Conroy: Yale’s innocent mistake

Lanny Davis’s opinion piece (“Neither lux nor veritas,” Nov. 2) in support of his client Dongguk University’s lawsuit against Yale is misleading and unfair.

Davis employed the media strategy he recommended that attorneys use in his 2006 Bloomberg Corporate Law Journal article: He has developed facts and messages that can be released to the media during litigation without prejudice and “will resonate most effectively with reporters writing the story and other constituencies.” In the News, Mr. Davis spun facts and messages in a way that distorts what actually happened.

Yale did make two innocent mistakes for which it has apologized. This is the real story.

When art curator Jeong-ah Shin was put forward for a position at Dongguk University in 2005, she was the lover of Yang-gyun Byeon, a top aide to Korea’s president. According to the criminal indictment against Shin, Byeon and Dongguk board chairman Yong-taek Lim, Byeon met with Ki-sam Hong, then president of Dongguk in June and told President Hong that hiring Shin would be a great help to Dongguk University financially.

Dongguk then hired Shin without obtaining the customary documentation. The university did not contact the University of Kansas, where Shin falsely claimed to have obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and it accepted her claim to have obtained a doctorate from Yale while working in Seoul. Shin’s appointment was approved by Dongguk’s board in August 2005.

President Hong soon heard rumors that she was a fraud and Dongguk sent the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences a letter to which he attached Shin’s degree certification from Yale and requested confirmation. The certification, dated May 27, 2005, was on authentic Yale letterhead and bore a photo-shopped reproduction of the Associate Dean’s distinctive signature. The Associate Dean, fooled by the fake certification, mistakenly responded on Sept.22, 2005, with a fax that included Dongguk’s letter of inquiry and a message on a cover sheet: “As requested I am confirming that the attached letter was issued by the Yale Graduate School and signed by me.”

According to the indictment in the criminal case involving Shin, before Dongguk received Yale’s response, Shin tendered her resignation to President Hong, but he refused to accept it and instead placed Shin on leave.

On June 10, 2007, a Dongguk administrator contacted Yale’s History of Art Department. The next day, a member of the department informed him that Shin did not have a Yale degree. On June 14, Dongguk sent the graduate school documents appearing to be Shin’s doctorate diploma, the first few pages of her dissertation and the certification letter it had sent in September 2005. Upon examination by the Graduate School Dean’s Office and the University’s general counsel, all proved to be fake.

The next month, Dongguk’s new president, Young-kyo Oh, sent a letter to Yale with the fake diploma, the fake certification letter, and the Associate Dean’s September 2005 fax cover sheet and asked Yale to explain Shin’s status. In a July 10 letter to President Oh, Yale’s deputy general counsel explained that the diploma and the certification letter were fake. No one, however, in the graduate school recalled the September 2005 correspondence, and, in light of all the other fake documents, the Dean’s Office and the deputy general counsel concluded, mistakenly, that the 2005 fax cover sheet was inauthentic. The deputy general counsel reported this conclusion to President Oh. It was an innocent error.

Meanwhile, in Korea, a scandal known as Shin-gate had emerged. Korean prosecutors discovered that Lim, the chairman of Dongguk’s board, had solicited and received illegal subsidies for his temple from Byeon; in March 2008, both men were convicted on corruption charges.

As part of the investigation of Shin’s fraud, Korean prosecutors asked the U.S. Justice Department to serve a subpoena on Yale, which renewed its inquiry into Shin’s fraud. On Oct. 18, 2007, Dongguk’s September 2005 letter and the original fax cover sheet were found in a graduate school file where they had sat forgotten. On Nov. 29, the deputy general counsel wrote to President Oh correcting the record and informing him that the 2005 fax cover sheet was authentic. A month later, Dongguk held a press conference to publicize the Nov. 29 letter. Yale issued a public statement of regret the next day and President Richard Levin sent a letter of apology to President Oh. Contrary to Mr. Davis’s claim, Yale never sought to hide the discovery of the fax.

As an attorney who represents Dongguk, Davis knows that, to support its claim of defamation, Dongguk must prove that any supposed harm to its reputation was caused by Yale, not by Dongguk’s own behavior. Dongguk’s actions, including the criminal conviction of its chairman, are clearly relevant in this light. Dongguk’s $50 million lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to capitalize on Yale’s innocent, though regrettable, mistakes.

Tom Conroy is the deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs.

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