Following scandal with Korean professor, University revises degree-verification procedure

Updated Friday 10:40 p.m. After disclosing last weekend that the University had mistakenly confirmed to an employer the authenticity of a doctorate degree fabricated by a Korean art history professor, Yale officials said they have changed their procedure for verifying graduate degrees — and will not be fooled again.

University officials will no longer confirm or deny whether a person holds a degree from Yale based on any external documents they are presented, Associate Director of Public Affairs Gila Reinstein told the News today. Instead, she said, the administrators will rely solely on their own records to verify that a supposed alumnus did indeed graduate from Yale.

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Pamela Shen
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This decision follows a saga — now referred to as “Shin-gate” in Korea — that has unfolded over the past several months regarding Shin Jeong-ah, a professor at Dongguk University in South Korea, who was arrested in October for allegedly manufacturing a doctorate degree from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Even as evidence mounted against her, Shin claimed her innocence, pointing to a 2005 fax transmission from a Graduate School official to her employer, Dongguk University, that verified the authenticity of her degree. But Shin never attended Yale, according to University officials.

University officials identified the fax transmission, signed by Graduate School Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister, as a fabrication — until this month, when they informed Dongguk University that the fax was genuine and had been sent erroneously, according to a statement issued Saturday by the Office of Public Affairs.

After Yale’s revelation, Dongguk University — which had been criticized in Korean media outlets for not performing due diligence on its hires — may sue Yale for libel, according to a report in the Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo. Meanwhile, the Yonhap news agency reported that Korean prosecutors have asked U.S. law enforcement officials to investigate Yale’s role in the scandal, and whether Schirmeister may have been a knowing player in Shin’s scheme to fake her credentials.

“Yale University is accounting for this incident saying that they were ‘in the rush of business’ but it is probably not an administrative mistake,” Cho Ui-yeon, the chief of the Administrative Affairs Office at Dongguk University, told a Korean newspaper. “If a detailed investigation is inconclusive, we will take this matter up with an investigative institution in the United States.”

Officials at Dongguk University declined a request from the News for an interview, citing the ongoing the nature of the case.

The ordeal began in September 2005 when Dongguk University forwarded to Yale officials a letter that appeared to have been sent in May 2005 from a Yale Graduate School dean stating that a records audit proved Shin had indeed received a Ph.D. from Yale, according to the statement. Dongguk University officials asked Yale to verify whether that letter was authentic and confirm Shin’s status as an alumna of the University.

That initial letter, it turns out, was a fake — but Yale administrators did not realize it at the time. So the University sent a fax transmission to Dongguk University confirming that the letter regarding the records audit was accurate and that Shin did indeed have a Yale doctorate degree.

But when the Shin scandal broke this summer, Yale officials said the September fax transmission did not appear to have been sent by anyone at the University and must have been a fabrication.

“I’ve seen the fax that supposedly confirms that Shin earned a degree from Yale, [and] it bears no resemblance to the letter that [Schirmeister] sends when she is actually confirming someone’s degree,” Reinstein said in an e-mail to the News in September.

As the scandal dragged on, however, the University reviewed its documents and determined it had indeed sent the fax in question.

In a letter from Yale Deputy General Counsel Susan Carney to Dongguk University officials received Dec. 17, the University reversed course and admitted the fax transmission — bearing Schirmeister’s apparently misspelled name — had actually been sent by Yale officials after all, although it was done erroneously.

“Responding quickly to what appeared to be a routine request, Yale’s staff mistakenly relied on the letterhead and signature on the purported May 2005 letter,” the statement said, calling the gaffe an “administrative error.”

The statement issued last Saturday said Yale “deeply regrets this error” and is prepared to cooperate with Korean prosecutors handling Shin’s case.

Schirmeister — who oversees eight Graduate School programs, including Humanities, International Relations, Management and Political Science — did not return a phone message this week, and Carney was not available for comment.

Shin, 35, was arrested in October for allegedly forging her Yale degree and embezzling nearly $400,000 from the museum where she was a curator. The scandal jolted a country where diplomas from elite colleges drive the job market.

Using her forged Yale doctorate, Shin landed jobs as the curator of a celebrated South Korean art museum and as the director of a well-known art exhibition.

Throughout the scandal, Shin steadfastly maintained her innocence, citing the fax transmission as proof.

“I certainly did receive a degree from Yale, which is proven by the document Dongguk University received from Yale in 2005,” Shin told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper in July, promising to take legal action to stop the “conspiracy” regarding her degree.

But while Shin’s May 2005 letter may have been convincing enough to fool Yale administrators, a Yale diploma she apparently concocted was not nearly as believable. The 2005 diploma bore not the signature of University President Richard Levin but of the emeritus professor Howard Lamar, who served as president for one year until Levin took office in 1993.

In the statement, Yale emphasized that, even with the fax mix-up, Shin still is lying in her claim that she attended the University.

Meanwhile, the Shin affair continues to resonate in South Korea. The disgraced professor admitted last month to having an affair with a top aide to the president of South Korea. The aide was married at the time.

Earlier in the fall, a Korean newspaper printed nude photographs of Shin on its front page, fueling the scandal further.

And this week, the Shin affair placed ninth on a list of the most popular news stories of the year in South Korea, according to Naver, the country’s largest search engine and portal.

-Jae Hyung Ryu contributed reporting from Seoul.

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