Facing Dongguk lawsuit, Yale vows to hold ground

The University vowed Wednesday to fight a federal lawsuit filed this week by Dongguk University over Yale’s role in the Shingate scandal — which the Korean university asserts could have been averted in the first place if not for the recklessness of administrators here.

In a complaint filed Monday, Dongguk University claims that it was “publicly humiliated and deeply shamed in the eyes of the Korean population” because University officials wrongly confirmed the authenticity of a Yale degree fabricated by an art-history professor at the Korean school, and then, when the fake degree was uncovered, mistakenly asserted that Dongguk University had never tried to verify its authenticity in the first place. Dongguk contends that its fundraising has declined as a result of Shingate, as did the number of applications to the university and its allocation of government grants.

Yale has apologized repeatedly for its error in confirming that Shin Jeong-ah, who is now on trial in Korea for forgery, actually attended the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. But Dongguk officials remain unsatisfied: To compensate, the university is demanding the Connecticut District Court award it no less than $50 million in damages from Yale.

“In Asia, face is everything,” said Ira Grudberg ’57 LAW ’60, a New Haven attorney who is representing Dongguk in the case. “Dongguk was excoriated by the Korean press for this. They feel it has been an immense blow to their standing in the community and their reputation.”

But the University called the lawsuit “without merit” and promised to fight it in court.

“Yale regrets that Dongguk University has filed suit against a fellow institution of higher learning regarding the fraudulent actions of Shin Jeong-ah, who was hired before an inquiry about her credentials was made to Yale,” University Spokesman Tom Conroy wrote in an e-mail.

Over the course of 30 angst-ridden pages, the suit provides an unprecedented window into the behind-the-scenes confusion both at Dongguk and Yale as the two universities grappled with the scandal — and dealt with its consequences.

The turmoil began in 2005, when Dongguk decided to expand its art-history department — and recruited Shin, then the curator of a Korean art museum.

Shin was hired Sept. 1, 2005, but officials at Dongguk quickly received information that “raised questions” about the validity of her Yale degree, as the lawsuit puts it. On Sept. 5, an administrator at Dongguk sent a registered letter to Graduate School Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister, requesting she verify the authenticity of an ostensibly Yale-authored letter that Shin had presented to Dongguk during the hiring process as a certification of her degree.

That letter was signed “Pamela Schirmeistr” [sic] and, University officials now assert, had been forged by Shin. Yet on Sept. 22, Schirmeister replied to Dongguk by fax, writing: “As requested I am confirming that the attached letter was issued by the Yale Graduate School and signed by me.”

That satisfied Dongguk officials, who “concluded that Shin had received a Ph.D. from Yale University as she had represented,” according to the lawsuit.

Until last summer, that is. In June, rumors began to swell about Shin after a member of the board of directors at the university raised doubts about her credentials. On June 11, Dongguk officials asked a Yale registrar a question they thought they had learned the answer to back in 2005.

In an e-mail message, they asked: Did Shin receive a Yale degree? The reply came as a shock: No, she did not.

Within weeks, the scandal exploded into one of Korea’s largest in recent memory, and Dongguk came under fire as Korean newspapers raised questions about whether Dongguk was negligent, or even complicit, in hiring Shin despite her faked credentials. Officials at the university pointed to the 2005 fax from Schirmeister as proof that they did indeed do their due diligence.

But it did little good, the lawsuit contends, because in press statements over the summer, Yale officials asserted the fax was a fabrication, and that Yale had sent no such confirmation.

“Yale University knew or should have known that if it did not provide truthful, accurate and complete information regarding its communications with Dongguk University about Shin, that Dongguk University would be vilified in the Korean media, that its reputation would be significantly tarnished and that it would suffer severe consequences,” the suit declares.

“Instead of acknowledging that the … fax was authentic, Yale University embarked on a campaign designed to distance itself from any responsibility regarding Shin,” it continued, “[and] made a series of knowingly false statements.”

Schirmeister was away this week and unavailable for comment, and she has previously declined to speak on the matter.

She was not Dongguk’s only target: Over several pages, the lawsuit also assails University spokeswoman Gila Reinstein, who handled press inquiries on the Shin scandal and, for months, asserted to the Korean press — and to the News — that the fax transmission was a forgery and that Dongguk had never contacted the University in 2005 in the first place.

But Dongguk officials kept pressing the University to investigate further, and in November, responding to a subpoena from Korean attorneys handling Shin’s prosecution, the University realized it was wrong: Dongguk had indeed contacted Yale, and Schirmeister really did reply with that fax — although only because of an “administrative error” in the rush of business.

At that, officials at Dongguk — whose president and board of trustees had all been called upon to resign in the wake of the scandal — were outraged, the lawsuit makes clear.

“Your inaccurate information,” a Dongguk official is quoted writing to Yale in December, “has ruined our one hundred year-long built reputation.”

The next day, Dec. 29, Yale officials issued a statement admitting to the error and expressing their regrets, and University President Richard Levin subsequently apologized to the university. But Yale’s remorse, the suit contends, “did not undo the damage suffered by Dongguk,” which was “publicly humiliated and deeply shamed in the eyes of the Korean population.”

And in an interview with the Korea Times last month, Dongguk President Oh Young-kyo vowed that his university would take legal action against Yale regarding the situation — something University officials immediately said would be “regrettable.”

But Oh followed through with his threat.

“We can make good our friendship with Yale after we settle our losses due to them,” he said at the time.

Yale officials, too, said they still were open to making peace with Dongguk — but only after the suit is successfully defeated.

“Yale hopes that, once this matter is resolved with Yale’s exoneration, Yale and Dongguk can have good will and friendship,” Conroy wrote in his e-mail Wednesday.

Yale, meanwhile, has since changed its methods for verifying Yale degrees. Officials will no longer confirm whether a person holds a Yale degree based on any external papers they are asked to confirm, but rather will consult only their own records when making such an assessment, officials said.

Comments

  • yalie

    Great decision that Yale made in verifying degrees (after this, it would be dumb not to change the process).

    And, don't forget that it's not just IN ASIA that "face" matters. Reputation matters everywhere. And of all people Yalies should realize that fact.