South Korean degree scandal escalates

Yale destroyed a Korean university’s reputation through “reckless disregard,” the university alleged earlier this month in an amended complaint to a 2008 lawsuit.

Lawyers for the Korean school Dongguk University sued Yale for $50 million in March 2008 for mistakenly verifying the false Yale degree of a Dongguk art history professor — and then denying that the mistake had occurred. Now, based on documents that have surfaced in the course of litigation, Dongguk is claiming that Yale officials were not only negligent, but failed to take basic steps to verify the authenticity of a letter confirming the degree. Once officials discovered the mistake, the complaint alleges, they did not inform the public until 10 weeks later.

Yale officials counter that while the University has made mistakes, it has also apologized and court action is unwarranted.

“Yale University, one of America’s most prestigious academic institutions, has refused to take responsibility for its negligent, reckless and, ultimately, deceitful conduct,” said Dongguk’s lead lawyer, Robert A. Weiner, of the New York branch of McDermott, Will & Emery.

In September 2005, officials at Dongguk sent a letter to Yale requesting confirmation of a letter provided by one of their professors, Shin Jeong-ah, who said she had received her doctorate from Yale’s Graduate School. Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean at the Graduate School, told Dongguk officials that she had signed the letter, failing to check her records or notice that her name had been misspelled, the lawsuit claims.

As it turned out, Shin never attended the University and had forged the letter.

In 2007, suspicious of Shin’s credentials, Dongguk University President Youngkyo Oh sent a letter to University President Richard Levin asking if Shin had graduated from the University. Yale officials checked their records and found that Shin never did. Still, they denied that Dongguk had sent the original letter asking for verification.

After the news broke that July, media outlets throughout Korea blamed Dongguk for hiring Shin and accused the university of lying about having sent Yale a letter.

In November, Yale admitted to Dongguk it had been wrong and that it had, in fact, received the 2005 letter.

Four months later, Dongguk filed a suit, charging that Yale’s negligence had “ruined [its] 100 year-long reputation.”

But now, Dongguk’s lawyers say they have uncovered new evidence of not only negligence, but “reckless disregard” on Yale’s part. Internal e-mails and letters show that Yale officials did not verify the September 2005 letters until a federal subpoena forced them to examine their records, according the suit. After discovering the mistake, Yale officials waited over 11 days before notifying the U.S. Department of Justice, six weeks before notifying Dongguk, and 10 weeks before issuing a public statement.

When Oh contacted Levin in July 2007, Yale officials had already been sent a copy of the 2005 letter and a facsimile of Schirmeister’s response. The next day, Yale Deputy General Counsel Susan Carney replied to Oh, saying that the facsimile of her response was not authentic. But, as the Dongguk lawyers found, Yale officials had made this assessment without checking their files.

And despite what she told Oh, Carney described the letters as “troubling” in an e-mail to Nina Glickson, an assistant to Levin, expressing concern that the 2005 letter and her response might be real.

The following August, Dongguk officials again tried to prove that Yale had received and responded to the 2005 letter. They e-mailed Carney, telling her they had a receipt for the letter that said it had been handled in the Yale Central Mailroom by an employee named Michael Moore.

Still, even with the specific information provided by the receipt, the lawsuit claims that no Yale official attempted to search University records to check if the letter had been received.

Dongguk’s lawyers said the internal e-mails show that Yale officials were not taking Dongguk’s request seriously.

For example, one Yale official — Edward Barnaby, a graduate school assistant dean ­— joked in an e-mail to Carney that “maybe the letter wound up in the hands of the controversial documentary filmmaker …”

Less than two weeks later, Dongguk e-mailed Yale asking if the University had found anything further about the letter. Weiner said Dongguk was growing desperate, with Korean prosecutors investigating the university for fraud.

And even as Yale and Dongguk officials traded e-mails, then-Yale spokeswoman Gila Reinstein assured Korean media outlets — from newspapers to television programs — that Dongguk’s claim was false.

“We looked into it, but we never received the letter,” she said to a Korean newspaper July 19, 2007.

But officials did not provide the Dongguk lawyers with any record of such a search, the lawyers said.

