Saturday, July 26, 2014

Your Credentials, Please

“Dr.” Michael Sharpe, the CEO of the Family Urban School of Excellence (FUSE), padded his credentials; it turned out he was not a “Dr.” at all. Moreover, a cautiously concealed stint in prison further marred Mr. Sharpe’s record, which was, before journalists began snooping into his past, fairly substantial.

It is said that the FBI is now examining FUSE with jeweler’s loops screwed into its many eyes. FUSE, according to its mission statement, is “an education management organization formed in 2012 to continue, guide and expand the work of Jumoke Academy, a high-performing urban charter school in Hartford’s north end.”

In an earlier time, Mr. Sharpe’s Pilgrim’s Progress through adversity in the direction of a shining light might have served young urban African Americans struggling with their own demons as a positive object lesson: Here was a man who had pulled himself up from the mire by his own bootstraps. Both Malcom X and Martin Luther King spent some time in jail. Mr. King, an American Gandhi, was jailed to satisfy Jim Crow epidemic bullies. The burglary charges brought against Malcolm X were well founded, and while serving a ten year stint in prison, he wrote a book, became famous and suffered martyrdom at the hands of Louis Farrakhan’s agents.

Mr. Sharpe’s credentials were not in order. He permitted himself to be called “Dr. Sharpe,” and the honorific was used by him on several occasions. Like Malcolm X, there was a prison blotch on his escutcheon, which Mr. Sharpe apparently took some care to conceal.  Thrown from the balcony, he has now come under FBI scrutiny. If there are accounting irregularities during his FUSE years, he likely will find himself cooling his heels in prison.

How low are the mighty fallen!

In the age of educational credentialism -- when success is not determined by measurable objective criteria (Is Jamoke Academy, one of the schools managed by FUSE, an improvement on the usual inner city public school?) but rather by the number of educational degrees its administrators have amassed -- there is no greater offense against propriety than the pretense that one is festooned by academic credits. Credentials, after all, are the lock on the indispensable educational “closed shop.” And the closed shop, of course, has both a fiduciary and moral responsibility to see to it that frauds do not slip past its barriers. Mr. Sharpe’s fate, like Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' “A Street Car Named Desire,” will, going forward, depend upon the kindness of FBI strangers.

Some strangers are kinder than others.

In 1981, when Thirman Milner was running in a primary for Mayor of Hartford, the Journal Inquirer discovered that Mr. Milner, who later won the mayoralty contest and became the city’s first African American mayor, had claimed he had received from Rochdale College in Toronto, Canada, a degree that seemed exceedingly dubious.

The Inquirer disclosed that Rochdale College was in fact “a student owned dormitory on the edge of the University of Toronto’s campus that was opened in 1968 as an educational experiment.  There were no entrance requirements for any of the unaccredited school’s 850 students, no curriculum, no examinations -- (BEGIN ITALICS) and no degrees (END ITALICS), [emphasis mine].”

A little more than two years earlier, other wide-awake media outlets had disclosed that the Town Manager of Agawam, Massachusetts, had claimed a Rochdale diploma as proof of his college education when, in fact, he had never graduated from college. Five months after the disclosures, the Town Manager, finding himself under considerable media pressure, quite rightly resigned from office. The university affairs officer of The Provincial Ministry of Colleges and Universities, J. P. Gardner, was quoted at the time to this effect: “… asking for a list of the degrees purchased [from the dormitory scheme] is like asking how many people bought socks at Sears yesterday.”

The fraudulent degrees were sold at $25 a pop. Said Mr. Gardner, “during this period [from the 1970s forward] Rochdale issued ‘degrees’ as a money-making venture. These had no academic basis or credibility and were considered a joke locally.”

The Inquirer contacted Mr. Milner for a response. Mr. Miller said he had received his degree from Rochdale in the late 1960s, before the “college” began awarding purchased “degrees” through the mail.

“I didn’t get it through the mail,” Mr. Milner said of his “degree.” The Rochdale “degree,” according to the Inquirer report, accounted for Mr. Milner’s only college education. He claimed to have attended the experimental college “while stationed with the Air Force in Geneva, N.Y., (ITALICS) about 200 miles from Toronto (END ITALICS), [emphasis mine].” A 200 mile commute is rather long, but of course gas at the time was much cheaper than it is today.

Though encouraged to do so, the Hartford Courant, then and now Connecticut’s only state-wide newspaper, did not pick up a story that easily might have destroyed Mr. Milner’s mayoral prospects. Having won the mayoralty contest, Mr. Milner went on to serve with some distinction for six years. Fate – or kind strangers, many of them writing for newspapers – were not overly harsh with Mr. Milner.

Mr. Milner, retired for many years now and a much respected elder statesman, recently emerged from self-imposed obscurity to endorse the candidacy for the State Senate of City Council President Shawn Wooden of Hartford.  He needn’t worry that Mr. Wooden’s credentials are in order.
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