Korean professor accused of forging Yale art degree

A South Korean art history professor who rode her Yale doctorate to stardom in the Korean art world has been arrested for fabricating her degree, Korean officials said Friday.

Shin Jeong-ah, 35, a rising star in the South Korean art world, claimed she received a Ph.D. in art history from Yale in 2005, though the University said there is no record of her ever attending Yale. Prosecutors charged Shin with forging her Yale degree and embezzling nearly $400,000 from the museum where she was a curator.

And in an ironic twist, the saga may actually be a harbinger of positive — not negative — energy for the School of Art.

“If anything, her choice of Yale speaks to the reputation the school carries worldwide,” Professor Sandy Isenstadt said Monday. “It certainly doesn’t diminish [its] reputation.”

The arrest confirms suspicions raised over the summer that jolted a country where diplomas from elite colleges drive the job market.

Prosecutors allege Shin landed her prestigious job with the help of her romantic partner, a top presidential aide, who exerted his influence on her behalf. The aide was also arrested.

The Korean media first printed doubts about Shin’s degree this summer, though the professor frequently asserted her innocence and vowed to come to New Haven to prove she actually held a Yale degree. She never came, and the University does not believe she ever matriculated at Yale, University spokesman Tom Conroy said in an e-mail Monday.

Using her forged Yale doctorate, Shin became the youngest professor at the esteemed Dongguk University in Seoul and landed jobs as the curator of a celebrated South Korean art museum and as the director of one of Southeast Asia’s largest art exhibitions.

After Dongguk board members raised doubts about the legitimacy of Shin’s diploma, a wave of resume-checking across the country turned a minor scandal into a national one. In the aftermath of the Shin affair, several leading scholars and celebrities fell from grace as they admitted their credentials had been falsified, some of them apologizing tearfully.

The presidential aide, Byeon Yang-Kyoon, 58, was charged with peddling his influence to help Shin land her professorship and to persuade companies to donate to her museum in return for the loosening of government regulations.

The Korean media have characterized Byeon and Shin’s alleged relationship as “sex-for-favors.” Dongguk University has received $17.4 million in Korean government subsidies since 2006, and investigators are examining whether Byeon may have steered some of those grants to the university in return for hiring Shin in 2005, the Korea Times reported.

Shin, meanwhile, has doggedly maintained her innocence. She cited 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, vowing to go to court to stop the “conspiracy” regarding her degree.

That fax was believed to have been faked, too. The document did not even spell “Schirmeister” correctly, a University spokeswoman said.

The degree Shin allegedly concocted was flawed, Yale officials said when the scandal broke. The 2005 diploma bore not the signature of Yale President Richard Levin but of the emeritus professor Howard Lamar, who served as president for one year until Levin took office in 1993.

Aside from reading about Shin in the news, the art history faculty have not discussed the matter much among themselves, art history professor and Saybrook College Master Mary Miller said. Shin’s acts reflect solely on herself, Miller said.

“People who forge documents damage their own reputations,” she said.

Shin’s other degrees — a bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Kansas — are also believed to have been fabricated. Her doctoral thesis was copied largely from one submitted to the University of Virginia in the 1980s.

Byeon and Shin have insisted that they are just friends. Byeon, who resigned his government post after the allegations against Shin were raised this summer, is married. The two are now being held at a detention center in Seoul pending trial, according to the news agency Agence France-Presse.

—The Associated Press contributed reporting from Seoul.

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