But even after its failure to search for the letter, Dongguk lawyers allege, Yale delayed publicly admitting its mistake.

Officials took action when, at the request of Korean prosecutors, the U.S. Department of Justice subpoenaed Yale on Oct. 17, 2007 for documents related to Shin’s upcoming criminal trial in Korea. The next day, an assistant to Schirmeister searched the dean’s files — and found the September 2005 letter, with its original envelope.

Shin was convicted in April 2008 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. She was released a year later.

Yale’s actions following the discovery of the letter, Weiner said, went beyond negligence and constituted “dishonorable and disgraceful behavior.” Rather than correcting themselves, the lawsuit claims, Yale officials met over the next week to develop strategy to contain the mistake.

On Oct. 29, they finally told the Department of Justice that they had received and responded to a letter from Dongguk in 2005 that sought to verify Shin’s degree. They told Dongguk the same on Nov. 29. Yale did not release a public statement until Dec. 29, two days after Dongguk held its own a press conference. During this time, the lawyers said, the Korean media continued to condemn Dongguk for the scandal, which it termed “Shingate.”

Dongguk has since alleged that Yale’s actions led to damages equivalent to $50 million. Most recently, while Dongguk was completing construction on its $18 million law school, the Korean government denied its application to teach law. The university also lost $8 million in government grants and $15 million in promised donations, allegedly because of Shingate, officials said. And former Dongguk president, Hong Ki-sam, who had stepped down by the time Shingate broke, was stripped of his professor emeritus status by the university.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said he thinks Yale’s actions were not negligent or reckless, and that the University did not make defamatory statements.

“Before Dongguk ever contacted Yale,” Conroy said, “it hired Ms. Shin in violation of its own rules without seeing her original diploma.”

Levin declined to comment, saying he had not yet read the amended lawsuit.

Weiner said his team plans to take depositions from Carney, Reinstein and Schirmeister in December.


  • Recent Alum

    The “gross disregard” here is that Dongguk hired this person without seeing her diploma or even transcript.

  • tn

    this is getting a bit much now. this korean university is clearly out for money. the student was a scammer and she was without scruples in her deception. yale messed up by not being more diligent in their verification process. yale apologized. done. this is more than a case of having shamed the korean university. theyre just out for money. yale’s legal team should attack back. this is ridiculous.

  • cheekyB

    the facts are 1.yale confirmed shin’s yale degree without checking their records, which 2.led to shin remaining in her teaching post, then 3.yale lied and said that they never received the request for confirmation from the korean university and 4.yale lied again and said that they never confirmed she went to the university. it took a subpoena from the DOJ for yale to admit their mistake. and they found the original letter, even with the original envelope. yale is at fault, without question, but $50M is a bit much.

  • Hiring

    When Yale hires a new professor, it looks for alot more than a degree from a prestigious university. Doesn’t Dogkuk consider letters of recommendation, prior scholarly work, publications, etc?
    What second rate place will hire someone as a prof just because they show up at it’s door with a Yale degree?

  • Hang on

    Yale has perhaps made “faults”, but is hardly “at fault”. The perpetrator of a fraud is “at fault”. I would say their reputation is being harmed more by their excessive hysteria than their error in hiring this person. This is laughable, except that it ties up time and money we don’t have to spare.

  • fact provider

    here are the facts:
    1. dongguk hired shin as a professor despite her absence of scholarly work.
    2. dongguk hired shin as a professor despite her absence of a publication track record.
    3. dongguk hired shin as a professor despite her lack of letters of recommendations from experts in her purported field.
    4. dongguk hired shin as a professor without verifying her degree from yale until she had been a professor at dongguk for some time.
    5. dogkuk bears the vast majority of the responsibility for the decline in their supposed reputation.

  • J

    This is a very serious problem for Yale.
    If Yale doesn’t take its own degree seriously, why should anyone else take it seriously? What’s the point of all those years of hard work to get a (prestigious) doctoral degree from Yale?
    If you lie in academic world, you are done. You get kicked out. As simple as that. I believe that yale’s reputation is worth much more than 50 million. Don’t avoid the problems, deal with them. If you made mistakes, take responsibility. Everyone makes mistakes, but the actions taken by the high level yale administrators after they found out their mistakes are inexcusable. It’s sad. This is going to hurt yale’s reputation that has been built upon long years of trust.

