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.

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