Shin Jeong-ah was the youngest professor at the esteemed Dongguk University in Seoul. Boasting a doctorate from the History of Art department at Yale, she was a rising star, the curator of a celebrated South Korean art museum and the newly-appointed director of one of Southeast Asia’s largest art exhibitions.
But Shin, it turns out, never attended Yale. In Korea, prestigious diplomas are currency for landing top jobs, and Shin has been shunned after the University confirmed this summer that her purported credentials were actually fiction.
The scandal did not stop with Shin. Her downfall spurred a wave of resume-checking across the country, with leading artists, scholars and celebrities falling from grace almost daily as the authorities discovered fabricated credentials.
Shin is now being investigated by Korean prosecutors and could face time in prison for forgery. A Yale spokeswoman, Gila Reinstein, said the University has no record of Shin ever attending the University.
Though disgraced in the Korean press, Shin doggedly maintained her innocence. She reportedly said she was coming to America to visit Yale and prove the legitimacy of her diploma, but has since disappeared, according to Korean newspapers. Shin, 35, referenced a 2005 fax transmission, purportedly from an associate dean of Yale’s Graduate School, Pamela Schirmeister, which said Shin enrolled in the Graduate School at Yale in August 1996 and graduated with a doctorate in 2005.
“I certainly did receive a degree from Yale, which is proven by the document Dongguk received from Yale in 2005,” Shin told Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper in July, promising to take legal action to stop the “conspiracy” regarding her degree.
A University spokesperson said the alleged facsimile was not in the typical format used by Schirmeister to confirm the alumni degrees and did not even spell the dean’s name correctly.
Meanwhile, the degree Shin presented as her own “has flagrant errors,” Reinstein said. Although it was dated 2005, the year Shin claimed to have received her doctorate, the signature on the diploma was that of former president Howard Lamar, who left office in 1993, Reinstein said.
Shin’s credentials were first called into question by a member of Dongguk’s board of directors, who brought it to the attention of the media.
Since the scandal surfaced in July, many other South Korean stars have fallen. A prominent singer-songwriter had his radio and television gigs cancelled after his supposed degree from George Mason University was proved false. An architect claimed to have a fine arts degree from a college in Los Angeles that has no fine arts department. An eminent monk who presided over a 250,000-member temple acknowledged that he, too, had faked his college degree.
And the actress Yoon Suk-hwa, who has been called South Korea’s Meryl Streep, admitted that her 30-year claim that she had graduated from a prestigious women’s college was a lie that she had devised to help her career.
And help it did. In South Korea, experts say, academic credentials are seen as a gauge of an adult’s worth as a person and affect his or her chances at everything from finding a spouse to landing a top job in business or academia. Since the Shin scandal, South Korean authorities have vowed to crack down on fake credentials, and lawmakers have proposed legislation that would create a system for verifying academic degrees.
“Before, we struggled more with fake luxury goods,” Moon Moo-il, a Korean prosecutor heading the crackdown on forged diplomas, told The New York Times. “Now that we have entered the knowledge-based society, we have to deal with an overflow of fake knowledge.”
Shin also claimed to have received bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Kansas, and though a KU spokesman said Shin did attend the university for at least three years, she did not receive any degree. Meanwhile, the disgraced professor’s doctoral thesis was found to have been plagiarized from one submitted to the University of Virginia in the 1980s.
Shin could not be located for comment. She reportedly left Korea for the United States in mid-July, but her current whereabouts are unknown. Reinstein said she has not yet come to Yale as promised.