  • Hi Karachi

    Let’s settle this in the octagon. Dongguk v. Yale. No holds barred. Winner takes all.

  • SimonC

    cheekyB is right. Yale is totally at fault. A delayed apology is not enough, they have to pay for their mistakeS. This scandal also put a dent on the degree that yale students get — how is our future employer going to trust the authenticity of our degree? The Deans responsible for the scandal should resign.

  • ht

    I agree with cheeky B. The #1 law school actually lied! I hope this kind of scandal is not in Annie Le’s case.

  • gone with the wind

    Who knows. This may be a great case material for Harvard and other law schools about what not to do (excuses to cover up mistakes).
    Where is the honor and respect to truth that yale is so proud of?

  • Timmo

    We are not certain if dongguk has checked other credentials of Shin (who might have made up some too), so whether they are responsible is inconclusive. On the other hand, this is an ethical problem and the Yale personnels not doing their jobs and tried to cover up their mistakes by reporting false and unverified information — the same crime as Shin committed. This undermined the integrity of Yale and its degrees and the professional conducts of the responsible personnels are called into questions

  • times

    according to the new york times article, the head of dogkuk received a bribe from professor shin’s lover shortly prior to her hiring, a crime for which he was later convicted. seems dogkuk is trying to deflect all responsibility in their misguided hiring of her.

  • academic dinosaur

    the scammer candidate, the unduly carelss hiring, yale’s hasty, unprofessional “verification” of the non-existent degree and its subsequent lying to cover are evidence of a sad lack of character in the indivuals whose carelessness marks the progress of this case and, more important, in the wider betrayal of the integrity of their own and all institutions of higher learning, (not to mention their lack of regard for their students whose habits of mind are influenced by their mentors).

  • hiring practices

    Yale undoubtedly messed up here–what could possibly have prevented a quick check of whether that sham graduate actually graduated?

    However, Dongguk is also in error in trying to pin all the blame on Yale. The fact of the matter is a professor should be able to stand on her own merits. The place from which she got her degree should matter little. The only situation for which it would make sense to sue Yale would be if the fact that her degree was from Yale significantly factored into the decision to hire her, and if it did, then the hiring practice of Dongguk are questionable and its reputation deserves to be damaged anyway.

  • what’s new?

    More odd, over the top South Korean hysteria. Dongguk is a second-rate institution — even by Korean standards of higher education, so they obviously have an inferiority complex. It is clear that Dongguk made some mistakes hiring Shin. Obviously they want to deflect that blame.

    Plus, considering the Korean elitist uber-race complex coupled with a hyper-dramatic victim mentality that South Koreans (not Korean Americans however) are becoming famous for, I would not expect Dongguk to back down anytime soon, whether Yale apologizes or not. They are out for blood, and it goes much deeper than apologies, or money from Yale.

    Welcome to South Korea.
    Fasten your seat belts.

  • I think not

    The comment above by “By what’s new” is totally irrelevant (ie red herring) and highly prejudiced. Whether Dongguk is first or second rate and what kind of complex or motive they have should not matter at all in this inquiry. The issues are (i) what standard of negligence we should adopt in matters involving degree verification among colleges and (ii) whether Yale breached that standard or not. If the standard is too high (ie schools are expected to verify the authenticity of faxed letters), that would create undue burden and discourage many schools from responding to such inquiries altogether (rather than taking hefty legal risk). However, the fact that Yale did not even bother to check simple records on the registrar (on who graduated which year) seems to amount to at least some degree of fault regardless of what standard we adopt. After all Yale was the only institution that could answer the inquiry on who went to Yale, which other institutions could only rely 100%.

    From this, we should subtract Dongguk’s own negligence in hiring (they asked long time after they had already recruited her) and we will have the amount of damage.

  • @ I think not

    If you read the opinion piece by Davis, it is clear that Dongguk only hired Shin because they thought she had a Yale doctorate. The quote was something like “her Yale doctorate was the sole reason she was hired.” Dongguk’s negligence in hiring is unbelievable.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    How did this turn out? Has this been settled?