggest names in distance education before running afoul of the state’s licensing board.

In 2004, the U.S. General Accounting Office, in an investigation titled “Diploma Mills,” investigated Kennedy-Western and a number of other degree-granting entities that it deemed “questionable.”

As part of the investigation into charges that Kennedy-Western was a diploma mill, a Coast Guard officer named Claudia Gelzer enrolled at the online California school. She was promptly awarded more than half the credits she needed for a master’s degree in environmental engineering, based on her work experience, she told a Senate committee in 2004.

“They asked for no proof or documentation,” she said. And, “as a note, I have no formal engineering training.”

Gelzer quickly picked up more credits by passing open-book exams, the answers for which could often be found in the books’ glossaries.

George Gollin, a University of Illinois physics professor who has made a sideline of exposing diploma mills, said it appears Gelzer could have finished all of her master’s degree requirements in one 40-hour work week — even without receiving credit for life experience.

“To my mind, that makes Kennedy-Western a diploma mill,” he said. “End of story.”

But Kennedy-Western’s founder, Paul Saltman, always resisted the diploma-mill label and touted the university’s “academic rigor.” Kennedy-Western, he claimed, often hired professors from accredited universities to teach classes on the side.

In 2007 Kennedy-Western closed its California headquarters after being implicated by the U.S. General Accounting Office. After failing to gain accreditation, Kennedy-Western relocated to Cheyenne, Wyo., and adopted another name, Warren National University. But Warren National didn’t do much better under its new name.

It closed its virtual doors in 2009 after failing to achieve regional accreditation and having its license revoked by the state of Wyoming. On its website, the university blamed the decision to shut down on a failed accreditation bid and the general economic downturn.

That was no consolation to online students who were left holding worthless pieces of paper, and questionable diplomas rather than the online degrees for which they paid thousands of dollars.

Their lawsuit, which is still pending in Laramie County District Court, states online students paid average annual tuition of $6,000 to $12,000, while Warren National University’s owners took in $25 million to $30 million in tuition revenue each year.

The former students claim they were misled by the online university into thinking that either the school was properly accredited or soon would be, and that their online degrees would be recognized retroactively after accreditation was achieved. Some claim they were told that college accreditation simply did not matter in Wyoming.

“Without accreditation a degree from Defendant WNU had little or no value,” the lawsuit says.

Knapp had already been working in education for 36 years and was living in Alaska, where he was employed as a school superintendent when he enrolled at Kennedy-Western based in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“There were very limited choices” of cyber schools, he said. Knapp said he researched the school and learned the reason it wasn’t accredited was because one of its programs allowed students with work experience to submit the experience in exchange for credits.

“I had no interest in that program,” he said.

Knapp said he had enough academic credits to obtain two degrees.

As the Midd-West board moves forward with its search for a new superintendent, several directors said they are less interested in a candidate’s academic achievement than experience and people skills.

Board President Victor Abate would not comment on Knapp’s academic credentials, but said he will be looking for a superintendent candidate with management and interpersonal communication skills and a strong financial background.

“We need to get a person in there that can raise morale and work with people,” he said.

The board will be choosing one of three firms next month to aid in the superintendent search.